Why designers are losing their ability to think deeply, and what we can do about it

November 24, 2021

Digitisation has affected design as much as — if not more than — any other industry, and it’s changing the unique way designers think. The thinking typically used to solve problems is almost exclusively the systematic and rule-based variety that you would associate with coding or mathematics. This thinking doesn’t allow for ambiguous breakthrough ideas. In fact, it’s often unstructured and fluid thinking that inspires creativity, something that designers have long been the champions of, but may now be losing.

Digital design is oriented around speed and efficiency, not creativity

It’s well documented that the last decade has seen the world change at an unprecedented pace. This new, connected, and dynamic digital landscape has created an environment of ruthless innovation, speed, and efficiency. This is the result of our ability to share knowledge and tap into the resources of others. While it brings obvious benefits, there are incidences where having the world at your fingertips can hinder rather than help.

The systematic tools and processes used today are useful, but tend to be biased towards getting answers quickly. Time, as opposed to quality, is fast becoming the most desirable KPI. We need to rediscover the way designers used to think to ensure creativity remains firmly in the industry’s arsenal.

A designer’s creativity comes from a balance of theory and action

Creative design is a process that involves components of ‘Thinking’ and ‘Executing.’ There are many models that elaborate on this, but this is the crux of designer behaviour:

  • ‘Thinking’ (or ‘why’) is the ability to ask the right questions in a meaningful way to set us on the right path.
  • ‘Executing’ (or ‘how’) is the process of taking the thinking and making it real.

These two things occur at all levels and all stages of the solution creation process. Design is at its most effective when they are balanced and work in harmony. Design itself is neither purely executional nor is it purely theoretical; it is a discipline that is forced to consider both sides. Furthermore, it’s the ability of a designer to consider both angles that make them invaluable problem solvers.

Digital design is leaning toward execution and forgetting the thinking

Digital products, for the most part, have a pre-defined space in which they operate, such as a phone or laptop screen. Having this architecture has accelerated the design process because we broadly understand what it will look and feel like, giving designers the confidence to move into the execution sooner. This works from an efficiency point of view, but it doesn’t challenge us to explore the multitude of avenues where creativity most often thrives. In these alternative avenues, innovation and new opportunities present themselves. This is the challenge digital design faces today. It’s beginning to lean towards a purely executional medium that lacks a culture where rigorous, exploratory, and deep thinking are the industry standard.

Industrial design holds some answers to keeping deeper thinking alive

Deeper thinking is something that industrial design enables and encourages. It’s one of the few areas where ambiguity is seen to be an opportunity as opposed to a restriction. This phenomenon is a result of the processes a designer, team, or company must go through to succeed.

Here are several reasons why industrial design enables deeper thinking:

  • Where digital allows for an unfinished product to go to market sound in the knowledge that fixes can be made with an update, physical products are absolute with any issues having a disastrous effect, often having to wait months or even years before amends can be made.
  • Digital designers are trained to think iteratively. Their canvas is two-dimensional and imposes fewer risks, where industrial designers have to consider variables such as costs, features, or safety.
  • Physical designers work in the realms of human understanding. Working in tangible mediums like physical prototyping engages all of our senses and forces us to consider things from all angles.

Each of these variables compel industrial designers to engage in a mode of deeper thinking that is seldom seen in the digital world. While we can’t directly translate these processes from one discipline to another, we can take a step back and look at what going through these processes achieves.

These processes give designers more time and new perspectives

Two aspects underpinning all of the above can be considered in the context of digital: time and perspective. While not always relevant to digital skill sets, the process industrial designers go through forces them to take the time to understand a problem and absorb it in depth.


Speed is often the killer of creativity. We need to give ourselves time to breathe and facilitate the space for opportunities to grow. As humans, our brains work at a pace that has not changed, and we need to consider how this works in a world that’s speeding up. Too often, I have seen a potentially brilliant idea shot down because it felt abstract or incomplete, when all that was needed was a little time to bring clarity to our thoughts.


So much of the ‘designer’s toolkit’ is based on seeing things from different perspectives. However, genuine creativity is often not formed through a framework. It comes from unexpected places, and we need to develop this space to include creativity and novel, interesting ideas. Sometimes, it’s less about providing the answers and more about pointing you in the right direction, thus allowing opportunities to reveal themselves.

Design is at a crossroads

It’s tempting to bolster strengths, stick to what works, and continue to drive efficiency. However, to ensure meaningful design, we need to rebalance the executional speed with meaningful thought. Otherwise, we risk missing the best opportunities or indeed, making major mistakes.

This is not about radically changing the way we work. It’s about fostering an environment where we’re allowed to stop, explore, and think. Research, time, and ambiguity are so often the first things to be axed as we blindly quicken the pace. The shift toward speed is a trend that is happening in all aspects of our lives. My fear is what we might sacrifice in its pursuit.

How can we reintroduce deep thinking?

Deeper thinking is the key to genuine creativity. Here are some ways you can introduce it day-to-day:

  • Don’t assume. Dedicate time to thinking and don’t jump straight into execution.
  • Promote experimentation. People need to be allowed to fail: a little lost time is nothing compared to a better solution.
  • Embrace ambiguity. Stay strong and don’t let lack of clarity demotivate you.
  • Seek different ways in. Big and small, left and right. Explore all the different angles you can tackle a problem from.
  • Give yourself time to breathe. Speed is the killer of creativity. Step back, evaluate and mull things over.
  • Create a culture of comfort. Promote open thinking in your team and prove to those around you that there really is no such thing as a bad idea.


Originally published in June 2021By Murray Campbell, Senior Design Strategist, Globant UK 

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