Why are Businesses so Interested in Design Thinking and the Design Process ?

I have been watching ”Design Thinking” very closely for a long time now, often amused on how it is unfolding in both the design and non-design industries. At this time I’m curious it is evolving, and having strong suspicions on how it can be an element to bridge the “language gap” between Design and the Business.
Interestingly, since I started watching this topic in 2006, everyone who is anyone (including yours truly) jumped with their $0.02 cents worth in trying to figure out just what this is all about. However many posts never seem to get the idea of Design Thinking right, and the definition and objectives for Design Thinking never clearly expressed.
I started this discussion in June 2006 with my post “Everybody is talking about design, creativity & entrepreneurship“. In it I concluded that while Tom Peters suggested that “Design was It”, it was not clear, at least to me, to do what? It sounded to me more about encouraging a more creative businesses mindset or managing innovation and creativity within an organizations.
In Nov 2008 with “Design Thinking or Just Thinking“, I lamented that it looks like Design Thinking was just plain old Thinking after all! However I did hypothesize that: “Design Thinking is a thinking process that anchors your decision making with multi-disciplinary influences”. I think I was getting close, but I still missed context, the “Why” we do this. Why would non-designers (the Business in this case) be interested in Design Thinking and the Design Process?
More recently, a number of online posts on this topic has push this issue, in my humble opinion, to a tipping point.
John Medea, in his post Learning from How Designers Think and Work, focused on Designer’s value and pits Designers to be “experience perfectionists”. Unfortunately, the purpose of such “experience perfectionists” is still not clear.
Bruce Naussbaum in his usual misrepresentation of designers asked: Is Design Too Important To Be Left Only To Designers? In this case he talks about how designers are angry/concerned/afraid of “other people” working with design thinking, or design processes, or how designers are still stuck in their silos. Not sure to which designers he has been speaking to, but much ado about nothing as usual. Do check out the brilliant blog response by Robert Brunner called “Is Design Too Important To Be Left to Thinkers”.
The good news is that I think we are now a step closer. John Edson who wrote “Designing Business; Businessing Design“. Describes Design Thinking within organizations by this:

Empowering the drive to create products aimed at the needs of real people is this question: Does the business culture favor conversation–or is it stuck in hierarchical control? Classic business management education values control and it depends on deductive reasoning to create that control. “The most important business transformations cannot be proven before they are undertaken,” promotes Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “Analytical and deductive reasoning practices in business destroy value.”
{snip}
In my view, it’s crucial for business to awaken to the powers of design. I don’t think that future enterprises will be able to connect to customers or remain competitive without increasingly fluid and agile management practices that respond more to the idiosyncrasies of real people than to the current fiscal quarter’s numbers.
But when it comes to the profession of design, discovering and answering the unmet needs of customers requires a designer’s ability to move beyond the expected. It’s our job to create these wonderful expressions, giving personality to a company and delight to the customer.

Reads a little complicated? Let me try to distill. So why are businesses so interested in design thinking?
In my humble opinion, designers have the ability, through their consumer insights and boundless thinking, to come up with un-tested opportunities that businesses are not able to due to the culture and way in which companies are run. The common results focused business culture thrives on the tried and tested, which business leaders know is not conducive for the future and the next big product break through. It is the designers ability to manage and work with the risk of the unknown (concepts, designs etc.) that is going to help win the day.
A perfect partnership don’t you think?

8 Comments
  • Peter Thomson

    July 4, 2009 at 6:20 am Reply

    Good insight that: The common results focused business culture thrives on the tried and tested.
    By contrast, a business that is flirting with design thinking will often be focused on the untried and untested.

  • Tim Fife

    July 4, 2009 at 5:38 pm Reply

    I think the big difference lies in the fact that businesses use analytics to run. That is, they are backward looking, trying to use their histories to tell them what they should do next. Design, in its essence, is forward looking, trying to determine what will best help improve the world of the user (whomever that might be) by making things which dont yet exist. Businesses use analysis to achieve certainty, and rarely move forward on things they do not have certainty about. Business needs to embrace and put value on the art of storytelling, the art of rhetorc (in its classical sense of using stories to move people to action); which is a key tool of the designer, and the one by which he or she demonstrates the value of that which has yet to be proven.

  • DT

    July 4, 2009 at 5:46 pm Reply

    Hi Peter,
    Great comment and very true. That is where the Designers come in. Ultimately a successful product is one that sells. A product that sells means the product resonates well with the consumer. Designers gain critical insight after studying the consumer and then use this insight to develop product solutions that makes sense.
    Thanks for taking the time to leave your feedback.

