Thinking about Design Thinking

Why design thinking is important

Design thinking is a term that is many things to different people. For some designers it has undermined the perception of their own skill and approaches as a professional. For businesses it promises innovation and the ability to increase market share and company growth. For other disciplines, it’s an opportunity to poke fun at a wall full of post-it notes and innovation-centric, fluffy jargon.

As a classically trained designer (with both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in design, which equated to seven years of training) I view it as both a blessing and a curse. It has enabled myself and other designers to engage in more diverse situations and contexts then previously possible, with more people people wanting to create useful, usable products and services and valuing what designerly approaches can bring to the table.

One of the challenges (and potentially positive aspects) of design thinking is the spectrum of people who engage with it. This ranges from those who are well-educated in design practices, to those experienced in broader innovation methods, through to the inexperienced who are eager to learn new approaches to the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Consequently, design thinking is practiced erratically, by people with a minimal amount of experience or training, and it can be taught in the same way. This is damaging not only to those who constantly strive to develop and evolve design-led approaches, but to also to the broader profession and practice.

Looking at many design, innovation or management consultants websites, there is inevitably an image of people looking at a multi-coloured wall of post-it notes. One photograph looks much like another, as does a journey map, persona, stakeholder map or any of the other menagerie of tools used by design thinkers (and also designers). It can be hard to see what makes ‘good’ design thinking, especially for those who lack broader design experience.

Our Director,  Chris Jackson  facilitating Thing from the Future - combining design and futures thinking

Our Director, Chris Jackson facilitating Thing from the Future - combining design and futures thinking

Design and design thinking

So what makes one practitioner better than another? How do you know you are getting a good practice when you engage with a particular agency or brand of design thinking? Luckily for design thinking, there is a canon of knowledge across different disciplines with case studies, tools, outcomes, skills and heuristics that identify quality. It's called design. 

Unfortunately, many people who have come to design thinking through different avenues don't have this context and can be doomed to regurgitating the same ideas, and executing them poorly, through lack of skill and a broader contextual knowledge.

Conversely, due to the nature of problems that design thinking is used to address, although you are more likely to get a better result with an experienced practitioner, design thinking is also not a silver bullet and it’s hard to guarantee the desired result. In some instances the problems which design thinking engages have already been addressed by other disciplines.

Although designers are meant to be good collaborators, they often don't look hard enough for who, how or why a problem hasn't been solved, or where it may have been solved in another place. Design thinking projects can be guilty of reinventing the wheel, and not getting very far after.

Outcomes can also be affected by a number of variables within a project, from interpersonal relationships in a team to organisational culture. If someone wants to sabotage your project inside your organisation, being the best designer in the world won’t necessarily save you - yet some of the political skills to operate in these contexts are sadly lacking in most designers, and are often not part of design education.

Yet we are told "everyone is a designer" and that "design" can solve the world's problems. You may forgive others for thinking this an arrogant and often naive perspective.

The design thinking process

The reason that design thinking has been successful is that for many it presents a new and novel way to approach problems and develop new products and services. There are also good reasons as to why the approach works, as identified by people like Christina Wodtke, and research to back the validity and impact of design thinking (although you may question the motivation for the research in some instances - all good designers are critical thinkers after all.)

As reported in many texts that advocate the use of design thinking - historically, organisations have relied on the subject matter expert to come up with ideas, without speaking to the people they are meant to serve - and push ideas onto their customers or users. These ideas were often driven by technology looking for a problem to solve. This “Inside-Out” thinking was often expensive and created products and services that were not always taken up or that people found hard to use.

Design thinking encourages an “Outside-In” approach where the needs of customers/users/citizens define what projects, products and services are prioritised and created. It also champions the low-cost prototyping (physically making) of ideas to test and iteratively improve them. Often seen as a 5-step process of Empathise-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test (a la Stanford D-School / IDEO), the approach to design thinking is as follows:

  1. Build an understanding of people, their lives, challenges, goals, motivations and aspirations through 1:1 interviews and other forms of research to create insight

  2. Define, rethink or re-frame the problem (space), related to this new understanding or through the creation of new insights

  3. Create lots of diverse ideas and stay open to new opportunities that might meet identified or latent needs

  4. Develop the most promising ideas, by assessing against desired criteria

  5. Create low-cost prototypes of these ideas and test them with the people that would use them

  6. Iterate and improve the prototypes to make them more useful and usable

  7. Repeat steps 1-6 in any appropriate order depending on the needs of the project and people within it (the part that is often missing in the diagram)

As commented by a friend of mine: “It’s common sense really, and it’s not that hard”. (He himself is a very good, well-seasoned designer)

This may seem glaringly obvious for a trained professional, yet I have seen organisations and people struggle when using design thinking. When you are educated in the culture of design and have practiced your craft for many years, it can be easy to attribute an implicit skill and nuanced understanding as common sense.

Maybe it’s more of an uncommon sense? Maybe if design thinking was branded as “A Common Sense Approach to Problems” (not a pithy title, I know) we may overcome some of the misunderstandings and negativity as to what design (thinking) is, or isn't.

Questions for design thinking

A Google image search for design thinking yields multiple versions of the often cited 5-step framework. The origins of this version of design thinking (there are multiple, and if you really want to get into it, you can read Dr. Steph Di Russo's PhD on the subject) can be traced back to the ABC Nightline Shopping Cart segment of 1999, where we see the process of IDEO opened up to the public.

