What Is Design Thinking Anyway?

What Is Design Thinking Anyway?

Is know-how threatening to win out over intuition and inspiration? Robin Lanahan, Director Brand Strategy, New Product Incubation at Microsoft, traces the evolution of the contemporary creative process.

Robin Lanahan
  • 9 june 2012

This topic is being heavily debated in the design and innovation circles I’ve been traveling in lately.  Some feel we need to be thinking more before we make anything at all while others say we need to focus on making, and stop spending so much time torturing ourselves over words on a page that say what we plan to do.

‘Design thinking’ is defined as “the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.” Intuitively it makes sense to want to understand the people and the world you are designing for before you make something, and insight in itself is not a dead concept, so why all the debate around whether design thinking is dead or alive?

Experiences In Visual Thinking-Robert McKim

The idea of design thinking is decades old and it’s similar to systems thinking in Peter Senge’s terms in that its naming an approach to understanding and solving problems.  The term emerged in the 80’s with the rise of human-centered design.  The lore is Robert McKim’s book “Experiences in Visual Thinking” influenced Rolf Faste’s teaching at Stanford which popularized the term and was adapted for business by IDEO’s David Kelley. Design thinking is said to encourage divergent thinking to ideate many solutions (possible or impossible) and then uses convergent thinking to show preference, and realize the best resolution.  It’s a process based around the building up of ideas without judgments. All this said, in the last decade it’s been so abstracted, it’s hard to tell what it currently is.

Perhaps design thinking has become a crutch in companies wanting more science to back up the art– those looking for data to ensure their decisions are right or needing ‘frameworks’ to check the box on their annual reviews.  A rigorous approach to design thinking seems to provide data, but is it bringing about real insight and ultimately new ideas?  Or is the process simply draining the energy out of the things we are making?

Big organizations tend to want to turn a lens into a process that “works” every time. Like the assembly line. Design thinking is a way of seeing, just as a story is a way of seeing.  It is not meant to be the only way. Like any lens it emphasizes some things and diminishes others. The trick is to have lots of ways of seeing and embrace them all, but this goes against the need for a predictable process. Unless according to my husband, Brian, you call the process “it depends.”

A favorite collaborator, Marc Shillum from experience design firm Method, pointed out the irony that really thoughtful design came out of the pre ‘design thinking’ age and really commercial design has come post.  He’s a fan of a more iterative process that involves periods of strategic insight and moments of free creativity and making–the kind of process used by Walt Disney and Buckminster Fuller.  Now if we can avoid giving it a name and a formula, it might work.

I look at the work I did in the earlier days of my career at Wieden + Kennedy and how that process, or lack there-of, produced amazingly resonant work be it a Nike commercial or a new soda for Coca- Cola (OK). The great creative minds will be the great creative minds with or without any planning or process.  Adding too much structure and process to creativity seems intuitively wrong, as does writing decks about what you’ll create instead of rapidly prototyping products and experiences.  Maybe the engineers can take a lesson from the designers and copywriters and learn to rely more on intuition and inspiration and less on data and information?

You can join the debate at the DMI (Design Management Institute) conference on Balancing Extremes: the Tensions in Design, June 19 & 20 in Portland.

Balancing Extremes: the Tensions in Design


Fitness Advocate: Paving The Future of Workouts With Audio

Fitness & Sport
Brand Development Yesterday

Swipe Left On A Dating World Built To Keep You Single And Disconnected

Hinge's VP of Marketing Karen Fein tells us about the service's daring ditch of the swiping culture that's designed to attract advertising revenue, not meaningful connections

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Marvel Comic Tells The Story Of A Heroic Syrian Mother

Madaya Mom is the true tale of a family trapped inside a town for over a year


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Retail Yesterday

Brooklyn Cafe Lets Customers Pay By The Hour, Not By The Cup

Glasshour is an establishment that provides free coffee and pastries and charges for the time guests spend there

Technology Yesterday

Electric Spoon Changes The Way Food Tastes

The Taste Buddy is being developed to manipulate your taste buds and make everything more delicious

Related Expert

Rodrigo Niño

Crowdfunding Real Estate

Travel Yesterday

Bike Path In Poland Can Glow For 20 Years Using Solar Power

Cyclists can follow the shimmering blue lanes for better safety each time they ride

Technology Yesterday

Open-Source Toolkit Lets Communities Build Their Own Street Furniture

The Wikiblock database contains 30 blueprints of different neighborhood fixtures including benches, bus stops, and kiosks

Food Yesterday

Tiny Pub Only Has Space For Three People

Make Time For It is a small London pop-up bar that encourages conversation without the distraction of technology


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed Yesterday

Community Builder: How to Hack Slack

Claire Wasserman, Founder of Ladies Get Paid, describes how she's using an internal team communication tool to build a network of thousands

PSFK Labs october 21, 2016

PSFK Picks: Top 5 Performance-Enhancing Wearables

Our new report looks at innovations pioneering the future of performance through intelligent activewear and predictive analytics

Advertising Yesterday

This Beer Was Brewed Just For Scotch Drinkers

Highland Park Scotch Whisky & Sixpoint Brewery have teamed up to create two limited-edition pairings for New York City boilermakers

Mobile Yesterday

Let An AI Librarian Help Sort Your Digital Bookmarks

A new app uses machine learning to help organize your virtual life

Mobile Yesterday

Pizza Hut Tattoo Lets You Place An Order From Your Body

The latest gimmick from the fast-food chain is a tattoo-like sticker that lets customers get delivery with a simple tap on their arm

Travel Yesterday

Reinvented Bicycle Inspired By Supercar Design

The yellow bike based on a Lamborghini has sharp edges and an aluminum alloy frame

Health Yesterday

Health Platform Gives Perspective On Your Weekly Habits

Gyroscope is a new wellness app that works by amalgamating data about your life into beautifully designed visuals

Beauty Yesterday

Korean Beauty Brand Uses VR To Let Customers Pick Their Ingredients

Innisfree created a unique experience for its Shanghai Disneyland customers with a virtual reality trip to select what goes into their purchase

Arts & Culture Yesterday

3D-Printed Creations Resemble Floating Paper Outlines

Japanese design firm Nendo's exhibition features works that look like sheets of material being folded, torn, and crumpled

Technology october 21, 2016

Concept Camera Designed To Only Take Unique Photos

Camera Restricta is tool that prompts photographers to only capture one-of-a-kind images

No search results found.