The helpful (?) conceit of design thinking

This blog post was originally written as part of my coursework for the Transformation by design module of the IIPP Masters in Innovation, Public Policy and Public Value that I’ve been studying for the past couple of years. I haven’t edited it or removed the academic references but thought it was worth sharing as is – I found it interesting to write and good to think about my own privilege whilst doing so).

‘Participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.’ (Arnestein 1969)

Working in design, practicing design thinking, being a designer is an optimistic profession. As Jamer Hunt, writing for the RSA points out, designing is about the promise of better things to come with a better solution for the future (Hunt 2015). It’s also a privilege to be able to spend your time in your job asking questions, thinking ahead and imagining the future. In this blog post I want to examine the role of privilege and power in design thinking as practiced across the UK government, discuss where it helpfully shows up and where it’s more troubling, and propose a ladder of participation (building on Arnstein’s citizen facing ladder) in design thinking for including a wider cross section of public servants so that existing practitioners can act as midwives for new thinking rather than custodians of expertise and power.

Whilst the practice of design in government mostly goes hand in hand with a focus on user centred design; a focus on understanding user needs; inclusion and accessibility, and participation from a diverse range of end users as a core belief, there’s less discussion about the existing power and privilege that allows people who practice design thinking to be disruptive, to ask difficult questions, and to challenge assumptions. This is troubling because unacknowledged power and privilege can unwittingly or otherwise serve to reinforce and socialize existing dynamics (Ortiz 2021).

What is design thinking?

Design thinking can be described as the range of strategies designers use in the process of designing, with a focus on human centred innovation borrowing from industrial and product design. That’s a loose definition and the term itself is being used a lot in Government at the moment, from policy labs to digital transformation programmes and most public sector innovation and organisational change initiatives in between (Lewis et al 2020).

Design thinking is seen as inherently disruptive, as well as open and curious (Habegger 2010) and less deterministic as a practice (Peters 2018). It’s role is seen as challenging the status quo, often triggering an ‘an immune response’ from the existing system (Conway et al 2017) or ‘dark matter’ (the relationships, cultural norms and beliefs that make up organisations) (Hill 2012). In terms of power and leadership, design thinking practice also often puts forward as a desirable goal a new type of authority that is distributed, rather than hierarchical (see for example Christiansen and Bunt 2014), and there’s a clear focus on both understanding and including the users of government services in the design process. As a practice, design thinking is not without its critics, who question whether it in fact gives privilege to the designer in the same way that other policy making approaches give privilege to those who have power (Iskander 2018).

Optimism is helpful, but unacknowledged power and privilege is not

Design thinking in government is an optimistic practice — an approach to problem solving that’s about getting the right people into the right spaces to engage in a process of design that will ultimately result in solutions/policies/ technology that meet users needs and that are aimed at making things better for citizens. This optimism is the helpful conceit of design thinking. Being relentlessly positive and forward thinking in the face of resistance from the pre-existing culture, imagining a better future and having the skills and tools under your belt to enable wider participation whilst doing so requires an optimistic outlook.

However, there’s another conceit at play in the practice of design thinking which is more troubling. Design thinking as it is practiced inside large bureaucracies also requires the practitioner to have (and largely assumes they have) existing power and privilege to be successful and this often goes unacknowledged amongst the design community. Here I’m using Tiffany Jewells’s definition of privilege: ‘Privilege is the benefits you receive due to how close you are to the dominant culture’ (Jewells 2020). It takes immense privilege to be able to speak truth to power and to experiment with playfulness and creativity inside a large bureaucracy. Popular phrases such as ‘Ask for forgiveness, not permission’, and ‘move fast and break things’ assume a level of pre-existing privilege for the practitioner that protects them against damaging criticism or negative consequences.

This is an issue because the design profession has been and still is dominated by white men (for example research shows that women make up just 10% of leaders in architecture firms (Fairs 2016). Whilst the UK civil service as a whole has made some inroads into better diversity and inclusion over the last 5 years it’s starkly noticeable that at more senior levels disparity is still much wider, despite strategies in place that attempt to address this. Add these together, and it’s easy to see how design thinking in government can be currently so dominated by those with existing power and privilege.

