The design process isn’t the problem. You are the problem

(harsh, but true)

This debate keeps cropping up like a seasonal virus. Once again, I encountered a bit of chatter across the internet and amongst practitioners on the ol’ topic that design thinking  has failed to live up to its hype. This is a post explaining why I believe these reoccurring debates flare up, and why they continuously reignite.

I am in a pretty unique position. I have experience and perspective as both a design academic and design practitioner. In research I spent four years as more or less an observer; watching the design process from afar in order to elevate insights which may be buried in the day to day that often robs us of adequate reflection. As a researcher, I forgot just how much crap there is to wade through when neck deep in the detail.

I don’t mean this to sound negative. The crap I am talking about is the everyday: the admin, the mundane, the mess of life that day-to-day work seems to generate. Throw in budgets and tight timeframes and we barely have space in our brain to remember where we parked the car in a given day.

Two states of design thinking

There are two manifestations of design thinking and design practice; internalised (lone) design thinking and externalised design thinking that manifests collectively and collaboratively from a group. I wrote a bit about collaborative design thinking in my thesis, and this is certainly where much of the discussion about the practice of design thinking is situated. What intrigues me is that there is a lot of writing on the benefits of adopting design/thinking, equally as many articles against design thinking, yet little has been discussed about the specific reasons why design thinking may not work.

Most often when things are mysterious, intangible and elusive like design thinking, it helps much more to know what design thinking is not in order to understand what it is. Here is my take on the topic.

 

The 5 commandments on how to kill design thinking (and obliterate innovation)

1. Formalise the process

The generic framework of the design process (discover, define, develop, deliver) and its many variations is a great way to try to articulate the process designers adopt in their practice. I don’t believe these stages were ever meant to be applied in a strict, orderly fashion, because for most designers the interaction between each phase is not clear cut and can often intuitively swirl back and forth. Yet, I have witnessed many designers and design teams within organisations cut clear deadlines and metrics against each phase which hinders much organic growth.

It is understandable that when presenting design to a client or upper management who are not familiar with the process one becomes tempted to report against fixed phases. This makes you look like you have direction and status metrics by which you can report on a regular basis. But most often than not, this formality robs creativity, adaptation, experimentation and discovery-particularly in novice teams. It not only sets a precedent and expectation that design is predictable, fixed and linear, but it also sets a cultural tone that you cannot step outside of the square.

 

2. Suffer from Steve Jobs syndrome (or just be an a$$)

Unless you plan to operate as a lone designer, you are single handedly going to kill design thinking in the team you work with with a bad attitude. I am surprised (and annoyed) by how many self-proclaimed design thinkers narrow-mindedly spit on other ideas in favor of their own. And I am not just talking about ideation sessions where you explicitly state that ideation time is to defer judgement. I am surprised about the behaviour around this sacred, creative ‘safe’ ground. A true designer, or design thinker, is open and encouraging. He or she will build upon ideas or at least be open to the possibility and opportunity of an idea no matter how far-fetched. This encouragement and support is what spurs creative ideation, and as time passes on a project, lowers inhibitions amongst members so that the design team can freely climb higher and more innovative pursuits.

 

3. Be uninspired by creative people and ideas

This is often interlinked with the previous point and is probably the most surprising anti-designerly attitude that ails many teams. If you scrunch up your nose at creatively silly ideas, feel embarrassed to laugh at yourself, or shut your mind off from exploring unrelated fields of knowledge and activity, then you are sorely limiting yourself to the mundane. Which is surprising since most individuals working in a design process want to describe themselves as an innovator, entrepreneur or artist. I feel much of this comes down to fear of failure which is perhaps the most destructive mindset…

 

4. Fear failure

I have argued many, MANY, times that fear of failure is the absolute kryptonite to a designerly approach. This fear is also the kryptonite to your success in life, in general. This is why a design approach is liberating for many- it allows, encourages and accepts risk and knows that risk often results in failure. Failure is a good thing, it equals strength and knowledge. Failure helps you make decisions just as much as success does (and is a better teacher at it). Often fear is propagated within a team due to the issues described above and in conjunction with the understandable anxiety around reputation, job security, and the like. If your boss or organisation does not support and understand that the design process is not a one track trick to success- that it also actively encourages failure- then you need to step back and ask yourself if the culture is ripe for the implementation of a design approach.

 

5. Put all of your expectation into a designerly approach

expectation is the root of all heartache

-a really cool guy from the 1600s

The design process won’t save you. It is not a panacea, and it is naive to assume that it will be the saviour of your troubled business and/or project. This is perhaps why i never understood the continuous debate over the success/failure of a design approach. No model, method or fad to emerge will ever be the answer- it is knowing when and in what context that a method will best achieve the desired outcome. This is why we have experienced design professionals and consultants whom understand if the characteristics and strengths of a design approach will be suitable towards the context and project at hand. Thought needs to be taken when deciding whether to use one approach or another, and design thinking is no exception to this consideration.

 

The Jerry Springer ending

I’ll admit that as a researcher I took design thinking for granted. I believed so much in the process of design and design thinking that I lost sight of the fact that design is incredibly delicate and sensitive. Sensitive to people’s attitudes, behaviour and application. A designerly approach in itself is not the answer; design needs the right people to manifest the qualities that so many business professionals admire. In either the midst of the meta through academic research, or distracted by the detail in practice, we have lost sight of the real fragility of design thinking.

but hey, what do i know

 

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