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Stepping up

Design thinking became a hot topic in the noughties. Just like the other contender for the hot spot, sustainability, the concept is big enough and hazy enough for almost everyone to declare its importance, while attaching very different meanings to it.

The broad consensus on design thinking began to break down in 2009. Some leading design thinkers published books that expanded on what they meant; business leaders started to pick up the idea, while at the same time many design managers started to drop it.

This raises two questions: Why is design thinking such a hot topic with executives yet leaves so many designers cold? And, does the demand for design thinking represent more of an opportunity than the thinking itself?

Hot topic
Design thinking was first discussed in design circles in the early noughties. Roger Martin’s concept of integrative thinking was an inspiration, but it was IDEO chief Tim Brown who brought it to life in stories about his firm’s “T-shaped” designers. Shortly after, Bruce Nussbaum, then assistant managing editor of BusinessWeek, picked up the cause and ran with it.

And although it was BusinessWeek that first used the term design thinking in 2003, Tim Brown’s star turn at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2006 made a big impact in high places. Never before had a designer strutted his stuff on such a high-profile platform and been taken so seriously.

While Brown spoke near the peak of the noughties economic bubble, today’s era of austerity has, if anything, only increased the appetite for design thinking. In March 2010, The Economist held a conference in London called The Big Rethink: Redesigning Business. Its premise was that design thinking was in demand: After the economic crisis, corporate leaders had lost confidence in the old ways of doing things, and were casting around for new ideas.

Now, when the house journal of the global business elite holds a conference on how design thinking can save business, you might expect the design fraternity to step forward with both enthusiasm and new thinking. Yet while some design enthusiasts have jumped in, many design managers have stepped back.

Cold turkey
I first noticed a distinct cooling-off in April 2009, when I talked to a handful of design managers about the challenges they faced after the financial meltdown. One reflected on how well the design thinkers in his organization had fared in the design boom years; then, raising an eyebrow, he murmured,“Even turkeys can fly in a tornado.” However, when the tailwind dropped, many who had talked their way into high-flying positions were left gliding. Greater exposure to senior management’s interrogation had left many... well, exposed. The design thinkers had been drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.

While many seasoned design professionals were unsure of the term, most shared the design thinkers’ ambition to play a more strategic role in the world than making pretty; but it became obvious that design thinking meant different things to different people. For some, it was about teaching managers how to think like designers; for others, it was about designers tackling bigger and more strategic problems that used to be the preserve of management consultants; and for others still, it was anything said on the subject of design that sounded smart. To most, it was merely a new spin on design.

This is definitely not the case with Roger Martin. His book The Design of Business focuses on ways of thinking—and particularly on ways to combine analytical and intuitive thought. However, Martin readily accepts that most designers do not think this way, relying too heavily on intuition. Indeed, he jokes about needing to find a new name for his concept. Although Martin’s definition does not tally with current design practice, other versions suffer from being indistinguishable from it. IDEO has done designland a great service by articulating what it does in a clear and compelling way for nondesigners. However, its description of design thinking is notably similar to the way it used to describe the design process. As Bill Moggridge acknowledged at an event in 2007,“Design thinking is a new story, not a new process.” Because the design process was not developed for the big problems that design thinkers wish to tackle, this really amounts to old thinking—for new times.

It’s not just world-weary designers who have spotted holes in the hype. In her review of the 2010 Aspen Design Summit, Helen Walters, the former editor of innovation and design at BusinessWeek, cautioned: “Those looking for a prescribed way to implement design thinking are destined to be disappointed. It’s a messy, opaque process that depends as much on group dynamics as intellect or insight.... The process was more important than the product.... the idea that people need a way to engage in multiple places within their community.”

Walters puts her finger on a new role for designers that many will not be happy with—as facilitators of an engagement process in which the quality of new products and services comes second to stakeholder involvement. This emphasis on process over outcomes could well lead to design correctness being given privileges over design effectiveness.

Stepping up
As business raises its expectations of what design can do, design thinkers run the risk of overstretching—not having the knowledge or capabilities to deliver at this new level. To win and consolidate a more strategic role for design, we need more than good stories. We need to raise our game.

