Category: evaluation

design thinkingeducation & learningevaluationinnovationresearch

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.

behaviour changecomplexityevaluationhealth promotionpsychology

When Change Potential is Embedded in Bigger Systems


Yesterday I was part of an examination committee for a student discussing issues of health promotion, policy change and advocacy for a population that has been widely viewed as marginalized. The challenge that this student was wrestling with was balancing issues of collective and individual empowerment and where the appropriate action needs to take place (and then determining how to evaluate the impact of such action). Drawing on the work of Isaac Prilleltensky and his brilliant work on empowerment theory, the student’s project hopes to foster change that fits somewhere between the individual and community. But how to evaluate the impact?

An empowerment approach, as conceived by Prilleltensky, involves both personal and societal shifts simultaneously to be most effective. If individuals are motivated to change, yet the system is not prepared to adapt to these changes, the value of empowerment is diminished and so is the effect on society. The question shifts to looking at a place to start or determining what the is chicken and what is the egg. This question is less useful than one that considers ways to understand the embedded nature of change agents and change itself within systems shaped both by structure and time.

Barack Obama was elected in a manner that greatly changed the way we look at politics. While he made enormous strides in shaping an electorate, his success at governing has been more muted. Obama’s potential to do well in governing is embedded in the policies and practices that came before him, whether he likes it or not. This is illustrated to full comic effect in a recent Ron Howard ‘Presidential Reunion’ short on Funny or Die. George W. Bush built his policy agenda in a manner that was positioned with Bill Clinton’s, which was positioned with George H.B. Bush’s and so on. Yes, there are some clear departures based on incidents of massive, abrupt change such as September 11th attacks which led to major reactive shifts in policy like the creation of the U.S. Patriot Act , creation of new governmental bodies, and the initiation of two wars abroad. But these are the extremes. A closer look at most non-revolutionary government shifts shows that policy evolves and gets tweaked, but rarely exhibits radical change from administration to administration. Even though the rhetoric around health care reform in the U.S. has spoken of ‘radical change’, the bottom line is that no matter what policy emerges, it will bear closer resemblance to what came before than it will differ.

The embedded structure of social systems is akin to Russian Matryoshka dolls. Our ability to change hinges upon where in stack of dolls we lay and how tightly those dolls are stuck together. I would argue that Obama’s electoral success had a lot to do with a system where the fit of the dolls was loose. There was a clear process to getting nominated (e.g., primaries), but the manner by which interest gets generated and people get out to vote was loose at the time of his campaign. Obama succeeded primarily because he got people to vote who had never come out before, the population that most had given up on trying to reach. In government, the fit is much tighter. Everything has a protocol, a history, and receives an intense scrutiny in that even the smallest shift is noticed, dissected and critiqued.

That leads to a lot of information and feedback, much of it contradictory. Hence, the inertia. With more information than ever at our disposal, the risk that this inertia will persist is high. Jaron Lanier, who I wrote about in my last post, migh attribute this to ‘lock in’ : the dominant way of doing things. Obama succeed because he found a new model of campaigning, captured nicely in three recent books (Harfoush / Plouffe / Sabato). We don’t yet have a new way of governing.

From an evaluation perspective it becomes critical that we understand both these structures and the fit between these variables, or the degree to which the dominant design or ‘lock in’ plays in mediating the impact of change if we are to understand the impact that our efforts to create change are having.

The student who just defended her comprehensive exam, her challenge in using health promotion to instill change will depend on how locked in our society is in its attitudes towards vulnerable populations and the fit between the individual and community with regards to empowerment. I hope, like Obama campaigning in 2008, that fit is loose.