I have read many articles over the past year on design thinking and realised that we need a bit of a reality check. Articles on design thinking are just that- articles- and articles are often embellished opinions. Some are more informed than others, but the rest (at this moment) are too busy butting heads in hope that they will conquer.
Which makes sense considering there is money to be made off design thinking right now, and many are trying to cash in on the fad. I use the word ‘fad’ here because design thinking, throughout this recent wave, has been supported purely by hype than strong empirical evidence.
Why? Design thinking is still trying to find its feet. We are still in the stage of trying to determine who coined what, who’s who and what it actually is. With any new arrival of a process and way of thinking, many competitors come out of the woodwork to fight their position in the battle ground, debating who has ownership rights (or cashing rights) to pin their flag firmly in its fertile soil. It is safe to say that we can thank IDEO for popularising, or rather, realising and advertising the potential in this new form of development. Since IDEO pushed design thinking into the forefront of innovation, practitioners, academics, scholars, professors and designers have all crawled out of the woodwork to claim their piece of the design thinking pie. It has resulted in a royal mess, with arguments thrown about by every tom, dick and his dog as to why design thinking is or is not associated with design.
Before I get into the core of these debates, I want to highlight what we know as being hard, undeniable facts on design thinking to date:
The Facts – As we know it:
Fact #1. All propaganda supporting design thinking has been written based on opinions through mediums such as (personal) blogs, magazines, websites and books- none of which are peer reviewed. This means that fundamentally, what is being written is very much biased opinions based on personal motives under no external scrutiny.
Fact #2. Almost all material writing about what design thinking actually is, has had some bias towards personal career. This means those who come from a business background will write about how design thinking is great for business, likewise those who argue DT is not about design (or designers) do not come from design backgrounds. This is a territory war, and one that is (for the most part) about advocating DT in perspective from personal career motives. Why would someone from a design background argue design thinking is not about design, similarly, why someone from a social science background argue it is entirely about the unique talent of designers?
Fact #3. Without any proper, empirical literature/study on design thinking, most of the fundamental literature academics and practitioners turn to don’t actually explicitly come from the field of design. Interesting!
Fact #4. The fundamental literature used by academics come from areas such as policy design, architecture, cognitive science and engineering. The term, in these disciplines, was coined not as a reference to the discipline as we know it today, but as a description of the process of resolving (wicked) problems.
Fact #5. Design by definition (thanks Websters dictionary) is described as:
and even more interesting under examples and synonyms….
Which within this broad perspective, can be applied to every day life. This (verb) ‘doing’ definition is what fundamental literature (fact #4) was referring to- not designers and their prototypes or sketches. Somehow along the way, we read into the word ‘design’ too literally to mean design-ers and the design discipline, which then began a wave of literature exploring how designers design and what process they undertake.
But if you look at this process objectively, it is a fundamental step towards human evolution and one we all do both consciously and unconsciously every day. So it is natural that almost everyone has claimed to some degree to be a ‘design thinker’ or to be doing ‘design thinking’ and for others to argue it is not about designers or design. So why did we adopt this term, and not others, such as architecture thinking or planning thinking or strategic thinking?
Using the synonyms above, we could substitute design for plan, intend or aim. It just so happens that the word design best describes both a process towards a planned intention or desired outcome. This can be applied universally and independently of any type of discipline. So if this is the case, then how has design thinking lasted so long as an advocation of designers way of thinking?
1. As the fundamental literature (not related to design field) evolved towards design literature, more papers were exploring the ‘designers logic’ or ‘designerly way of thinking’. This muddled both the objective use of the term (from other industries) with attempts of finding direct examples (from the design industry) into a quasi theory of logic that is neither here (designer) or there (everyone else). We are currently stuck at the cross road of defining design thinking as a designerly logic posessed by designers, or as a fundamental process towards desired goals.
2. In both areas of literature, design is spoken about as a process. This is inherent as it is defined as planning with aim and intent. So what exactly is this process and how is it designerly or not? Right now, we are fighting between using designers logic to express this process and the general logic of man (which is essentially hard to define). We have to point to a source and say: ‘that is what design is about’ and this is where all other disciplines have a say.
My attempt to conceive an impartial and objective rationale:
My opinion and theory on this subject (in an attempt to come to some sort of resolution) is that the term ‘design’ was used not just as an objective description of human intentions to achieve desired goals, outcomes, and needs, but that this process is instinctively non-linear and a non-linear process is the fundamental process method of resolution in the field of design. Design as an industry is the most obvious reflection of the primitive and instinctive nature of design as a basic process to reach desired goals. Yes, architects, businessman, anthropologists, scientists and artists can argue they all do it. Everyone of us performs the act of design to a certain degree in our work and personal lives, but the best and most blindingly obvious example of individuals who actively and reflectively perform this process, and which the process is fundamental to their work, is exemplified in designing. Designers reflect and repeat this proces every day, they are most ‘in tune’ to their actions as they need to actively engage and reflect on their process to perform their work. Can you argue business men or sociologists put as much mental effort and reflection into the ‘design’ process as much as designers do?
This does not mean that all designers are good at the design process, or with enough reflection, business types couldn’t achieve the same critical understanding of the design process. This is ground where we also find different professionals arguing. I would like to add, that it is not a matter of design thinking being designer centric, or about designers being in sole possession of this intuitive gift that no one else could comprehend, it is just a matter of fact that designers engage in this mentality every day. Most designers over time, have developed an intuition on the process- this takes practice and development. Just like there are talented musicians who can pick up an instrument without any prior teaching or understanding, there are individuals-non designers- who ‘get’ design thinking, and there are designers who may never get it at all. But speaking in general terms and for the mass, businessmen and others who are used to certainty and linear logical development struggle to adopt and perform design thinking naturally. This is why the most successful (or commonly known) design thinkers are designers who are comfortable and familiar with this logic through everyday practice. This also has been enabled because these designers can support themselves through successful projects that they can claim exemplify design thinking, as opposed to theorists who argue against the ‘designer-centric’ but have no industry or empirical practice to support their claims.
BUT! The funny part is…
The irony in todays situation is that design thinking has not evolved according to its own process. Self proclaimed design thinkers have jumped from highlighting a problem to proposing a solution- with no iterative development in between analysing whether their methods and tools really work in industry or not. We have just jumped eagerly with trust that what is being sold to us comes with a lifetime warranty. I find it disturbing that not many individuals have asked for research and evidence on what it is exactly that makes design thinking ‘successful’. And without any research or evidence supporting this method, we are merely throwing around opinions and theories and jeopardising what could potentially be a valuable aid in development in different industries (notice i did not say INNOVATION but development). Design is about desired development, not waving magic wands. If we don’t start to critically analyse our own methods with support of research, DT will be walking the plank to drown in a sea of failed fads. We won’t get there however, until we settle the turf war and can objectively evaluate ourselves. It may threaten those wanting to make a buck, but it will save a lot more heartache and finger pointing from future failures.