  • Fred Collopy

    July 5, 2009 at 9:22 pm Reply

    As an educator of managers, I see their interest in design somewhat differently perhaps. Of course, by better understanding design, managers and executives will make better use of it in their products and services. Collaborations with designers will be more productive. New product opportunities are more likely to be embraced.
    But what “design thinking” (a term I am coming to dislike) seems to be most about, is having people who traditionally are not trained as designers take on the attitudes, values, and yes, thought processes or patterns of designers. It is not about getting analysts to let designers influence particular decisions; it is about letting designers and design practices influence the nature of deciding itself.
    When this happens, all of managing becomes a balance of analysis and design. Whether one is attending to setting strategic direction, revising an HR policy, creating a new derivative, or solving a thorny problem in a project team’s dynamics, there are design implications (as well as analytic ones). The collaboration, the partnership, for me is primarily an educational one. What can each side teach the other so that our lives are all more full, so that our customers are happier, so that the world is better for our action in it?

  • Mario Vellandi

    July 7, 2009 at 3:04 am Reply

    The business world is SLOWLY coming to understand and appreciate design thinking because of its historical (retrospective analysis) and future orientation toward human factors in the larger context of usability and emotional appeal for one (let’s leave aesthetics & ‘innovative thinking’ as given). Traditionally, this element of psychology has been present in business, but locked up in the realm of organizational behavior, which deals primarily with human resources, management, and leadership.
    I think it’s also becoming more popular and interesting because of the demise of mass marketing and mass trends in fashion. This is creating the need to look at the larger world of niches to try to create desirability and product differentiation beyond function (and increasingly aesthetics), alone.
    But for however long design thinking is not incorporated into business administration and marketing programs (Bachelors and MBA), there will be a continued lack of its value to business. And what we’ll continue to see is the cheerleading around books that scratch the surface of it subjectively (written by businesspeople). I hope that at least books, blogs, and thought leadership by designers & nouveau business thinkers (like me :D) can spread this word far and wide. However, it’s not easy. Books make for much better immersion than articles (thought candy IMO), and practical experience in the workplace is best.

  • DT

    July 7, 2009 at 11:52 am Reply

    Hi Fred,
    First off, thanks for taking the time to drop by and leave a comment.
    In many ways there should not be a segregation between Analysis and Design. Both exists together, and design, particularly Multi-Disciplinary thrives on analysis. It is because of good analysis that good design exists. In end though, I agree with your point about learning from each other. Unfortunately in a corporate environment, where titles exists to drive job descriptions, this learning will be a difficult thing to manage.
    @Mario: Good to hear from you again. Hope things are well with you. Thanks for your comments a good one as usual. I agree, this discussion of “Design Thinking” needs to be taken up by all, and particularly those in the thick of things. I think a lot more designers need to be part of this discussion, not just the ones working in consulting. Such “Design Thinking” is a cultural change, and companies serious about this needs long term Design Leadership within the organization.

  • D Seaver

    July 8, 2009 at 12:49 am Reply

    I’ve got a little bit of a side track to this that I would encourage people to consider. My basic definition of “design thinking” really boils down to creative problem solving in it’s most simple terms. The idea of coming at things from different angles, considering other approaches, testing the unknown for possible alternatives, etc. What I present is that Design does not have ownership of this process. I do think that as Design has gained head-way as a legitmate profession, we certainly have brought it to the fore-front of business thinking, and undoubtedly, do it much easier and more readily than a typical business professional (Determining whether we do it better is another conversation).”Design Thinking” and “Strategic Design” give that creative solving process a nice bundled name, but isn’t necessarily an original concept and perhaps this is why people are having such a hard time reconciling how it works/used/why of it all.
    Of course none of this answers any of the previous discussion or post, but it might help create a different (read here Design Thinking) perspective from which to consider the question…

  • Denise Lee Yohn

    July 9, 2009 at 4:03 am Reply

    thanks, DT, for raising the questions i’ve had about “design thinking” — and i’m glad to see your response to fred collupy’s comments, as i do believe he’s hit on the most important point: “letting designers and design practices influence the nature of deciding itself.”
    today’s organization cannot afford to operate in silos which cordon off designers’ “consumer insights and boundless thinking” from the work of others — the entire organization should learn “design thinking” and then perhaps it would just be called “thinking”

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