Is there a Divide in Design?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a link on my Twitter account that lead to a write up by Bruce Nussbaum on The Latest Trends in Design and Innovation–And Why The Debate Over Design Thinking is Moot. I did think this was one of his better posts, though his so called “trends” are not entirely new. However before we go deeper into this discussion, let us briefly recap these trends:
Trend 1: Design as a strategic competitive advantage

The strongest market demand for Design today from private companies and public organizations is for strategy. CEOs and other leaders are turning to innovation/design consultancies for help in shaping brand strategies and even broader organizational strategies.

Trend 2: Not just thinking, but also doing

Demand for products, services and experiences from the same design/innovation consultancies is growing as well. The “doing” part of design is very strong. In fact, as the economy pulls out of the Great Recession, there are signs that the corporate demand for things to sell is about to take off. All four consultancies, ZIBA, Smart, Continuum and IDEO are designing stuff as well as designing strategies.

Trend 3: Relationships allow you the trust to do great work

Design practice is increasingly about relationships, not projects. [snip] Deep relationships with clients over time are critical. [snip] Deep relationships among the staff are crucial. Interdisciplinary workteams are the norm. In fact, Sohrab talks about “tribes” not teams. “We must integrate, integrate, integrate all our people,” he said.

Trend 4: Design entrepreneurship

A new VCD (Venture Capital Design) model is emerging. Yves Behar’s fuseprojects and others are funding new brands either directly or with partners. Designers are using their talent for spotting new trends and their ability to translate insights into new products and services to directly create new brands, instead of doing it for large companies.

However, after a Twitter conversation with a few other designers, I started to question if there was a Divide in Design?
I believe this whole buzz about design thinking might be leaving the wrong impression on designers. The supporters of design thinking seem to think that it is the future of the design profession and the only way to go. Certainly, the tone of Bruce’s article and many others he wrote in the past seems to imply: adapt or die. While this may be the case, it is not entirely true. His Trend no. 2 is the key here.
I don’t have any hard data, but in design, there is a strong correlation of a design’s success when both thinking and doing at an equal level of competence. There are many wonderful examples of products, that had a great strategic design/brand/marketing concept, but failed because it could not be realized. In fact a senior Industrial Design leader at Dell had mentioned to me that there were a number of consultancies or designers that made a great living fixing the mistakes of these so called “branded” consultancies.
Design educators have it tough. They have to struggle to ensure their curriculum balances the design student’s thinking and doing. Where in many cases the doing tends to bubble up as priority as it is one of the first things that gets design graduates hired. What Bruce fails to realize, and I don’t blame him as he has not gone through a design education, is that the learning to do in design can be a very long and difficult process. Learning to do design is not easy, but demeaning its importance in favor of thinking is a recipe for disaster. “Mental masturbation” rears it ugly head again.
Kevin Garcia asked me on Twitter what it takes for a designer to get into the strategic part, the so called design thinking part. He also asked why does it seem that only the big boys can do it? I replied that credibility and trust is the key factor here. This closely follows with a designer having the right skills in strategic design. Not every designer is in a position to do this and hence a “Divide”.
But you can’t cross the “Divide” if you don’t know where you are coming from. Don’t forget, the big boys like IDEO, Ziba, Frog etc. all started out doing a really, really consistently good job.

  • csven

    September 5, 2009 at 5:57 am Reply

    By the way, I looked but didn’t see the comments by other designers on Twitter. Would enjoy reading their thoughts. Share some links?

  • csven

    September 5, 2009 at 5:30 am Reply

    I was looking at the graphic of our conversation and not recognizing the order of the posts, even though for some reason the times shown indicate they occur as shown.
    However, this is the full conversation and in the order I recall it and timestamps:

    reBang (7:03 AM Aug 19th from web): Just read Nussbaum’s ( RT @designsojourn ) “Latest Trends in Design and Innovation” #IndDes
    reBang (7:05 AM Aug 19th from web): Nussbaum’s entry is OK, but using Ziba, IDEO & Smart Design as definitive sources seems skewed. They’re selling themselves, y’know. #IndDes
    reBang (7:07 AM Aug 19th from web): And something else: Ziba’s new offices seem wrong to me. Centralized. Controlling. Very much anti-virtual offices. De-centralized. #IndDes
    reBang (7:08 AM Aug 19th from web): When companies are beginning to explore de-centralized organizational structures, Ziba’s huge complex seems very 20th century to me. #IndDes
    reBang (7:12 AM Aug 19th from web): In my mind a cutting edge design firm would minimize footprint; utilize 21st century collaborative tools & people work where ever. #IndDes

    designsojourn (8:19 AM Aug 19th from Tweetie in reply to reBang): @reBang how did u find bruce’s new piece? Seems like he is getting it?

    reBang (8:38 AM Aug 19th from web in reply to designsojourn): @designsojourn – From you, hence the “( RT @designsojourn )”. Not sure he gets it. There are more than 3 or 4 design firms.

    designsojourn (9:17 PM Aug 19th from TweetDeck in reply to reBang): @reBang he assumes that the design firms are thought leaders. He needs to look at how design works in companies like P&G, Apple etc. more.

    reBang (8:36 AM Aug 20th from web in reply to designsojourn): @designsojourn – Whether top design firms or top companies, they’re exceptions to the rule; not predictors of what *will* come.

    designsojourn (9:11 AM Aug 20th from TweetDeck in reply to reBang): @reBang quite true.
    designsojourn (10:28 AM Aug 20th from TweetDeck in reply to reBang): @reBang i think there is a divide in the design world, the leading few on the top and what they are doing.

    reBang (1:36 PM Aug 20th from web in reply to designsojourn): @designsojourn – And all the rest which are a significant majority and can be the source of extraordinary inertia towards improving matters.

    The last two entries seem to be reversed in your graphic.

  • Robin Ferraby

    September 5, 2009 at 1:20 am Reply

    I also like Bruce’s article.
    For me the divide between thinking and doing is vanishing, it seems to me. I feel like what used to be called ‘blue sky thinking’ is now seen as integral and parallel to all design activity. Consultancies we’re working with that would in the past have sold classic Industrial Design ‘doing’, who then started selling design process methodology, are now selling strategy alongside the doing and as part of a methodology.
    I feel like the divide has been between good design (including design thinking) and bad design (not much thinking), but also between those who can express what they are doing (who champion design thinking), and those who prefer to do (who design think but just get on with it intuitively).
    I think the profession is maturing at a rapid rate, and it needs to, business needs it.
    Cheers, Robin

  • timfife

    September 4, 2009 at 11:22 pm Reply

    Great post! I just wanted to mention that the divide between trend 1 and trend 2 goes both ways. I happen to work for one of the few Strategy and Management consultancies that is moving from strategy to design (rather than vice versa) and while we have a strong track record in design-thinking, we have also recently developed a strong design-doing capability. The difficulty we’re encountering is getting our clients to make the jump from design conceptualisation to design actualisation ( I should note that we are based in Australia, where the zietgeist for great design still lags considerably behind the US). So even if you do have the trust of the client to work in the strategic space, that doesn’t necessarily mean a simple transition into the design-doing space.

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