Design Thinking is Dead, Long Live Design Thinking
“Psst! Wanna know a secret? One that will lead to a never-ending cycle of innovation and sales success? My college tutor taught it to me and it blew my mind!
Work with me over the next few days, hell the next twenty minutes, and I’ll teach you a process that anyone can learn and will have you transforming your sales funnel faster than you can say “continuous improvement”! It’s called ‘Design Thinking’. You ready?! Yeah?! Let’s do this! Awesome!”
Bull. Shit. (As Natasha Jen has been known to say).
If design thinking really was the secret silver bullet promised in my paraphrased version of Steve Larsen's Design Thinking 101 then I’d agree with Natasha. In fact I’d want to help her deliver design thinking a fatal blow. But that’s not what design thinking is and so Natasha ought not to be so frustrated. But she is and, despite arguments to the contrary, her concerns are pretty well founded.
I think it’s all down to a simple misunderstanding that hasn’t been adequately addressed (and if it were, then perhaps Natasha would welcome the notion of more design thinkers in the world). Design thinking is said to be a problem-solving technique. But it’s not. Let me try and explain.
I’ve been involved with design thinking since 1988 when I began my undergraduate product design degree. But I didn’t know it was design thinking until twenty years later in 2008 when the popular HBR article written by Tim Brown was first published. Till then, I thought I’d been involved with design practice, before moving into strategy, facilitation and coaching. As a product designer, I used design methods to respond the briefs I was set: it was all about solving the customer's problem in a creative way. Design meant problem solving.
Occasionally I would question the brief, noticing opportunities to add value by thinking more deliberately about why we were undertaking projects. I was pushing to get a better understanding of the context and the objectives, not just for the product we were designing but for the business itself and all those involved. Following a switch from design practitioner in manufacturing to design strategist in the service sector, my view on the strategic value of design developed significantly: it was a natural companion to strategy and an enabler of innovation. Design was no longer solely about solving the problem, design had a critical role in how the problem is framed.
Working more strategically meant I was increasingly with those who did not have a background in, or particularly care about, design. At the time there were no reports on the business value of design – such as those that later appeared from the Design Council, the Design Management Institute, McKinsey, et al - to help me make the case. I had to find ways to work closely with people to make it easier for them to understand, and then capitalise upon, the value of design. This took me into both design education and consultancy. In addition to problem solving and problem framing, design for me now included facilitation and coaching.
The experiences and career trajectory I have had have clearly influenced my view on what design thinking is. I now can’t help but see design as a tool to create organizational value through a combination of practice, strategy, facilitation and coaching. The degree to which each is required will depend on the situation at hand but they all tend to be there in some measure. If I had to, that’s how I’d define design thinking, for now.
But doing a Google search for “design thinking” suggests I am in a minority. The most common definitions of design thinking say it is a “problem solving” process. This casual definition is far too simplistic, lazy and is fundamentally wrong. It equates design thinking with design practice, whereas design thinking is actually an enabler of design practice.
Unfortunately design thinking is being promoted by people who simply do not think of it in this way. They seek short cuts and quick fixes rather than engaging with the discipline of design thinking because that takes time and effort. Limited knowledge leads to people like Steve Larsen communicating their superficial understanding to others. Steve's acolytes then think they can do what well trained and practiced design professionals can do. Such professionals (Natasha), call out this approach, giving design thinking a bad name. This leads to wider misunderstanding and a negative cycle ensues.
Left unchecked, such a cycle could herald the demise of design thinking. But this won’t happen. I can’t see a time when design thinking will die. Even if the term itself faded away, the underlying activities of practice, strategy, facilitation and coaching will still be there. They always have been. They always will be.
Some may wish to deliver design thinking a fatal blow. If they do, to them I say: design thinking is dead; long live design thinking.