Is "design thinking" about design?

Yesterday’s posting illustrated the design process from the 1960’s. My point in posting this was to highlight the range of skills involved. However, there is another point: the process itself.
The example given followed a very linear process – ideation, prototyping, consumer testing of final options. The same exact process is the standard linear model of innovation.
There is a different process however called design thinking. As I noted in a posting a number of years ago:

Design thinkers must set out like anthropologists or psychologists, investigating how people experience the world emotionally and cognitively. While designing a new hospital, IDEO staff stretched out on a gurney to see what the emergency room experience felt like. “You see 20 minutes of ceiling tiles,” says [Tim] Brown [CEO of the design firm IDEO], and realize the “most important thing is telling people what’s going on.” In a completely different venue, IDEO visited a NASCAR pit crew to come up with a more effective design for operating theaters.

Wikipedia uses this definition:

Design Thinking is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. It is the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation in the ideation and prototype phases. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these earlier processes since this can often lead to creative solutions.

Key to the process is involving the client in the design process – which is made possible by rapid-prototyping. As the Deputy Chief Executive of the UK Design Council (Trust me, I’m a Designer: How Design Research Can Influence Businesses, Governments and Policy Makers?) put it:

More and more business leaders and policy makers also see design as a strategic business process that helps to identify and meet real user needs.

However, designers are still ambivalent about “design thinking.” Last March, the Economist held its Big Think 2010: Rediscovering imagination: competing on ideas. Core 77 — a major design magazine — posted the following musings on the meeting, Design thinking: Everywhere and Nowhere, Reflections on The Big Re-think:

There’s something odd going on when business and political leaders flatter design with potentially holding the key to such big and pressing problems, and the design community looks the other way.
To understand this paradox, we need to look back at why business and political leaders have become so enamoured with design, and why so many designers struggle with the concept of Design Thinking.

Unfortunately, their exploration of the question was all about what makes good design — rather than the process. From my point of view, I think the discussion of “design thinking” has terminally confused two concepts: 1) how good design creates a competitive advantage – i.e. the iPod, and 2) how the process developed by designers of can be utilized to improve innovation.
We need a way to separate out the concepts. The Core 77 blog posting ended with this: “How does thoughtful design sound?” For the good design part of the discussion, I agree. But what about the process part? Since “design thinking” keeps falling back into the “design” part of the phrase, how about a stress on the “thinking” part? Maybe “creative thinking”? But that doesn’t quite sound right either.
Any suggestions?
[For more on this see Roger Martin’s essay last year in BusinessWeek, The Design of Business.]

One thought on “Is "design thinking" about design?”

  1. What do we mean by “intangible assets”

    There is a problem with our language. Specifically with the use of the phrase that is the cornerstone of this blog: “intangibles”. It is a word that gets used sometimes without a specific meaning but a general sense that can…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s