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Graphic by Dean Meyers

What the Hell is Design Thinking?

Written By Nikki Clark | Apr 25, 2017

Around 10 years ago, the phrase “design thinking” started gaining a lot of traction as the secret behind highly successful, design-led companies like Apple. This was good for designers — new positions opened up, design managers were given a seat at the table to discuss business decisions, and we saw an increased understanding of design as a practice. Major players like Ideo, Stanford, and the Nielsen Norman Group put their figurative hats in the ring with design thinking seminars and curricula.

Were we really so bold as to try and take credit for the skill of “problem solving?”

But despite the warm reception, the idea was puzzling to many already working as professional designers. The core tenants of design thinking — evaluating problems holistically and testing iteratively — were things most designers already did every day. Like many, I couldn’t understand why the industry was touting it as if it were some new invention — were designers not thinking prior to this? Were we really so bold as to try and take credit for the skill of “problem solving?” Were we just trying to rebrand the word “design”?

Some of that is true. But I also believe now that there’s more to it. The real magic of design thinking is in its ability to answer civic and cultural problems we’re not otherwise capable of solving. Teaching design thinking to non-designers, those actually in positions to address some of these problems, is a vital step towards realizing what design is truly capable of.

Design thinking is not for designers.

The first thing we should make abundantly clear is that design thinking and professional design work are two very different things.

Without this, it’s easy for designers to get defensive when faced with the “everyone’s a designer” ethos of design thinking. Some designers worry that it will cause coworkers or clients to underestimate their expertise, or misunderstand the work they actually do — a completely valid claim. On the other hand, there’s no real reason for designers to even worry about this: practicing design thinking and working as a professional designer are fundamentally at odds with one another.

The fact that most professional designers work under deadlines and budgets means that a truly open explorative exercise, like design thinking, can’t take root and flourish. By its nature, design thinking may lead to many paths that would not make profit. While some for-profit companies may be willing to entertain ideas that don’t immediately make profit, many aren’t. The business needs of profit and growth can add insidious bias to a design thinking exercise. It’s easy for money to warp design thinking into something that looks much more like the pointed, driven directions most professional designers already practice. So design thinking, when used in for-profit companies, often just becomes design.

Brian Ling wrote an excellent piece on his experience of the breakdown of design thinking in a for-profit enterprise:

“As design thinking moved closer across the chasm to the business, it further evolved and started to inherit the problems that businesses so hoped that design thinking would solve and move beyond…design thinking’s consumer focused methodology was used to validate rather than predict. We were now asking consumers “What Next”, instead of leading with compelling and meaningful solutions. As a result, we just kept on optimizing rather than innovating.”

Even if it wasn’t difficult for most designers to practice it, design thinking skills alone aren’t enough to work as a professional designer. Creative ideation is just one part of the job — most designers must also be good communicators, organizers, strategists, and collaborators. So design thinking is a tool, but it’s one of many needed to work as a designer. It could be relegated this way if we hadn’t stumbled upon the realization that the same tool, in someone else’s hands, can be very powerful.

So what is it good for?

Consider what design thinking could lead to if we taught it to people without for-profit blinders—the people who actually have the power to holistically address systemic problems.

Consider the problems that could be addressed, ones that the largely homogeneous block of designers aren’t even aware of, if design thinking was taught to people who don’t think like us.

Consider that designers aren’t the best people to solve every problem.

Consider what design thinking could evolve into if we let the idea itself be iterated on and prototyped.

In Tim Brown’s Change by Design, he argues that the next major step in design history is to “put these tools into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as designers and apply them to a vastly greater range of problems.” If we truly believe that design can make the world a better place, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to give it to those already working toward that change?

Many have already begun this major undertaking. Emi Kolawole developed a curriculum while at Stanford that pairs the important tools of a design-thinking learning experience with the challenge of raising unconscious bias awareness. Jennifer Brandel promotes a design thinking-inspired media cycle that works better for the media and the people consuming it. Richard Culatta and Sandy Speicher reimagined what the college educational experience might look like if we empowered universities to design their student’s experiences. Carissa Carter, Mark Grundberg, Mario Lugay, and Stacey Gray of Stanford’s hosted a design thinking workshop to encourage civic engagement after the 2016 election, and freely released the format for anyone to use or modify. And for each of these talented people, there are many others working to share design thinking with the civic leaders and activists poised to best make changes around the globe.

Design thinking has the power to change things for the better, but not if we’re the only ones holding on to it. Lets reframe design thinking as a gift that we can give to our communities, and maybe we’ll even find a greater appreciation for design as a practice along the way.

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