The Paradox of Design Thinking: Rediscovering Its True Essence

As the founder of e.g. DesignThinkers (2006) and Future Skills Academy (2023), I have observed the evolution of design thinking with a mix of admiration and concern. Originally envisioned as a fluid and adaptable mindset, design thinking has, over time, been distilled into a rigid, linear process. This transformation, I believe, has diluted its essence and limited its potential.

Arne van Oosterom
2 min readDec 8, 2023

When design thinking first emerged, it was celebrated for its cognitive flexibility. It wasn’t just a methodology; it was a way of thinking, a mindset that embraced complexity, ambiguity, and creative exploration. It encouraged designers to think outside the box, to iterate, and to understand deeply. This mindset was its greatest strength, fostering innovative solutions and genuine human connections.

However, as design thinking gained popularity, it became codified into a series of steps to be followed. This linear approach, while providing a clear framework, has inadvertently constrained the very cognitive flexibility that made design thinking so powerful. In its rigid form, it often leads to a checkbox mentality, where the focus is on completing stages rather than exploring the depths of a problem.

This shift towards a more structured approach has significant implications. It risks turning design thinking into a superficial process, one that might generate quick solutions but fails to grapple with the complexities and nuances of real-world problems. We lose sight of the fact that design challenges are not always linear or predictable, and thus, cannot always be effectively addressed through a fixed set of steps.

To reclaim the true power of design thinking, we must return to its roots as a mindset. We need to emphasize cognitive flexibility, encouraging designers to adapt their approach based on the unique demands of each problem. This means being open to iterating beyond the traditional phases, integrating new insights, and even revisiting earlier stages as needed.

Furthermore, we should embrace the original spirit of design thinking as a holistic approach. It’s not just about user-centricity; it’s about considering the broader context in which design operates – the societal, environmental, and ethical implications. This requires a shift from a linear to a systemic way of thinking, where the interconnectedness of problems and solutions is acknowledged and addressed.

In conclusion, while design thinking has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the field of design, it’s time to reassess and realign its application. We need to rediscover the flexibility and openness that were at the core of design thinking, moving away from a rigid process back to a dynamic, adaptive mindset that is more suited to the complex challenges of today’s world.



Arne van Oosterom

Podcaster, Founder Future Skills Academy, Blue Sky Republic, Creative Leadership Coach, Founder DesignThinkers Academy and Group