How Can We Fix the Problems of Design Thinking?

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This article has actually been sitting as a draft for a few months now. I knew I wanted to write a follow up to the popular (49 comments at the time of writing!) Design Thinking is Killing Creativity, however I held off, as I wanted to have some time to hear your feedback as well as look at the fall out of Design Thinking all over the Internet.

What was interesting was that I have been getting feedback that it sounds, from that last post, that I’m against Design Thinking. I have to say that on a cursory glance, that previous article did sound like I was bitching about Design Thinking.

So for the record, I like to say that I am not against Design Thinking. In fact I am fully for it and have said countless of times that I hope Design Thinking becomes a function within organizations so that there are more employment opportunities for graduate designers. What I am against is the way Design Thinking is being “pimped” as the next big thing and how everyone who is anyone is jumping on this bandwagon, rightly or wrongly.

In fact this article is all about fixing the problems with Design Thinking, assuming we all can agree there is a problem in the first place? What value I would have to the design community, if I just complained about it and did not offer some kind of solution?

Right, so now let’s get back to big can of worms shall we?

Design Thinking is Quite a Mess

So as I was saying, after the dust settled in my previous article, I have been involved in online forums and websites tracking this discussion and the sentiments from the bottom up. Sadly indeed, we can see that the Design Thinking is a mess and the confusion is huge.

Raymond Pirouz, in a similar Design Thinking discussion on Linkedin, shared a video of a panel of people discussing Design Thinking. You don’t have to watch it all the way through as it is pretty long, but after about 10 minutes you can tell that their definition of Design Thinking is, for lack of a better phrase, all over the place. It is clear that the panel members all have different opinions, influenced by their background and motivations, of what Design Thinking is.

The always-generous Rita Sue penned a reply to this video that I have shamelessly reproduced here:

The video is very enlightening. Such diversity of opinion about the same subject. No wonder it is such a hard job to explain all this to people in organizations who haven’t a clue. Actually, if they met the Jump guy one day, the Nestle guy another, and Nathan Shedroff another, they may just give up the idea of integrating design at a high level in their organization. It is very frustrating to talk to several experts with diverging opinions when you are trying to learn about what to you is virgin territory. How can you expect “civilians” to know how to move forward?

In the final analysis, I think there is not one way to do any of this. If any one of those points of view are introduced to a company and the activity is led by a very smart person, like one of them, I truly believe the design function/activity will get sorted out, be influenced by the culture, and influence the culture.

I had a friend (long dead) who was in a think tank in a top advertising agency and once wrote an article about how marketing got accepted into companies and or how internal marketing functions were built. It was a similar struggle. There were various configurations organizations adopted or developed for integrating marketing, which is now of course considered a vital function the way we all want design to be. Companies used to look to their ad agencies for their marketing expertise. I think it would be a useful exercise to uncover some of this info. Good discussion!

Indeed, in many ways Design Thinking is much like Marketing when it first had its day. During the early days, Marketing struggled to find acceptance and budgets to get things going. I remember discussing how Marketing ROI should be calculated, and have used similar techniques in my own discussions on Design ROI.

Design, a Core Function in Every Organization.

As mentioned briefly before, what I think should be happening is Design needs to be a function within an organization, core to any business. Just like finance, human resource etc. organizations serious in leveraging the value of design should not try to do it on its own, but hire the relevant people trained or skilled to do the job. My dream is to see companies hiring designers as leaders to drive that function. I’m not implying that this function should be lead by designers only, but I’m more of a view that this is a specialist job, like a CPA, so get people with the right skills and designers at this time seem to be the better choice. Though I do know of very suitable candidates that don’t have a classical design background but have been in the industry for a long time.

Raymond Pirouz, a lecturer in design strategy, also shared that he teaches MBAs design appreciation and design’s application to business strategy. This is similar to my previous comment and seems to be the right way to go. Indeed this would also fall inline with how MBAs learn to understand and appreciate finance, accounting, HR and even logistics.

In this manner we can reduce the backlash of businesses questioning the value of design thinking. Having a designer (or someone suitably trained) entrenched in an organization, responsible for looking after and managing the design process, will allow everyone instead to focus on the results and getting the job done, rather then getting bogged down in the semantics of the Design Thinking process.

It should seem by now, that the way we defined Design Thinking is getting less and less important. Still, if we need to get the man on the street to better appreciate Design Thinking we might need to also rethink how we approach educating the masses on design thinking.

Design Thinking + Design Doing = (Just) Design?

So, in my view, one of the big problems with Design Thinking is the overemphasis on the process. If now we should be focusing on results, then we really need to get back to design (doing) and coming out with meaningful solutions. Furthermore, Design Thinking is but one of the many tools available and should be seen and accepted that creative work is part of a larger system and not some magical panacea.

Ariel Guers writes:

From what I can tell (finishing Ph.D. thesis on decision making in design) Design Thinking cannot really be separated from design doing when the design problem can be characterized as a wicked problem. If you talk about simpler problems, for sure you could separate these two states.

To be able to generate “creative” (very complex term btw) solutions you need to have some kind of artistry (Donald Schön’s term), this artistry is acquired through lots of practice (reflection in-action and on-action). A couple of workshop with post-it are just not enough to turn you into a designer.

Also, according to my own research and understanding of several other researchers (Dorst, Cross or Lawson for instance) designers think in a very different way than what Design Thinking puts forward. Designers usually consider a *very limited* set of alternatives and develop guiding principles right from the start. They don’t postpone judgment and decision making in order to open-up to new alternatives, they rapidly create a rough (partial) solution (to a partially defined problem) and move forward to see what else they can learn about the problem, through iterations. Actually, it’s more complicated than this, of course, but I leave it like that for brevity’s sake.

Before we conclude this article with the few points on how we can fix Design Thinking, lets take a look at a quote by Roberto Verganti in a very awesome article on Core77 titled: Design Thinking Everywhere and Nowhere.

Let’s agree that all of humanity are designers, and that design is one of the things that separates us from the apes. As Jonathan Ive put it: ‘Design is not important. Good design is important.’

First, when we talk of designers, we usually mean professional designers, who have reached an accepted level of competence. They have survived a Darwinian selection process (there are far more graduates than jobs) and have clocked up well over 10,000 hours of practice on projects. We should remember that designers learn by doing, not by learning and practicing a theory, designing involves a lot more tacit knowledge than in other areas of business. It’s therefore hard to believe that senior managers can change their thinking habits of a lifetime after a workshop or two working with designers. And, to be frank, to suggest as much devalues what designers do.

Second, a key factor in creating good design that really does make a difference is great designers. These talented individuals are few and far between and provide critical competitive advantage. Let’s forget about Design Thinking as a magic process, and focus on how designers and managers should best work together to deliver great quality outputs.

He goes on to talk about how “user centered innovation is dead”, but that is another story.

So How Can We Fix the Problems of Design Thinking?

This is indeed a complex problem, that I don’t have a perfect solution. Perhaps Design Thinking needs some Design Thinking to fix it eh? But let me give it a go by synthesizing, then summarizing my key points above:

1) Teach Design Thinking with Design Doing.

2) Anchor Design Thinking as part of a larger holistic process.

3) Leave Design Thinking and managing the design process to the experts. Accept that, just like accounting, not everyone can do it.

4) Finally, call Design Thinking something else.

On that last point, I think Design Thinking has moved on and evolved partly because of this and many other discussions all over the world. I rather just call it Design, a noun, a verb, an action, a process and an object. What do you guy’s think, and do share your suggestions on how we can fix the problems of Design Thinking?

Image source:  swisscan

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