Beyond The Whiteboard & Sticky Notes

Design thinking is know by its tools, models, and visuals and less about what it actually does; that’s a problem.

Design thinking has a branding problem.

When you think about design thinking what images pop into your head? It’s probably a whiteboard, sticky notes, and lots of ideas — the kind of images we see in stock photos with bubbles, lightbulbs, and people pointing to arrows and boxes.

The approach to creativity and innovation that has become design thinking is nearly synonymous with sticky notes, whiteboards, and double-diamond diagrams. It is, perhaps ironically, not known by what’s in it’s name: design and thinking.

But if design thinking is to make a serious contribution to innovation, it needs to go beyond the caricature of its tools.

Whole Innovation Learning

The journey along the double-diamond of divergence and convergence (or discover, define, develop, and deliver as posed by the UK Design Council) is one that can serve as a transformative experience if seen as a learning experience from top to bottom. That’s where design thinking falls flat by focusing on tools and process, less on outcomes.

This is partly why some have called out design thinking for generating ideas that are conceptually interesting, yet impractical for many businesses and sectors. Instead, there is an argument for viability thinking: focusing design thinking not on what is possible, but what is plausible.

Another outcome — one even less highlighted — is how the act of design, the making of something, relates to the maker. The act of creating and putting something out into the world in service of addressing the needs, wants, and preferences of others is a profound act of generosity and learning. Learning how design influences designers is a significant benefit that isn’t tied to tools.

Evaluating Design Thinking

If we evaluate the impact of design thinking looking beyond the immediate product outcomes is key. To reveal the fullest impact we can consider:

  1. What do people learn in the process of engaging in design thinking?
  2. What new skills to people acquire, develop, or refine through design thinking?
  3. How are the lessons from engaging in design thinking applied to other subsequent products?
  4. What is the effect of design thinking on the mindset of those involved in a design-oriented project?
  5. How does the co-design process influence team development, cohesion, creativity, and innovation performance?
  6. What role does design thinking play in shaping the innovation culture (e.g., creation, execution, delivery, and evaluation) with an organization?
  7. How does design thinking contribute to the implementation of innovations?

Asking these questions gets us beyond tools and techniques toward outcomes and impact. This is what design thinking is for, not just to keep the makers of sticky notes and whiteboards in business.

Want help to develop and evaluate design thinking and innovation in your organization? Contact me; my team and I can help.

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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