What have Design thinking and Culture in common when it comes to innovation?

Design thinking and culture

Does your company deliver services, or deal with customers of any kind? Do you have employees operating machines and tools? The answer is probably yes, and if so, chances are you’ve encountered or at least heard about Design Thinking in relation to your business. This is not unlikely, as Design Thinking is employed in all manners of companies in solving problems with human centered and complex problems (Kolko, 2015). Design Thinking methods are also to some degree interchangeable with company culture.

What exactly is Design Thinking and why are companies using it?

Well, it is defined as both a process and an individual characteristic, or in other words, refers to certain kinds of methods, but also an individual sensibility, which all links design with business. At the hearth of this design approach is the human experience. It is all about understanding, often particularly difficult problems, through empathy with the user and generating and exploring novel ideas to find a solution through various means.

In practice, this approach often encompasses observation, collaboration, often across disciplines, fast learning, visualization and rapid concept prototyping and thinking both analytically and intuitively (Micheli et al., 2019). Companies understandably use Design Thinking to solve all kinds of problems, mainly to create the best possible product, services and experiences, but also attempting to solve large organizational problems (Coughlan et al., 2017).

The concept of Design Thinking


How does Design Thinking relate to culture?

As Design Thinking are both the methodes, but also the thinking one applies, it is heavily interdependent on culture, as culture is often defined as a toolkit one draws the symbols, stories, rituals, beliefs, ideologies and daily practice one used in everyday behavior, or as ‘how we do things around here’ (Swidler, 1986). In one sense Design Thinking is a certain toolkit, with various beliefs and behaviors, hence a certain culture. Some scholars also talk about industry registers, as a common cultural toolkit for an industry, unique for that industry. In this sense Design Thinking is the industry register, or the toolkit, of concepts used and accepted as appropriate in the design industry to interpret situations and create strategies (Rindova et al., 2010). So, to incorporate Design Thinking and create the absolute best products, services and solutions in general, you need a culture to accommodate it. Bad news, you might be thinking, as you know culture is notoriously difficult to change. Well, hold on.

Collaboration is an essential part of a culture encompassing Design Thinking.


Culture as often visualized in the literature

Wait, so I cannot change culture?

Luckily, just as there is literature suggesting that cultural change is almost impossible, or very difficult, there are also studies which indicate that this is not necessarily true. There are practitioners who have successfully changed cultures. The assumption is that by changing the outer layer, changing the behavior, the inner beliefs and eventually the core values and identity will follow (Shook, 2010).

Cultural enrichment is another term describing the transfer and adoption of cultural resources and behavior repertoire from one industry registry to another, and is essentially what adopting Design Thinking, or any other behaviors for that matter, is (Rindova et al., 2010). This is also empirically found to be true for changing a culture into a Design Thinking culture as Design Thinking tools appear to influence and develop cultures related to experimentation and openness to failure, central aspects of a culture that emphasizes Design Thinking. Similarly, collaborative and experimental cultures support the use of prototyping, co creation and consumer journey mapping, while cultures defined by productivity and performance inhibit the use of such tools. The opposite reaction also appears to be true, a design culture promotes the use of Design Thinking tools (Elsbach & Stigliani, 2018).

This translates to work practices being able to change culture, and culture being able to change work practices. Central to this is the idea of culture being a way to make sense of day-to-day practices, which resonates with the previous mentioned visualizations of culture, with the values guiding the behavior (Elsbach & Stigliani, 2018).

Cultural change is not impossible Shook, (2010)



Central to changing a culture successfully is the redefinition of identity (Rindova et al., 2010). Essential to this is sensemaking, both on an individual and organizational level. Is the glue that links culture to everyday practice, and is consequently essential to the ability to transform a culture into a Design Thinking culture (Elsbach & Stigliani, 2018;Rindova et al., 2010). Sensemaking is the key to changing all the levels of the culture, not just the repertoire, actually, sensemaking, or ‘why we do what we do’ is a good definition of what culture is and does for an individual and an organization  (Elsbach & Stigliani, 2018).

Fortunately, you can change culture!

Is design thinking always effective?

No, not necessarily always, Design Thinking methods are great at innovative solutions to complex problems, but it is not necessarily great for optimizing and to streamline businesses who need to be effective and stable (Kolko, 2015). Like any tool, Design Thinking methods should be used consciously and with the limitations of the methods in mind, it is for example great for idea generation and selection but not necessarily during implementation. And too much use of brainstorming sessions, for example, might actually be counterproductive (Seidel & Fixson, 2013). Having a awesome toolkit is after all not that useful if you don’t know how to use the tools properly. Just like a skilled craftsman you need to know which tools are best for each task, and which is most effective at what job.

Get designing!


Recap: Design Thinking and culture

  • Design Thinking is a term used to describe various methods, practices and a particular way of thinking traditionally used in the Design Industry, but increasingly used in a plethora of businesses to solve complex tasks, often centred around the human experience.
  • These include ethnographic methods, personas, journey mapping, brainstorming, mind map, visualization, prototyping and experiments.
  • Culture and the behaviors and everyday tools and practices one uses are interchangeably intertwined as the underlying cultural identity and values informs the repertoire of beliefs and actions.
  • Ultimately changing these can be hard, but certainly not impossible, studies support the notion that the two affect each other, integrate new practices and the values and identity will follow.
  • Central to a successful integration of new cultural repertoire is the re-identification and sensemaking of the new practice.
  • Using these practices should, like any others, be used and implemented purposefully, and most likely as each culture is different and even ephemeral, in the sense that it is ever changing, a universal approach is unlikely, and each culture will need its unique approaches .


The author of the text is Stian Kjelstrup Jacobsen. Stian is Innovation intern at Vinco Innovation. You can get in touch with him at stian@vinco.no.  

Need help mapping out your company culture, or making changes? See our services, and don’t hesitate to make contact  vinco@vinco.no ! We look forward to hearing from you. 

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Elsbach, K. D., & Stigliani, I. (2018). Design Thinking and Organizational Culture: A Review and Framework for Future Research. Journal of Management, 44(6), 2274–2306. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317744252

Kolko, J. (2015, September 1). Design Thinking Comes of Age. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age

Micheli, P., Wilner, S. J. S., Bhatti, S. H., Mura, M., & Beverland, M. B. (2019). Doing Design Thinking: Conceptual Review, Synthesis, and Research Agenda. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 36(2), 124–148. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpim.12466

Rindova, V., Dalpiaz, E., & Ravasi, D. (2010). A Cultural Quest: A Study of Organizational Use of New Cultural Resources in Strategy Formation. Organization Science, 22(2), 413–431. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1100.0537

Seidel, V. P., & Fixson, S. K. (2013). Adopting Design Thinking in Novice Multidisciplinary Teams: The Application and Limits of Design Methods and Reflexive Practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30(S1), 19–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpim.12061

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