Design Thinking or Design Thinking + Action?

 

There is a fine line between being genuinely creative, innovative and forward thinking and just being trendy.

The issue is not a trivial one because good ideas can get buried when they become trendy, not because they are no longer any good, but because the original meaning behind the term and its very integrity get warped by the influx of products that poorly adhere to the spirit, meaning and intent of the original concepts. This is no more evident than in the troika of concepts that fit at the centre of this blog: systems thinking, design thinking and knowledge translation. (eHealth seems to have lost some its lustre).

This issue was brought to light in a recent blog post by Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation firm IDEO. In the post, Brown responds to another post on the design blog Core77 by Kevin McCullagh that spoke to the need to re-think the concept of design thinking and whether it’s popularity has outstripped its usefulness. It is this popularity which is killing the true discipline of design by unleashing a wave of half-baked applications of design thinking on the world and passing it off as good practice.

There’s something odd going on when business and political leaders flatter design with potentially holding the key to such big and pressing problems, and the design community looks the other way.

McCullagh goes on to add that the term design thinking is growing out of favour with designers themselves:

Today, as business and governments start to take design thinking seriously, many designers and design experts are distancing themselves from the term.While I have often been dubbed a design thinker, and I’ve certainly dedicated my career to winning a more strategic role for design. But I was uncomfortable with the concept of design thinking from the outset. I was not the only member of the design community to have misgivings. The term was poorly defined, its proponents often implied that designers were merely unthinking doers, and it allowed smart talkers with little design talent to claim to represent the industry. Others worried about ‘overstretch’—the gap between design thinkers’ claims, and their knowledge, capabilities and ability to deliver on those promises.

This last point is worth noting and it speaks to the problem of ‘trendiness’. As the concept of design thinking has become commonplace, the rigor in which it was initially applied and the methods used to develop it seem to have been cast aside, or at least politely ignored, in favour of something more trendy so that everyone and anyone can be a design thinker. And whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate.

Tim Brown agrees, but only partially, adding:

I support much of what (McCullagh) has to say. Design thinking has to show impact if it is to be taken seriously. Designing is as much about doing as it is about thinking. Designers have much to learn from others who are more rigorous and analytical in their methodologies.

What I struggle with is the assertion that the economic downturn has taken the wind out of the sails of design thinking. My observation is just the opposite. I see organizations, corporate or otherwise, asking broader, more strategic, more interesting questions of designers than ever before. Whether as designers we are equipped to answer these questions may be another matter.

And here in lies the rub. Design thinking as a method of thinking has taken off, while design thinking methodologies (or rather, their study and evaluation) has languished. Yet, for design thinking to be effective in producing real change (as opposed to just new ways of thinking) its methods need to be either improved, or implemented better and evaluated. In short: design thinking must also include action.

I would surmise that it is up to designers, but also academic researchers to take on this challenge and create opportunities to develop design thinking as a disciplinary focus within applied research faculties. Places like the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business and the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Strategic Innovation Lab are places to start, but so should schools of public health, social work and education. Only when the methods improve and the research behind it will design thinking escape the “trendy” label and endure as a field of sustained innovation.

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