Questioning the power asymmetry

One writer and designer who is overtly questioning the power asymmetry of design practice is George Aye co-founder of the Greater Good Studio. He talks about learned vs lived experience and the focus and power given to the former even when design is for social change not commercial product design. He argues that this risks playing to the professional services model of design, where quality equals qualifications. To address this asymmetry he asks 10 useful questions designed to interrogate the designer’s own power and privilege in the design process including:

  • What steps have we taken to prevent new dependencies from being created in this community?
  • How has this project/team sought out the pre-existing capacity in this community and built upon it?
  • How has this project/team made space for those it serves, giving them room to adapt and interpret the design process and shape outcomes?

Like other writers on design justice George Aye focuses on how design can better serve end users, people who are using government services. However his questions can also help us examine how we might think differently about extending the diversity and inclusion of those who participate in the practice of design thinking in government. Christine Ortiz, writing in her new book goes a step further when thinking about users and designers:

‘These two particular words carry with them embedded power dynamics and unstated assumptions that these are two separate groups, assumptions about their roles and responsibilities, and assumptions about the capabilities of each.’ (Ortiz 2021)

Midwives not custodians

How then might we change the current dynamic? Using Arnestein’s ladder of participation as the starting point (her engagement ladder has been used since the 1960s as a touchpoint for those wanting to ensure that citizens are able to properly participate in design) we could extend this to map true participation in design thinking practice inside government. Arnestein’s ladder charts levels of citizen participation from tokenism through to citizen control. Using a similarly designed ladder we can create a framework that allows us to bring in a wider set of voices to design thinking practice. What might this look like in practice?

For example we could consider current popular activities such as blogging and working in the open to be towards the bottom end of the ladder — playing the role of informing and placating others who aren’t involved directly. They are useful activities in themselves but could be regarded as tokenistic, rather than sharing control. Towards the top end of the ladder we could focus on activities that enable control to be shared more widely — for instance extending access to design training inside government during and across a whole range of careers, bringing to the forefront people’s lived experiences not as user research participants but as trainee designers, encouraging more learning by doing and creating more opportunities to lead pieces of work as a non-designer.

Inherent in all of the thoughtful, well reasoned discussion about change, systems thinking and transformation we see emerging from government innovation labs and design teams is the belief that those who are design thinkers can effect change through their carefully applied practice. This isn’t false advertising, there’s plenty of evidence that well designed services can transform the lives of users and the role that good design plays in producing these outcomes. By designing in a wider range of voices and participation, and overtly addressing the issues of power and privilege in this way we could enable the design community to act as midwives for design thinking practice and new ways of thinking, rather than as expert custodians perpetuating existing power dynamics.


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216–224.

Ayre, G. (2019) It’s time to define what good means in our industry Accessed online April 2021 at

Christiansen, J., & Bunt, L. (2014). Innovating public policy: Allowing for social complexity and uncertainty in the design of public outcomes. In C. Bason (Ed.), Design for policy (pp.41–56)

Conway et al (2017) From design thinking to system change, RSA report. Accessed online April 2021

Fairs, M. 2016. “Survey of Top Architecture Firms Reveals “Quite Shocking” Lack Of Gender Diversity at Senior Levels.” Dezeen, November 16. Accessed online April 2021

Habegger, B. (2010). Strategic foresight in public policy: Reviewing the experiences of the UK Singapore, and the Netherlands. Futures, 42(1), 49–58. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2009.08.002

Hill, D. (2012) Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: a strategic design vocabulary. Strelka Press

Hunt, J. (2015) KNOWN UNKNOWNS. RSA Journal, 161(5561), 10–15. Accessed online April 2021

Iskander, N. (2018) Design thinking is fundamentally conservative and preserves the status quo. Harvard Business Review. Accessed online April 2021

Jewells, T. (2020) This book is anti racist. Quarto Books. London

Lewis, J. M., McGann, M., & Blomkamp, E. (2020). When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking Policy and Politics, 48(1), 111–130.

Ortiz, C. (2021 Just Design: The equityXdesign Book. Accessed online April 2021 at

Peters B. G. (2018) Policy Problems and Policy Design (Cheltenham, Edward Elgar)

Head of Delivery @hackneycouncil @madebycatem. Part-time Masters student @IIPP_UCL. Views are my own. Interested in change, innovation, leadership and digital