Design thinking

My Masterclass on Design Thinking for EURIB in Rotterdam in November 2012 is an opportunity to pull together some recent literature on this issue and provide a perspective on a concept that has sparked some spirited debate. A fresh new variable? A useful myth? Or opportunistic hype? My conclusion is that it’s a sign of the times, and has been useful as a focus for some new practices and methods. But for it to work we still need designers. They are experts in the aesthetics and craft of design, but define the value of these in new ways. Socially critical, reflexive makers of change reconnect design with its soul.

Design Thinking is a fashionable term in both design and management circles, reflecting the rise of interest in methods and strategies that embed creativity and innovation within management across public and private sectors. However, it is a concept that must be approached with some caution. As Lucy Kimbell has rightly argued in her paper Rethinking Design Thinking, the concept is undertheorised and understudied.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, is perhaps most closely associated with the term. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2008, he presents Design Thinking to the business community with an evangelical zeal:  “I believe that design thinking has much to offer a business world in which most management ideas and best practices are freely available to be copied and exploited. Leaders now look to innovation as a principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage; they would do well to incorporate design thinking into all phases of the process.”

Writing in 2010 for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Brown extends his case beyond that of commercial innovation, providing a claim that it can contribute to social innovation. The Brown/IDEO model of Design Thinking is presented in terms of “three overlapping spaces” rather than orderly steps: inspiration, ideation and implementation. This is elaborated further in his 2009 book Change by DesignIn a review of the volume, Robert Blinn says “Business books tend to be written in a peculiar dialect somewhere between anecdote and allegory, and Change by Design is no exception.” Indeed one way of interpreting Design Thinking is that it is a strategy for companies such as IDEO to be taken more seriously by the business community and by government. Much that is written on the subject by its key advocates is framed in business-speak. And the evidence would suggest that the message is getting through to both business and government, helping to diversify and strengthen the markets of the design industry.

In October 2012, a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled Design Firms Go Beyond Gadgets as Portfolios Expand began thus:

“Bay Area design firms behind iconic technology products like the mouse and the Macintosh computer are broadening their portfolios. Health-care companies, nonprofits and industrial giants are among those tapping these and other designers to conceive not just gadgets but new software, business strategies and even school systems. The expansion has happened gradually but is accelerating as firms seek to connect with design-savvy customers.”

This piece included reference to Tim Brown, IDEO and their more recent ‘social’ design projects that apply their notion of design thinking to development, education and other contexts.

For serious students and practitioners of design it is important to differentiate between two quite different uses of the term design thinking:

  1. A way of analysing and interpreting the distinctive styles of thinking and approaches to problem solving within design, that has been subject of study and discussion by researchers since the 1960s.
  2. A business-oriented conception of design that seeks to enhance the value of design professionals and their distinctive expertise.

Design as a way of thinking has origins in Herbert A. Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial, published in 1969 in which he called for a science of design: “a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process”. This developed through Peter Rowe’s book on Design Thinking in 1987 and Richard Buchanan “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” who argued for design thinking to be regarded as “a new liberal art of technological  culture”. Buchanan has been particularly influential in the development of design and design thinking, and highlighted its value to tackling wicked problems – those which are ill-defined and complex in their nature.

British design theorist Nigel Cross has contributed perhaps most to an analytical and robust understanding of design thinking, in part through his recent book Design Thinking which pulls together various research approaches in seeking to understand what is distinctive about design. A succinct definition by Cross can be found in a recent interview with him:

“The psychologists and educationists who have gone about classifying different types of reasoning have tended to define constructive or concrete thinking as a sort of lower level of reasoning than abstract or symbolic thinking. This is a mistake. Design thinking is about making constructive responses to practical problems, issues and situations. This type of thinking means being practical, and involves creating solutions and resolving problem areas. Constructive thinking is also about being imaginative, and imagining how something might be, not just how it is. This is what makes design thinking quite a high level and difficult form of reasoning: it must move from abstract requirements to concrete proposals.”

Elsewhere, Cross has differentiated between scientific thinking, which is rooted in analysis, and design thinking, which is based on synthesis. When asked what design thinking can teach business, Cross presented two key ideas. The first is imagination with responsibility stressing the idea that design is not profit driven and is primarily an activity that is mindful of the impact on society and the environment. The second idea is constructive discontent. As he explains:

“Designers usually start their creative process with a feeling of discontent with the way things are. Many people feel such discontent, but designers will draw upon that reaction and try to make something constructive out of it, to focus on the object of discontent and make it better, rather than just criticizing it. This is a healthy habit that might also be cultivated by successful managers.”

When we turn to the business-oriented conceptions of design thinking, then this careful, nuanced and values-driven narrative is eclipsed by a very different vocabulary and agenda. Bruce Nussbaum was one of the champions of the corporate Design Thinking mantra, writing here in Business Week:

“Design and design thinking—or innovation if you like–are the fresh, new variables that can bring advantage and fat profit margins to global corporations. In today’s global marketplace, being able to understand the consumer, prototype possible new products, services and experiences, quickly filter the good, the bad and the ugly and deliver them to people who want them—well, that is an attractive management methodology. Beats the heck out of squeezing yet one more penny out of your Chinese supply-chain, doesn’t it?”

