Thursday, 7 April 2011

Design thinking - does it exist?

'Design thinking' seems to have emerged as a term over the last few years, creeping up on us and becoming mainstream before anybody has really worked out whether it is needed, or even valid.  This has happened before, and we had it for example with: innovation (as in: I have arranged my pens on my desk in an innovative way), creative industries (now well and truly destroyed by Richard Florida's position that these industries even include lawyers!), urban resilience (this one is breaking news, apparently).  Can you think of some more?  These terms feel right but tend to be very vague.  It seems that there are two interpretations now for design thinking:
  • Designers bringing their methods into business - by either taking part themselves in business process, or training business people to use design methods.
  • Designers achieving innovative outputs, for example: 'the iPod is a great example of design thinking', or 'hey, excellent design thinking dude!'
Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO seems to be oscillating between the two interpretations, possibly depending on his audience but also I suspect due to the fuzziness around the term.

Design researchers like the term because it gives them an area to research.  Designers like it because it conveys that somehow they have a few black arts that business people could learn from, or pay for.  The press like it because it gives them something tangible to say that a designer brings into play when creating something, fixing the problem of the public thinking designers lounge around all day and knock out the odd doodle.  Design thinking sounds like work, it sounds hard and it sounds important.

But is it the emperor's new clothes?  We don't talk about architecture thinking, or art thinking, so why design thinking?  And being actively engaged in research, I'm also very aware that the various methods that designers use, either tacit or explicit, or not unique to the young discipline.  An enlightened business person will use brainstorming techniques just as well as a spreadsheet.

I think in the end that what matters is creative collaboration, where a multidisciplinary team shares the benefits of the skillsets, experience and attitudes.


  1. Thanks for the post Tom!
    I'm embarrassed to turn to Wikipedia AGAIN to learn something. Quote: "Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the "building up" of ideas." {}
    The Wikipedia entry goes on to describe design thinking as an alternative to analytical thinking. Design thinking accommodates failure as a matter of course and is based on an iterative and participatory process. Implied here in my view is that design thinking might exist as a technique used by people outside the realm of what we consider traditional designers.
    The design thinking process is lot like I'd imagine a creative collaboration to feel like! At this point in time there is no Wikipedia entry for the design buzz term "creative collaboration". Not for long!

  2. So.. Wikipedia equates design thinking with creative problem solving and 'thinking outside the box', and somehow the opposite of analytical thinking, but it then sets out a prescriptive 7 step design thinking process - do you really have to get to step 7 before you are allowed to learn?!? Wikipedia throws in a mention of 'cognition' for good measure. I'm unconvinced: I think the entry must have been by a theorist.

  3. Yeah - A good observation Tom. Fancy - 7 steps to thinking outside the box! Hilarious.
    Can you please do a post on "creative collaboration"?

  4. Ever since learning the ideals of 'design thinking', in the simplest term, I consider it as 'practical thinking'. Being able to understand that problem then coming up with a process to solve it. In a way, calling it 'design thinking' is just a fancy way of putting it. The key word is indeed "creative collaboration"

  5. Interesting. 'Practical thinking' captures the applied aspect, but not the dreamy, visionary, impulsive, intuitive, or willful attributes of creative design. I have been roused to at least make a start at amending the wikipedia entry but it is still very poor - a deletion may be better, though fixing it is more challenging and productive.

  6. I appreciate the term ‘Design thinking’. It feels that something is not well cooked in this pie. It looks good, smells so delicious with all those gourmet ingredients... My mouth is so watery now, but what about if we put some mash potatoes, mash pees, brazed onions and some gravy on top? And we could even finish-up with Worcestershire (Lea & Perrins) sauce and a bit of black pepper… eating casually by the water, that could be special!!

  7. I wonder if the brain works differently for design thinking? Is it different to the way artists brains work when painting or making sculpture, or the way a mathematicians or physicians might work? We should do a brain scan study! Or maybe we will just find the ego part of the brain is activated during design processes...

  8. Design Thinking. Two beautiful terms brought together. No doubts regarding the Thinking part. But, Design? It is still in process to find its meaning. The real answer of what design means has been evolving for ages. It is changing all the time, with new terms, new ideas, it is so broad and yet, quite specific. It is a living thing!
    Above all, it is an amazing concept, an amazing idea; it is the ultimate concept for "perfect". One thing is that design is meant (designed) to interact at interdisciplinary levels unlike some others professions. It encompasses so many things such as Science, Art, Engineer, Architecture, Accounting, users, etc, etc, etc. Even food and brain scanning. I personally love this characteristic in designers and what makes it so interesting to be a designer, a Design Thinker!