A screenshot from the ABC Nightline IDEO segment from 1999

A screenshot from the ABC Nightline IDEO segment from 1999

Overtime, the people who developed design thinking (IDEO and Stanford) nurtured and grew the process and approach. The D-School themselves now promote a more nuanced idea of design abilities over "the design process" and IDEO identify pillars and principals over process.

Yet, when looking at people coming fresh to design thinking, from a professional perspective, it seems to be in stasis. Consultants are selling cookie-cutter approaches through the original 5-step diagram, and creating a proliferation of short workshops that promise accelerated learning and results with no proven, long-term benefit.

Although conveniently packaged for companies to pay for easily and minimise the amount of time staff are away from their desks, these types of approaches not only ignore good teaching pedagogy, but also are devoid of the thing that makes designers good at what they do - reflective practice.

Design is a messy business, and a reductionist, simplistic viewpoint may sell a project to a client in the short-term, but it won't create real value in the long-term.

Design thinking was never meant to be something free from the influence of professional design - and the outcomes were always supposed to be delivered by a professional design studio - yet through a combination of marketing hype and the proliferation of the idea that anyone can design, we now have ill-prepared consultants selling a dream and getting poor-to-mediocre results - who'd have thought?

More-than-human-centred design

Another challenge for designers is design thinking's connection to (greedy) capitalism and the problems inherent within it, such as climate crisis. Design thinking has always been touted as “good for business", yet we are now seeing the planetary consequences of the unquestioning evolution of things that are good for people and good for business.

Here we also see IDEO broadening the discussion from Human Centred-Design (HCD - the broader methodology that design thinking sits within) to a systems-oriented life-centered design.

The truth is, we need to look beyond Palo Alto, Silicon Valley and western-knowledge to drive more inclusive and diverse thinking, approaches and collaborations. Many indigenous peoples take an ecocentric view of the world, over the anthropocentric. Here in New Zealand we are increasingly influenced by Te Ao Māori and Tikanga Māori in creating a more inclusive, place-based, interconnected approach to designing and thinking about the future. 

This approach not only enables us to hold the space for more diverse points of view, but it enriches and enlightens us as designers, people and human beings. We need to open our minds in valuing different forms of knowledge, and learn more intently about where and how that knowledge originates. By doing this we can also create cultural empathy, understanding and trust.

Design thinking and complexity

Design Thinking is often put forward as a way to deal with complex problem spaces, yet retains inherent blind spots. As identified above, it’s centering of the human in the process can be at the expense of a more complete view of the system. There is often scant consideration (and certainly not codified within the process) for unintended consequences when creating interventions within complex adaptive systems.

Once you have delivered your design intervention - how is the system affected? Are the changes positive or negative? How can we dampen or amplify these affects? How do we maintain a new design? Who's responsibility is this and how do we think about repair ongoing?

This is where evolving, systems-oriented approaches, such as Transition Design, increase the potential for success. 

Through Transition Design we recognise that an intervention in a wicked (unsolvable) problem, creates further problems. Rather then looking to create an end-product, Transition Design looks at a project or engagement, where emergent problem-solution scenarios are continually addressed by further design projects, or transitions. The designers job here is to continually react to how the system responds, as opposed to finishing a job and moving on.

This approach also shares affinities with movements outside of traditional design approaches, such as Anthrocomplexity and the work of Dave Snowden. Here the use of Cynefin, as a model for decision making coupled with disintermediated research using micro-narratives and safe-to-fail experiments to probe the system, creates outcomes that can be amplified or dampened, depending on their characteristics.

Using strategic foresight

Design thinking is mostly concerned with an existing problem change along short-to-medium timelines. It is also generally focused on moving from a current state toward a better future state in relation to the needs of customers or users. This may not the best approach to take when trying to identify what the future holds. There is a well-supported view in research circles that asking people “What do you think the future will look like…” is an undesirable line of questioning (unless these are expert interviews examining the future of X or Y).

A participant during one of our experiential futures workshops

A participant during one of our experiential futures workshops

Yet this is a space where complimenting design thinking with approaches from Strategic Foresight (or Futures Studies) can create engaging results. Strategic foresight encourages us to question our assumptions about the future, and essentially un-imagine it in order to create plausible, possible and preferred futures.

Through imagining new possibilities then making them real through prototyping objects and experiences in the present (a la design thinking) we can create experiential futures, that become tangible and encourage people to consider, question and critique the futures they may want to create, or are complicit in.

Design thinking and innovation

Design thinking can be useful if you want to help your team or organisation create more useful, usable services and products, but you do have to create the conditions to enable it.

However, it’s not a silver bullet, and there are contextual variables for success. If you are hiring an individual or organisation to work with you, they should have design experience - and be able to talk to or show some of the outcomes they have achieved.

Beware the consultant who tells you design thinking will solve all your problems, and can’t contextualise the process within the broader history and culture of design. They are probably trying to sell you a nicely packaged, workshop to become-a-design-thinker-in-a-day. I recently saw a LinkedIn post asking; "How do I get a Design Thinking Certificate, so I can consult?". This seams symptomatic of some of the challenges identified above, and probably not the right person if you need design-led innovation in your organisation.

Design thinking does work when you have the right conditions, a solid approach and experienced people with good motivations. But if you are looking to approach wicked problems, create inclusive, inspiring futures or design interventions within complex adaptive systems then maybe it’s time to create a bricolage of different approaches to move beyond design thinking.

Welcome to the We Create Futures blog - Insight // Foresight.

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