At the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin embedded design thinking within the MBA curriculum, recognising this potential value of design thinking in being applied strategically. In his book The Design of Business, Martin argues that “design  thinking  needs  to  move upstream,  closer  to  the  executive  suites  where  strategic decisions  are  made”. In the UK Lucy Kimbell delivered design thinking as part of an MBA curriculum at Oxford’s Said Business School, and she has written about others who have pushed at the boundaries of business education in similar ways.

A number of the ‘old hands’ in design recognised that there was nothing particularly new about design thinking. As Donald Norman has written, it is “what creative people in all disciplines have always done”. So what if it is couched in business-speak and framed as the latest new thing? The key advantage of the concept is that is provides a new timely case for investment in design and, as Norman suggests is ‘A Useful Myth’:

“It positions design in a unique way, forcing companies to view design differently than before. The emphasis on “thinking” makes the point that design is more than a pretty face: it has substance and structure. Design methods can be applied to any problem: organizational structure, factory floors, supply-chain management, business models, and customer interaction.”

The most significant critiques of design thinking focus on two problems: its under-researched nature, and its divorce from aesthetic practices and knowledge. Regarding the first issues, Lucy Kimbell draws our attention to the diverse cultures of practice that we find in design, evolving over time, and involving a variety of actors in various social contexts. She argues for more of a social science perspective in order to both understand this rich landscape of practice, and to help designers address the need to reflexivity which is largely missing from their self-definition:

“By  focusing  on  situated, embodied  material  practices,  rather  than  a  generalized  “design  thinking”,  we  may shift  the  conversation  away  from  questions  of  individual  cognition  or organizational  innovation. Instead,  design  becomes  a  set  of  routines  that emerge  in  context.  Such  explorations  help  clarify  designers’  material  practices.   They  also  force  us  to  decide  if  design  is  a  special  way  of  engaging  with  and acting  on  the  world,  unique  to  designers,  or  shared  by  others  such  as  managers too.”

Cameron Tonkinwise begins his critique by asking what is lost when the thinking is pulled out of design to create a consultancy commodity that can be easily understood, ‘demystified’ and marketed. He is quick with his answer: “aesthetics, by which I mean, anything to do with form-giving, the pleasing appearance and feel of a design.” This is, he argues, very problematic:

“This risks concealing the way in which designing is the designing in, with and of styles; styles that make possible existing and new forms of social practices. Designing is a current economic force when it is most explicitly designing via practical styles, as evidenced by brand-driven and persona-based design. Concealing the practice-oriented nature of styles in design in turn risks restricting design to only those styles to which design education unreflectively seeks to naturalize us.”

Both Kimbell and Tonkinwise, with different emphases, highlight the depoliticised nature of design which design thinking appears to promote. Indeed, this is also the position taken by Nigel Cross, albeit in a less critical way, with his reference to imagination with responsibility.

We can read ‘design thinking’ in a number of ways:

  • Its emergence over the last decade reflects design’s evolution from the physical to the strategic. IDEO manifests past of this shift, but we can also see much evidence in the emergent field of service design, the application of design to healthcare delivery and other public services.
  • It is a useful shorthand term for those methods and processes that enable codesign and collaborative practices. There is not one single ‘true way’ for thinking through design, but a variety of approaches and practices that are evident in different contexts.
  • As a contested territory, it has required practitioners and researchers to reconnect with valuable perspectives and theories which have shaped our views of design over several decades.
  • While design thinking can be applied by managers, communities, users and others to think creatively through problems in a variety of states of ‘wickedness’ this does not remove the need for critically engaged, reflexive professional designers. Indeed it creates a far greater demand for them to act as facilitators, leaders and enablers. They bring the specialist knowledge and ‘feeling’ that is rooted in the aesthetics and craft of design, without which design is ethically unmoored, and creatively soulless.

8 thoughts on “Design thinking

  1. Very good reading!

    I also have seen many designers saying that “design thinking” is just the old fashion design. And maybe it is. The thing is that the field lost the broad and critical sense to became shapers in many smaller fields (graphic, product, digital, etc) defined by the outputs, not by the way they organize ideas to come up with something new.
    For me there are two main differences between, lets say, “regular” design and “design thinking”:
    1 – Research – While regular designers have “a look”, “do some observations” and “get inspired”, design thinkers are able to research in a deeper level and analyzing results in such a way that many times this research approach can become a whole deliverable for a client. Designers are great researchers when they want.
    2 – Prototyping – The “regular” design process will (almost) always put the prototype phase at the end of a project, but under the “design thinking” mood we very often build to think and to research, taking these rough ideas to have a walk with users and gather their feedback.
    (Yeah… it can be seen just as a research method, but I think about as a little more relevant).

    All in all, at least “design thinking” narrow your chances of finding just rubbish when googling for relevant design references.


  2. Reblogged this on Planting T's and commented:
    Interesting overview on design thinking. Also some valid critique in that design thinking is “undertheorised and understudied”. – via Mike Press. Mike’s post includes a fantastic list of related articles and links that can help understand the current landscape of design thinking.

    A major hurdle for design thinking, particularly in education, is the question of how to assess these types of activities. Mike’s blog post popped up on my search for the work of Kay Stables & Richard Kimbell who indroduced some creative research and assessment ideas in their paper that can be found here: . (No…not THAT Richard Kimbell from the movie The Fugitive)

    Mike’s post and the linked paper are worth a read, particularly if you are curious about the assessment research being done in the design thinking space.

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