Design Thinking: Bringing Everyone to the Table

Design Thinking is a term many of us have been using loosely for years and reflects an integral part of design practice. The term has lately been gaining a lot of traction in business and management circles, and is more frequently appearing in books, articles and conferences. However, 'design thinking' has been taking a real battering lately, as people debate the term's meaning and function, especially as it is promoted to new, non-design audiences.

Design Thinking
Design Thinking

Some in the design community don't see what the big deal is. They ask, what's so new or special about the thing that we do intuitively and almost unconsciously as designers? Why is 'design thinking' being called out and artificially separated from the rest of our design activities?

Other designers are concerned with the implication of elevating and codifying a thought process. Once we make our definitions or our way of working too rigid and formulaic, aren't we in danger of losing the plot? Or more fearfully, aren't designers at risk of "giving away the store" if we share our methods and techniques with non-designers?

There's a lot of angst and churn in the online boards where I've seen design thinking discussed (fastcompany.com, designsojourn.com). Some in the business community also take issue, arguing that designers don't have any special ownership over the kind of thinking process that leads to creative solutions and innovation. People outside of design have been doing this for decades. Surely there is not a type of thinking that is unique to one discipline or field?

'Design thinking' seems to have different interpretations in various forums and communities, but the moniker generally attempts to capture a mindset and attitude as much as any specific set of mental exercises or behaviours. That mindset is one of openness and curiosity, with the intention of learning and making new connections. It is also a mindset that embraces ambiguity and relishes the challenge of novel situations and subject matters. Design thinking is also strongly associated to the methodology of design process itself, particularly the front end of that process. It includes the way that we explore and situate problems and the people and perspectives we seek out as voices in the process.

In the past year there have been some important attempts to capture the value and nuances of design thinking by some of the big names in design and business. Roger Martin, for example, advocates for design thinking in his book The Design of Business. Martin has long been encouraging business people to become designers, and he sees design thinking as a critical capability for creating sustainable business value. Tim Brown also talks about design thinking in his book, Change By Design, and presents it as a systematic approach to innovation. Add to this countless articles in HBR, Business Week, the Design Management Journal, and the New York Times, to name a few.

All this has been helping to generate quite a buzz around the topic of design thinking. But design thinking isn't really all that new. What's new is that the business world is sitting up and paying attention. Peter Senge talked about something akin to design thinking with his systems thinking approach and the concept of the learning organisation in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, so what we would characterise as 'design thinking' is really not a new concept for business people. And of course, Herb Simon re-framed design as the central activity for management in Sciences of the Artificial in 1969. Design thinking's been around for a while, but it seems that the moment has come for people to begin to see relevance in design thinking for problems that sit outside the normal domain of designers: management, organisations, government.

As for the hype, design thinking has come heavily into relevance because there is more and more attention being paid to the way that design approaches can bring about successful outcomes in a range of situations that wouldn't be considered the traditional realm of design. Design consultancies are moving into the realm of business and organizational problems, and many management consultants and educators are adopting design methods.

For me, the importance of 'design thinking' has less to do with the particulars of what it is. It has more to do with the particulars of what it does. One of its most important features is that design thinking allows groups of people (design teams, organisations) to think together.

We shouldn't see design thinking as a thought bubble that appears over a designer's head, or even a dozen thought bubbles that appear over a dozen designers' heads. Design thinking is the one big thought bubble that appears over all the heads, because it represents a shared generative process of exploration and conceptualisation. Design thinking is a cultural activity. Its meaning and value are situated in the social experience of designing.

Not Design Thinking
Not Design Thinking

When we try to start problem-solving as a group, either as a design team in a studio developing new products, or as a project team in a large corporation working on value creation opportunities in a new customer segment, or as a group of experts working with government policy, we quickly run into problems when we all utilise our own instinctive problem solving processes independently. Design thinking is a way of establishing a shared language and practice and a way of forging new behaviours.

Many argue that "thinking" cannot or should not be separated from design "doing", but in doing so, we are attempting to isolate an important but often obscured aspect of design activity. The thinking component encapsulates things like establishing purpose, intent, and strategy—things that precede the practical components of design but are nonetheless big factors in the ultimate success of any designed solution. In an organisational context, these things carry even greater weight for the number of stakeholders and the level of authority required for input. Before we even get to the point of sketching potential concepts, there is a body of divergent mental work that we have to do to ensure that we grasp the totality of the problem, and in fact, that we even grasp the right problem.

I would argue that what really makes design thinking useful and powerful is that design thinking is what allows groups of people to make something together. Designers are truly some of the best collaborators out there, and design thinking is a big part of why, or how, collaboration works.

So all the hype—I'm glad to see it. I hope it helps to expand the number of people who see design as something relevant to themselves and their world. Designers need to relax and stop worrying about sharing their trade secrets or opening up their practice space to non-designers. There's definitely enough problems in the world to keep us all busy as design thinkers.