Design Thinking and Zombies

Stopping to sip the brains of sloppy design thinkers

The concept of design thinking has been much maligned in some circles; declared dead, brought to life, and now, or like a zombie, walking in a state somewhere between. If the concept is to live or die it must do so based on evidence from research and practice, not rhetoric as it’s been up until now. 

The FastCo Design blog posted an article proclaiming: Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No!  from Grant McCracken from C3 at MIT. McCracken’s post was in response to the oft-cited editorial by Bruce Nussbaum a few months ago that I’ve commented on many times in this blog space about how design thinking is a failed experiment; basically dead.

According to McCracken, Design Thinking is still alive, or at least undead.

Few concepts have engendered such a strong reaction from so many. Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, Peter Merholz made the case that design thinking has been an oversold concept and is not the tool some think it is.  The Design Sojourn blog went so far to suggest that design thinking kills creativity. These articles run counter to a series of books, special issues and conferences that have sought to promote design thinking widely.

Go Beyond Rhetoric

The concern I have for much of the discourse on design thinking — its life, death and zombie-like undead state — is that it is nearly all based on rhetoric alone.

Definitions of design thinking tend toward: Design thinking is what I say it is and I am a designer, therefore I know design thinking. While maybe true for an individual designer, such claims to a concept become problematic when, as McCracken points out, entire programs of activity from U of T Rotman’s b-school to Stanford’s d-school to IDEO and Jump have embraced this concept wholeheartedly and focused their business around it. The stakes are getting higher for design and design thinking with little attention being paid to what designers and non-designers actually do or think about what they do.

As an academic, I don’t declare something alive or dead until it’s been thoroughly examined. A concept like design thinking, if it is to have worth, must withstand scrutiny through both theoretical and empirical examination. A review of the literature (academic and grey) so far, suggests that neither has been done sufficiently. What is the theory of design thinking? We don’t really have one. It appears to be a set of strategies and a stance that are loosely connected to the process of exercising creative, intentional control in the pursuit of a useful problem solution.

Does this set of processes or the stance produce good solutions or better solutions than other ways of doing things? We don’t know. In part, this is because we really don’t know what it is. That is the first step towards answering the bigger question about what it does.

Some, like Nigel Cross, have sought to do studies looking at what designers do, while others like Roger Martin, have tried to articulate how design thinkers think, but neither has done so in a systematic way that extends beyond a few case studies. A true, synthetic and empirically supported evidence base is what is missing. It is time to change this if the concept of design thinking is to have a future or is to be rightfully put down.

** Photo by Dance Photographer Brendan Lally used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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