The Hyberbole and Exaggerated Demise of Design Thinking

Designing better design thinking

Design thinking is hot and under fire. Just as its miracle properties are misleading, so too are the claims that it is dead or dying.

If design thinking didn’t have something going for it no one would talk about it.

In a well-laid out essay on design thinking (and its timely death) William Storage points to the concept’s origins and proceeds from there to point to how it no longer serves a purpose given the panoply of voices arguing its merits.

He writes:

Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns, spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and consumed by consultancies who prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.

A related discussion on the LinkedIn group devoted to design thinking on this very topic prompted a lively debate. The impetus from that discussion came from the topic of a panel discussion at next week’s DMI conference in Portland entitled: Is Design Thinking Dead?

Bruce Nussbaum’s oft-cited assertion that design thinking is a failed experiment was one of the higher profile critiques. He asserts that the experiment of design thinking has failed, whereas I argue that we haven’t even begun our research in the first place to make that claim.

Returning to Storage’s essay, he concludes:

Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.

To the first part of this argument, I agree wholeheartedly. Any concept that catches fire as broadly as design thinking that lacks a definitive intellectual home is bound to be tied to the hype cycle (discussed here and here in past posts). I would suggest to anyone interested in design thinking that they follow anyone’s claim about the idea with a question: what do you mean by that term?

Where I have problems with Storage’s argument is in its implication that good design is its own merit and that its benefits are obvious. To this point, I disagree wholeheartedly. The same foolishness is applied to healthcare around use of good evidence: high quality evidence that is “self-evident” is rarely so and even then inconsistently translates into practice with ease. Were that the case, the field of knowledge translation in health wouldn’t exist and evidence-based practice would be a pointless term.

If the benefits of good design were that obvious, every intelligent manager, strategist, executive and front-line staffer would be working towards it. They don’t.

There is little indication that design thinking in a form that would resemble common practice exists in any of the sectors I work in (and no, use of sticky notes and a white board does not equate to design thinking by itself). There simply is not enough reflective and documented practice in design thinking to provide the kind of wisdom to separate out the “sleaze in the field”, yet that isn’t reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We do not have good research to either venerate or denigrate design thinking based on anything other than the popular use of the term and rhetoric.

Einstein, as he often does, provides words to consider:

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while. – Albert Einstein

The ideas that lay behind design thinking are powerful, yet the wisdom of the field has not yet flourished enough for us to abandon the idea on anything other than the immature notion that it is popular and therefore can’t possibly be serious. In an age where wicked problems are more commonplace, new ways of thinking, seeing and acting are being required of organizations seeking to survive and thrive and design thinking offers some prospects for how to navigate through this. Not all designers deal with wicked problems.

Which leads to my disagreement with Storage’s assertion that design thinking equals design. Designer’s regularly apply the kind of problem exploration and applied creativity that is central to design thinking, but they alone are not design thinkers. Were that the case, then the concept would have found little purchase outside of that discipline. His argument also implies that good design is evident, another point that I contest (and will save argument for another day). Good design is contextual and thus the standards that make it so must therefore be negotiable. It therefore cannot be claimed outright.

A “good” chair is dependent upon who is sitting in it, where it is placed, and the resources required to produce it and sustain it. By that argument, “good” design thinking may fall into the same lines. But unlike design, which has wisdom and experience broadly dispersed in society and different fields of practice, design thinking has no such equivalent. What is the evidence that it produces more useful or effective outcomes? What are its central theories? How is it linked to other fields of creative thought and action? Are there fields better suited to applying design thinking? What do effective practitioners look like? These questions remain either unexplored or poorly done so. The process of design thinking has received the treatment it deserves and it is that which has garnered the attention, admiration and scorn of the blogosphere and beyond — the space where the “over-caffeinated” books might sell.

Scholars such as Nigel Cross have done much to advance our understanding of what designerly ways of knowing might look like as practiced by leading designers. But few systematic examples exist outside of design contexts alone. This is changing and books like Wicked Problems by the group at AC4D provide one such example.

It is time to pull design thinking from the embers of hyperbole and placed under the microscope and macroscope of reflective practice and research. Once there, we might better comment on what this idea means for business, social innovation, human services and our overall wellbeing by pointing to something other than an exclamation mark to make our point.

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