How Can We Fix the Problems of Design Thinking?

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.  I held off, as I wanted to have some time to hear your feedback as well as look at the fallout of Design Thinking all over the Internet.

What was interesting was that I have been getting feedback that it sounds like 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 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 this 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 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 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.

What I think should be happening is Design needs to be a function within an organization, a core to any business. Just like finance, human resources etc. Organizations serious in leveraging the value of design should not try to do it on their own but hire 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 led by designers only.  I’m more of a view that this is a specialist job, like a CPA.  So getting people with the right skills, and designers seem to be the people that have those skills.  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 to appreciate design 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 in line 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 than 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 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 this 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 on how we can fix Design Thinking, let us 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, and 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 my key points above:
1) Teach Design Thinking with Design Doing.
2) Anchor Design Thinking as part of a larger holistic creative 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. 

Personally, I rather just call it Design.  Design is a word that is actually a noun, a verb, 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?

  • gwen

    July 22, 2010 at 2:45 am Reply

    hmmmm… recently i came across this link from a unique firm called humantific… a very highly different approach to design and probably one of a couple starting firms that created their core values based on design thinking verses the traditional firms doing industrial design of physical products.
    they are there to solve problems – organizational, human behaviors, etc, (they don’t have physical end resulting products….)
    Their findings fascinated me and gave myself questions of ‘ah-ha’ moments to think about the whole design process from a macro level and where i am positioned within this ‘process machine’of an organization.
    this finding #5 – ‘numerous students in this study, design thinking jumps off from a framed problem defined by a brief. Often there was no process activity upstream from the brief.’
    and the shocking finding #8 – ‘Most design thinking process models seen in this study contain no reference to behaviors.’
    i may get into trouble expressing my opinions of this subject —- 🙂
    (these two findings help me understand that we should not be calling it design thinking but something else cause the whole point why there is a ‘framed stated problem’ for designers is the fact that a problem came from a human behavior or that researchers are seeking for those behaviors on a continual basis that pretty much 90% of designers don’t.)
    read it. – it is 140 odd pages but does not take long, unless you stare at the students sketches for long periods of time. ^^
    “design thinking made visible”
    myself, i personally stay out of these conversations because it is too ‘political’ – meaning there is no right or wrong, its everyone’s opinion and interpretation. And the worst is, designers are notorious to discussing in abstraction which makes it more difficult to communicate with a diverse group of people.
    It is difficult within this flat world of blogs and paper-less revolution to have that one “IT” guy or magazine or company or school to say the end-resulting definition for everyone… “that was the good old days.”
    I like it today, it is literally funny to watch in real-time a surreal soccer game of books, blogs, twitter, forums – just individuals having their piece about ‘design thinking’
    or as i always say around the office “lets d-think the problem…”

  • Deep Sherchan

    July 9, 2010 at 7:16 pm Reply

    This is really a nice article. I believe that Design Thinking has become more like a trendy word. Something that people like to associate themselves too but fail to understand its meaning..
    I really like the point that Design Thinking is more to do with the nature of people rather than a process or step which could be followed.
    Just like the essence of Art/Music cannot be taught.. Design thinking has to come from within rather than from outside.. well that is wht I believe… I see lot of designers talking about design thinking without having any kind of understanding.. I guess the phrase “Design Thinking” has been used to death and there is little we can do to save it…

  • Rene Lee

    July 9, 2010 at 4:06 pm Reply

    Thanks for raising this issue that’s been troubling many traditional designers for a long time.
    It’s true that the term is imperfect because of its ambiguity. However, its mother, Design, isn’t a term that every designer agrees upon either. Just as design thinking can be defined, interpreted, and practiced in different ways, there is no single way to define even design itself, as exemplified by designers and companies all around the world throughout history. However, this diversified definition wasn’t unique to people unfamiliar with design.
    The term Design Thinking, is almost like a reboot of Design. Design had become synonymous with styling and superficial aesthetics. Most people associate design with how things look, not how things are made. Design was pretty low in terms of priority and back end associated within companies. Build it first and make it pretty later kind of approach was all but prevalent.
    This had to be why design firms like IDEO really pioneered the term design THINKING, because it implies not the aesthetic sensibility of an artistic mind, but because it connotes a more holistic creativity that needs to take place from the very start. Design thinking, I think, was coined to communicate what design really is to people who may have the superficial definition or perception of it. It was a term invented to free designers from having to style things at the very back end.
    My response to your summary is this:
    1. Design-doing is another way of saying proto-typing, which is an integral part of design thinking already. The term thinking isn’t exclusively cerebral, but manual as well. David Kelley talks about “thinking with your hands.” Action does not follow thinking, it’s part of the thought process.
    2. I couldn’t agree more. And if anything, design thinking is what’s going to anchor creativity at the heart of many organization. Which brings me to your next point.
    3. I have to disagree with you that Design thinking must be left to the experts. That’s the reason why the practice of design has been specialized visually capable people. Most people think that if they can’t draw they can’t be designers, or worse, can’t design. This is a massive waste of creativity that every human being are born with. By relegating design to a select group of designers, we’re effectively throwing away everyone’s ability to think creatively and find design solutions where designers aren’t present. That’s where the term design thinking comes in because the ‘thinking’ part of it removes the aesthetic/visual preconceptions by implying that anyone who can think can do design thinking. Drawing is not designing and designing is not drawing.
    4. Do we really need another term to call it something else? I really think the term is quite well targeted to people who aren’t familiar with the larger definition of design. My stance on the term is very much in line with Dr. Don Norman. It’s a way to brand what’s nothing more than good old design, but very effective none the less.
    I for one am grateful to the term as a student, because it got design in the boardroom and on the map to many many places that weren’t design driven. Now if only design thinking, or design, could live up to all the grandiose promises it’s making to everyone, we would all be better off. Let’s get to it.

  • brian t

    July 9, 2010 at 5:29 am Reply

    I agree that there needs to be more of an emphasis on Doing in Design, but I think there’s a long way to go. I’m coming at this from an Engineering background, not Design, and I’ve been amused/bemused to see designers trying to do Industrial Design without the most basic Engineering knowledge.
    The design blog Yanko Design has carried some classic examples of this knowledge gap, especially when it comes to “greenwashed” designs. One was for a shower system in which the user was to provide all the energy required to make it operate. Just stepping on a baseplate was supposed to heat AND pressurise the water, enough to create an enjoyable shower. This betrays a total ignorance of the amount of energy required vs. how much can be extracted. Another similar “design” was for shopping trolleys that would extract energy as you push them; the designer not realising that attaching a dynamo capable of extracting a usable amount of energy would turn the shopping experience in to a constant (apparent) uphill struggle!
    In short: just as architects need to know some basic structural engineering, I can recommend teaching designers some basic engineering concepts, such as the properties of materials, different forms of energy (low grade vs high grade) .., and the TANSTAAFL principle.

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