Design thinking: designers don’t get it

Okay, the title is a gross generalization and should more likely be “Design Thinking – Some Designers Get It and Some Don’t.”

In May of last year I spoke on Design Thinking at the IDSA Mideast District conference in Grand Rapids MI. The speaker before me was Darrel Rhea from the Cheskin Group. During his presentation he polled the audience on their thoughts about Design Thinking. His scale went from 0 which meant there is no belief that Design Thinking exists and it is a buzzword only to 10 which meant there was a complete belief that Design Thinking exists and is useable. The audience, of about 150 designers averaged out to between 6 and 7 on Darrell’s scale. His comment that this was rather high compared to his past experience. Shocking? Not really.

I have had similar experiences as well. I have had many postings and comments on Design Thinking at Core77, which is the international website for Industrial Designers. At this forum I have received comments such as:

“The term feels to me as though it has jumped the shark (def. the moment of downturn for a previously successful enterprise) and crossed into the realm of Lingo, and holds no real inherent value to the Industrial Design Industry. It is thrown around by anyone that believes that Industrial Design ‘belongs at the big table’ but has no real clue how to get it there.”

“I think of systems engineering leading a design team when I think of design thinking.”

“Design Thinking with a capital ‘D’ and ‘T’ is a myth created to impress business leaders.”

“You bring up some good points, but I’m sorry, I just think Design Thinking has been over-hyped.”

I also am a member of the Design Thinking group at Linked In. I see the same sort of comments from designers at this location.

I think the problem comes from a professional legacy.

Many experienced designers have not re-educated themselves in Design Thinking as it has developed. After years of fighting to be heard in the business environment, and often being pushed down by the engineering, marketing and MBA groups, they see Design Thinking as this “thing” that has snuck up on them, is using their profession’s name but is being used by people they consider to be non-designers. “Is this another way of taking more control away from the designers of the world! Is this another subterfuge!” might be the typical thought. Also many of these designers come from a time when their specific discipline was an avocation to a specific skill set(s), i.e. industrial designers loved being in the shop and drawing with markers. It was about doing and less about thinking, at least thinking about thinking.

Recently another forum was posted at Core77 entitled “Design Thinking is Dead”, based on the recent article by Bruce Nussbaum. The conversation moved back and forth and I found that it was almost impossible to get some posters to even consider the idea that Design was beyond the usual professions, in this case Industrial Design. An example of a response was:

I agree. Wholeheartedly. I’ve thought the whole discussion that is/was Design Thinking was great Marketing. I have never really thought of it much more than good window dressing. Although I must admit that there was a while where I was being swayed by the strong message and the raising of Design awareness that DT brought to the world.

So, I am not here saying I told you so. While I never was a proponent of DT, I couldn’t articulate well enough what it was that I thought flawed with the “system” that was DT. I actually bristle at the idea that Nussbaum is the one that may be leading Design into a new direction. But, credit where its due, I think he’s on to something.”

After many failed postings I finally sat back, took some time to really understand the direction the forum had been going. Finally I posted the following:

Let me try this another way:

1) Which of the following do you believe?
a) A deity touched you on the head and gave you designer qualities.
b) As a designer you are using a part of the mind that most people have had little training in using.

If, you answered ‘a’ forget about reading further.

2) When people create business plans, strategies, policies, services, etc these are things that will impact users and affect the future?
a) Yes
b) No

If you say ‘No’ then no reason to read any further.

3) The items in #2 above are being designed and therefore need to use the mindsets, methods and tools of designers in order to make them the most useful?
a) Yes
b) No

If you answer ‘Yes’ then you understand what Design Thinking is about.

While this did not sway everyone, a large group felt more comfortable with this framework of Design Thinking. I was fortunate to receive the following responses:

Nice take, Tim. I think you’ve narrowed it down and cut through the smoke and mirrors there.

My final response that won over all of the forum posters was:

Yes Design Thinking is a bad term. In fact Chapter 3 of the new US Army Field Manual just calls it Design. I am happy with that but unfortunately most business people think of ‘design’ as a Tactic and not a Strategy. Design Thinking has come in to at least give the ability to discuss Design at a strategic level. I would just prefer that over time we move back to Design as the term, after we move the business community with us.

So at the end of the day let us not confuse the goal, which is bringing the Design side of the brain into use in more areas of society in order to improve the future for users. Whether you call it Design Thinking or Design is not the issue.

Tim Fletcher

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