Design thinking will never die.

Posted on April 19, 2011


In reaction to Bruce Nussbaum’s articlein Fast Company recently…I can’t disagree more. I find more than a few problems with the whole notion that design thinking as an “experiment” has failed us and Bruce, as he states, is moving on…to his next book. See ya.

First. Experiment? My career is an experiment, on an existential level I think “Whoa that’s rad.” On the other hand it terrifies me. This is how I have solved problems for almost 20 years now, to find out it’s all been an experiment? Is a hammer and nail an experiment for a carpenter? No. I full-heartedly believe in design thinking and believe the real problem lies in the current seeming mis-definition of the phrase. I applaud Bruce, for stating up front that he was peddling a new book…in fact if it had been released I believe there would have been a link to Amazon and possibly an ISBN for good measure.

Let’s face it, the world is hell bent on productizing everything. Certain critics and consultants recent attempts to make companies believe that they could teach any organization to think and act like a designer is what has failed, not design thinking. It’s un-realistic to believe the way in which designers solve problems everyday, could be systematically transferred to an HR group or exec staff and hope that in the midst of them running a business, hiring and firing, and making the widgets they make, they could think and act like designers at every moment is unrealistic. And like when Ice-T said “We gangs of L.A. will never die…”, neither will design thinking, at least not to the formal practitioners of it.

So what is “design thinking”? Well one thing it is not, is not a fucking product. It sure as shit can’t be bought or sold. And it doesn’t come in a neat little package. Hell, it’s not even a process, because for design thinking to really work it must adapt to each and every situation. So unless the problem is the same every time…some hard baked process just won’t work. Design thinking seems to have been saddled with the same misleading intentions and definitions that “brand” or “branding” has recently seen. Brand or branding can mean so much (or so little) to the un-trained…but it sure as hell isn’t a logo, or a website, singularly. We all know that now. But design thinking, it seems still needs some clarification.

Design thinking IS a methodology for solving problems. That’s what designers do. Designers solve problems through design thinking, whether it’s condensing a businesses intent into a single signal, like a logo or a mark to a complex multi-channel communication platform in 5 languages. From the seemingly simple to the palpably complex, designers use design thinking to arrive at defendable solutions. Design thinking as a methodlology is reasoning paired with creativity and invention justified by criteria and conditions. In short design thinking is just the way designers think every day. It is a craft. It is how we reason, justify and arrive at solutions. For example if a CEO engaged with my firm to help his organization to reach more customers, my route to attaining that goal would very different than say the route taken by a traditional marketer. And more than likely vastly different than say someone from a sales background. Design thinkers need to understand all these positions and factor them in additionally the route to reasoning and solving the problem. Design thinking enables us to see bigger and focus more.

You can’t expect to drop a powerpoint and an org chart off on a desk and expect a company to be able to think like designers instantly and consistently. not because the uninitiated are dumb or incapable. Simply because it takes a focused, daily dedication to leverage design thinking, most folks simply dont have the want or need to live 2 lives simultaneously (that is unless you’re a crappy Michael Keaton movie). Just as carpenters look at the world though a lens framed by their experience and knowledge of materials, they go to work everyday to solve problems most with a degree of craft that is acquired only after constant, persistent effort. Real designers work hard as hell everyday to exactly the same intent.

Design thinking IS a catalyst for solving problems. By definition a catalyst causes reactions that result in change. Design thinking is asking questions that cause reactions, those reactions we document, remember, cherish and ultimately leverage, as they become the change designers are hired to bring. Knowing how and what questions to ask intuitively and experientially is design thinking. It is the catalyst that causes designers to tirelessly look at all the options (over and over and over again) and enables us to explore the boundaries of the criteria.

Above all design thinking is the sum total crystallization of learning, discovery and understanding of the conditions of a particular problem or set of problems that ultimately leads to defendable, useful and engaging solutions. Design thinking as a drop off or salable thing is a falsehood perpetuated by critics, consultants and peddlers of the latest and greatest, get rich quick, lose weight fast and other schemes of the moment. It was never intended to be used by non-design professionals as a sure-fire 12 step program to fix companies. Anyone can hammer 2 pieces of wood together. But a carpenter exists to prove thier craft everyday in an effort to make things out of wood, better. Employing design thinking is a craft and a discipline performed by experienced practitioners who exist to solve problems everyday. That’s why I am here. And I’ll be here long after the next marketing fad and it’s wake of books, solving problems. Design thinking is alive and well and making awesome happen everyday.

(This message brought to you by the art of the run on sentence, his friends bad punctuation and potentially errant spelling).