Design Thinking is Killing Creativity

You might have probably heard everyone’s jaw drop after I mentioned this on Twitter over the weekend.

A fellow designer and I were discussing this in detail and jointly came to this disappointing conclusion. It was quite a significant conclusion and likely to be correct, as both of us were in positions to manage design processes and teams, and also shape and influence design centric business strategies.

I do not think that this epiphany happened as a result of this discussion. This was something that has been cooking at the back of my mind since design thinking started gaining traction in the competitive corporate environment. My thoughts include design thinking’s impact, its fallout, and its side effects.

This was really not an easy post to write, there were lots of information for me to manage and reorganize. As with any story, lets start from the beginning by looking at why design thinking was even needed in the first place?

Why Design Thinking?

I think A.G. Lafley says it best with the following two quotes on the difference between business and design thinking.

“Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence), …”

“Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.” ~ Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley

(From The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, Business Week 28 July 2008)

Businesses finally realized that in this hyper competitive environment, design thinking could help create the next big thing. Considering all the hard lessons learnt during the recent recession, businesses were more than ready for this change.

So designers (well at least some) are rejoicing that design thinking has finally reached the tipping point. The evidence is everywhere. Any business periodical worth its salt has some form of design coverage in the form of a segment, blog or at the very least a “design” tag.

Everyone was happy. So happy that we were even rolling with the confusion between big D Design and small d design. There is no denying that design, both the verb and noun, has finally got the recognition it needs by being firmly entrenched in the board room.

Everything Comes at a Cost?

For design to be so integrated into business processes, a huge divide had to be crossed, and different mindsets had to meet and meld. It became a prerequisite that design thinking had to be communicated in a language that the business can understand.

That, in my humble opinion, was the beginning of the end.

As design thinking moved closer across the chasm to the business, it further evolved and started to inherit the problems that businesses so hoped that design thinking would solve and move beyond.

For one, design thinking’s consumer focused methodology was used to validate rather than predict. We explored a similar discussion in the post “user centered design is dead”. We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. As a result, we just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.

Design could have stepped in to reverse this. However I believe instead of getting easier, it got harder. Perhaps now design and business are just too close, and being too close has its disadvantages as people start taking each other for granted.

The popularity of crowd sourcing did not help. Together with the Internet, market research now becomes scalable with access to truly statistical significant data. Now suddenly businesses have access to large amounts of information and data, and logically old habits die-hard. The real failure here is when businesses validate solutions (anchored by design thinking) with data compiled from existing solutions.

Furthermore in the 5 or so years since design thinking made it big in the boardroom, I’ve experienced over and over again business ROI getting the better of design thinking. Awesome product propositions anchored by critical insight, technology, and business potential, gets killed or watered down because risk adverse businesses believe they can’t sell enough to justify the product’s existence.

Sigh. At the end of the day though all is not lost as well-informed designers can still negotiate around and resolve such hazards.

Design Thinking Packaged like a Happy Meal

The last straw came when I realized that the design thinking process had now become a nice little packaged “product”. A nice curriculum taught in schools and universities, spread in droves by business consultants eager to jump on what was now the next big business trend. Just like JIT, Six Sigma and ISO certifications etc, design thinking was now being structurally deployed like another other business process in organizations far and wide.

What makes it worst is when people from such design thinking integrated organizations are debating the right or wrong way in conducting Design Thinking. I wonder if they forgot that it is not about a right or wrong process but a right or wrong solution.

Dictating design thinking as a sequential step-by-step process is ripe for failure in the creativity and solutions department. This is probably why after half a decade; the companies that are creating innovative products continue to be the usual suspects. The same old brands that have been doing so even before Design Thinking had its day. Therefore I feel design thinking has not produced the results the business has been hoping for, and despite the best efforts, design thinking will continue to be something only a few can do well.

Furthermore design thinkers that have not been classically trained in design “doing” will likely not realize that great innovative solutions don’t come at the end of the process; they come from any part of the process.

Design is an iterative activity that only has broad guidelines but no fixed process. What’s more important is that critical insights, sensitivity to consumer needs and beautiful solutions comes from the creative chaos encouraged by an open design process. All of this got killed when the business mindset required design thinking to have structure, repeatability, and reliability.

Time to Move on, Nothing to see Here!

I think it’s time for all of us to move on. Design thinking should not be seen as the end all, but part of a number of design tools businesses can employ. Therefore I have always contested, from the beginning, that designers should lead such efforts. This is because classically trained designers have the ability to able to deal with chaos and manage risk; something the business needs help with. All the more so, as it is from within this chaos that paradigm-shifting ideas will come. That is where the Holy Grail really resides.

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Phew! What a beast of an article, and I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Please do excuse the grammar (which I went back to fix), as it was 2am when I struggled to complete this post. As always, I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Edit: Check out the follow up post: How Can We Fix the Problems of Design Thinking?

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Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)

Brian is a multidisciplinary Design Leader with more than 18 years of experience leading strategic design programs that drives successful Brands and Fortune 500 businesses such as GE, Philips, Nakamichi, Flextronics, Ericsson, Hannspree, and HP. His passion is in helping organisations leverage on Design Driven Innovation to make people’s lives better.

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