what is 'design thinking'

5 Feb 2007 - 11:17am
263 reads
Sabine Junginger

Dear all,

I do want to share a few thoughts on the topic. I am currently enmeshed in this topic on other channels, so forgive me if this is turning out to be a longer post. I am bringing up two main questions: First, why is there an interest in design thinking and second, why is the current discussion in business problematic for design. There are many more issues involved but I think these questions might contribute to the ongoing discussion here.

1) Why is there a need to distinguish kinds of thinking?

In all of the discussions and uses of design thinking, there is one thing in common: It seems to be different from how people think "currently." So how do people think currently?

Just a few examples for illustration (in rather simple terms)

In Management, there has been a focus on containing and controlling materials, processes and resources.

In Product Development, there has been a focus on specifications, technologies, cost-cutting and speed.

In Strategy, there has been a focus on exploiting rather than exploring.

These forms of thinking--many labelled "scientific"--are falling short of their expectations. Systems have become more complex and disintegrated rather than simpler; Products have more often than not failed to serve people (and for that matter the organization that sunk dollars in their development that never translated into revenue); Strategies too often resemble statistical regressions that rely on old numbers rather than researching current situations.

What does design thinking bring to the table? For one, it connects product development with strategy, management, leadership and innovation. So that is a HUGE change. In fact, so big that management, which traditionally has nurtured separate specializations (OP, OB, ODC, ME, you name it). Anyone interested in this topic and its implications for management might want to read the interview and critique of design thinking with Roger Martin in the most recent issue of Academy of Management Review. There is much more but I already feel like I am writing way too much here.

2) Why is the current focus on design thinking problematic?

For several reasons, here are the two that concern me most:

1) the current discussion on design thinking is driven by experts who have fairly limited exposure to design. More importantly, design is now being "squeezed and fitted" into a mold that may or may not do design any justice (and service). Ultimately, this might undermine the potential of design and contribute to it being treated as the flavor of the month. Where are designers in this discussion?

2) the increased emphasis on design "thinking" is slowly but slowly erroding the base of design methods. It is by no means explicit what design methods mean in the context of design thinking as it is being used right now. Because of this (and because of the fragmentation of the business and management disciplines), there are now several forms of design in the organization emerging and sometimes competing with each other. For those interested, look up: Managing as Desiging (aiming at design thinking), Evidence-Based Management (aiming at design methods), and Design Thinking (not explicit about methods) . There are a few more but you get the idea.

In my work, I explicitly use the terms "design thinking" and "design methods" together. I find it most useful to employ design thinking when I explore the design principles "at work" by a particular designer or design team. These kinds of questions range from "who is a designer?" to "what can be designed?" Depending on the "thinking" designers and the organization engage in, the processes and results are strikingly different. Interestingly, designers using the same design methods but employing different kinds of design thinking can produce very different results and work in strikingly different environments.

In short, I argue that there is always a form of design thinking in place wherever and whenever something is coming into being. The question is then how do we think about design and how does the way we think about design influence the kinds of materials, forms, functions, and purposes that we assign to our products.

Not the quick answer one might hope to have ready for the next business meeting but maybe enough material for the next happy hour



> Design thinking is a general term that seeks to identify those unique
> attributes and capabilities that help us to handle wicked and undefined
> problems. For me, those would include:
> Not working in a strickty deductive or inductive framework.
> Considering validity where reliability may not be helpful.
> Working with data or categories that are not aligned.
> Thinking visually.
> Mixing abstract with literal stimuli.
> Iterative processes.
> Risk taking.
> Considering context.
> I wish there were a better, more descriptive term. But I think we (and
> certainly traditional business people) are just starting to define these
> as beneficial - and not just the idiosycracies of "creative" people.
>> Brett used the term "design thinking" as somethin his current program
>> is lacking. I use the term, or actually stop myself from using the term,
>> all the time.
>> I stop myself b/c I feel it lacks meaning. I want to use the term b/c I
>> "know" what it means to mean when I hear it and say it.
>> I find this lack of ability to articulate this term troubling. Any
>> takers on trying to do so?
>> Nice segway from the original thread I think.
>> Dave
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