Design Thinking: What's In A Name?

Design thinking. It's both an accurate descriptor and an unfortunately loaded term. And because of the broad use of the term design, it’s not a particularly helpful phrase when trying to explain an incredibly useful approach to problem solving. So why use it at all?

Because, as they say, "it does what it says on the tin".

I like using the term design thinking, as it is about as accurate a description of how I believe we should approach the process of solving problems – wonderfully complex problems, at that.

But there's a problem. Like it or not, for most people the term design evokes a meaning aligned only to the look or aesthetic of some thing, like clothes or furniture. Design is those things, but this narrow definition has led to a blurring as to what 'design' is really about.

If we pull design thinking apart, we can more easily see it’s meaning as a whole.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “design” as: [the] purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.

In it’s simplest terms, design is anticipating an outcome and having a plan on how to achieve it. That may sound complex, but we do this everyday with even the most mundane activities imaginable.

Ask yourself, how did you get to work today? Your method of transportation was most likely based on several factors, such as convenience, weather, and any activities you needed to complete on the way. You didn’t just appear at your desk – you anticipated a way to get there, accommodating a range of factors such as: will it rain?; is it rush hour?; do I need to pick up something along the way?; do I need a place to sit due to a weekend injury playing sport?

We are always, even subconsciously, anticipating outcomes. We are always designing. (Hey, that means we are all designers!).

The OED describes 'thinking' as: the process of considering or reasoning about something.

Thinking is consideration and reasoning. It’s what’s behind design as a process. It’s what transforms our ability to just anticipate an outcome into an ability to build a useful and significant outcome.

So, when we say design thinking, what we are really talking about is an approach to using critical reasoning to build really meaningful and important results. I think we'd all agree that is a great goal to aspire to.

Why is this important?

It's important because if we don't employ critical thinking in our work, even with the mundane stuff (especially the mundane stuff), we often end up doing things that ignore creating value for the people who use and purchase our products and services. We slowly start requiring our customers to accommodate us rather than using our scale and expertise to come up with creative and profitable ways to accommodate them. If you've ever had to deal with a utility company, you know what I'm talking about.

Critical thinking, or design thinking, challenges our assumptions and helps us focus on what is actually important. And what's important always has to do with our customers (hey, without customers, we have absolutely no business, no revenue, and no purpose). If you no longer know how what you do day to day makes a customer's world amazing and engaging, you should take a moment to step back and critically assess whether you are doing the right things.

So, ultimately, does it matter what we call ? Actually, no. But it is good to have a common language to describe shared meaning. And with the term 'design thinking', the meaning is pretty close to the surface.