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.

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

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