Calling B.S. Part 3: Design Thinking

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Despite the recent popularity of the “dad bod,” every hot new trend officially ends when dad, mom, Uncle Joe, the grandparents and the dorky neighbors down the street join the fun. Just ask Facebook. With “design thinking,” however, practically anyone with a sticky business conundrum now waxes rhapsodic on the method’s purported magical properties to overcome every operational challenge. Even with everyone aboard the bandwagon, grandpa hasn’t managed to ruin the design thinking party just yet in part because no one can agree on what design thinking actually is.

Google “design thinking” and you’ll encounter 230,000,000+ diffuse definitions. Explanations range from maddening circular definitions, “design thinking refers to design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing,” to vague platitudes, “a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities.” Most would agree that solving problems and discovering opportunities is unquestionably positive, unless you are, as Donald Trump would say, a “dummy” or a “dope.”

As noted in the companion post Calling B.S. Part 2: Innovation, marketers and designers are pretty good at talking a good game. Design thinking democratizes this piffle by proliferating it across other organizational functions like R&D and engineering. Sadly, ersatz design thinkers are frequently left with a surfeit of words, but little or no design or thinking.design-thinking2

Even some of the most prominent figures in the design world and preeminent practitioners of design thinking have become more than a tad suspicious of the phrase. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, told the Harvard Business Review recently, “what worries me a little bit is that we have a lot of people out in the world who think of themselves as design thinkers without any of the actual skills that it takes to do design thinking effectively.” And Don Norman, one of the originators of the very idea of using design to solve practical, real-world issues takes things a step further arguing, “Design thinking is a powerful public relations term that changes the way in which design firms are viewed. Now all the mysterious, non-business oriented, strange ways by which many design firms like to work is imbued with the mystical aura of design thinking.”

Designers bring unique skills in structuring the elements of visual communications and solutions.  That’s why a majority of the people working at BrandCulture have formal training in design. But design and design thinking are two different things. Design is about simplification of complex problems. Sometimes this simplification is a message, as in graphic design, and sometimes it is a way of completing a task, as in UX design. Regardless, design always has a tangible simplification outcome, from a product, to a poster, to a website or mobile app. Design thinking, on the other hand, is a fuzzy term invoked more frequently in vague hopefulness about the supposed thought process or steps of action to arrive at this simplification than in actual practice. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as all that. It’s not that non-designers can’t engage in design thinking, it’s just that they don’t always know where to begin.

Net-net, designers have lost control of the design thinking term.  Instead of wishing that everyone think “like” a designer, hire an actual designer instead! Anthropologists and their preferred method, ethnography, suffered a similar fate when they lost control of it. Suddenly everyone was/is an ethnographer. As if by one saying they “do ethnography” they would be suddenly imbued with patience and perspicacity previously unattainable.

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As more folks invoke design thinking as a verbal talisman, the business leaders who are most effective in actually integrating the principles of design thinking into their work are avoiding the term entirely.  RISD-trained airbnb CEO Brian Chesky intrinsically incorporates the design thinking of his art school education into the way he runs his multi-billion dollar empire. Chesky calls his process “synthesizing divergent ideas” from unexpected sources. And what a bunch of heterogeneous all-star collaborators he has had: Marc Benioff, Warren Buffett, Andy Grove, Robert Iger, Jony Ive, Sheryl Sandberg, George Tenet to name only a few. Chesky focuses on identifying subject matter experts (who are sometimes, but not always fellow celebrity CEOs) and enlists that person in finding the solution while stressing the importance of “not editing your imagination.” This is actual design thinking at its most powerful: integrating a multiplicity of perspectives across disciplines and deploying abductive reasoning to find new paths to progress.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree whether design thinking is a useful term or not, using multidisciplinary teams to consider the needs of users from vastly different perspectives does indeed develop more effective, enduring solutions, just as designers and enlightened CEOs do every day.  With all the twaddle surrounding design thinking, it will be more effective to shift the conversation from “thinking” to “doing“; “thinking” alone won’t get you very far.

Calling BS Part 1 – Authenticity

Calling BS Part 2 – Innovation

Calling BS Part 3 – Design Thinking

Calling BS Part 4 – Storytelling

Calling BS Part 5 – Purpose

Now It’s Your Turn
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  • david carson
    Sep 7, 2015

    nailed it. great/ alot of design thinkers out there today, however very few can actually design . VERY few.

    • letmypeopleplay
      Sep 8, 2015

      How very true mr carson…

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