From my perspective, here are three priorities for design managers who want to step up to the plate:

Quality over quantity
Today, design by itself provides no competitive advantage. Only great design does that. In his book Design- Driven Innovation, Roberto Verganti convincingly argues that creativity is not in short supply, and that the key question is how to deliver high quality design. He is dismissive of one-size-fits-all processes, such as design thinking, and instead underlines the importance of broad and long-view perspectives, close working relationships with an “elite circle” of genuinely insightful “interpreters,” and wise executive judgement.

Design thinkers over-simplify by presenting design to business as a clear and codified process of methods, tools, and steps that can be learned by nondesigners. While explaining design as an algorithm goes down well with managers, this pitch skips over the pivotal importance of talent and craft.

Designers learn by doing, not by practicing a theory. There is a process, but it is wielded tacitly. Professional designers have survived a brutally Darwinian selection process (there are far more graduates than jobs) and have clocked up well over Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours of practice on projects. The small pool of talent that really adds competitive advantage combines creativity with a high degree of problem solving and aesthetic craft. Design thinkers have a tendency to look down on the craft component of design as a low-end commodity, but Apple’s success is just as much due to the quality of its design execution as it is to its strategic clarity. It’s therefore hard to believe that many senior managers can pick up any meaningful design skills after a workshop or two. And, to be frank, suggesting as much devalues what designers do.

We’ve had a decade of talk about co-creation and open innovation now. Results have been largely mediocre. It’s time for design managers to put together the business case for exceptional design—the kind that really makes a difference.

Analytical and intuitive thinking
While few designers (or design thinkers) currently live up to Martin’s ideal of a balance between analytical and intuitive thinking, it is a fine goal for the profession to aspire to, both individually and organizationally. Designers have traditionally excused their lack of analytical rigor by nonchalantly counterpoising it to their intuition, but this is a false and lazy dichotomy. Just as there are many creative mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, why can’t there be analytically cogent designers? This is all the more achievable with the new intake of academically gifted designers who previously would not have considered the profession. While not every talented designer is blessed with the gift of reason, design managers should ensure that their work is situated in an analytically robust context. Not only should they insist that other members of their teams are strong at analyzing, structuring and building coherent business cases, but they should also create a culture in which these skills are valued.

Vision over user insight
User-centered design became a dogma in the noughties, to the extent that every idea had to be backed by a user insight. Although these can inspire innovation (though usually of the incremental variety), an appreciation of consumers’ contexts, behaviors, needs, and preferences have begun to take preference over other drivers of innovation, including technical progress and wisdom from other sectors and markets. Verganti argues that “radical innovation does not come from users”; and Don Norman, an early champion of the user-centered design that design thinking bases itself on, has recently recanted and concurs with a new maxim: “Technology first, invention second, needs last.” He even goes as far as to argue that “design thinking is a nonsensical phrase that deserves to die.” Verganti presses his point home further with a tough truth: “Designers have become less visionary. They have spent the last 10 years getting close to consumers and trying to become businessmen, and have lost their visions.”

The biggest challenge for design managers is putting vision back into design. This will involve making a confident case for it in what Martin calls reliability-driven corporate cultures that demand predictable outcomes. Time and space must also be made to think big thoughts and envision new futures. After a period of nurturing what will still be a fragile big idea, careful thought should be put into how to bring it to life in clear and compelling ways.


Balancing process, talent, and context As ever, the challenge for design managers is to manage the mix between process, talent, and context. Design thinking tends to overly focus on process. Now that competitors have established design capabilities, it’s clear that finding, nurturing, and motivating talent is more critical than ever. Processes do need to be in place; but too much emphasis on process can turn off talented designers. Getting the context right is never a straightforward business. Framing fuzzy and complex problems, setting goals that get the balance right between ambition and constraints, and configuring the right mix of talent and resources has become a lot more difficult. The business world’s demand for design thinking has transformed the context in which we operate. Bigger and more wicked problems test our capacities, and our work is being judged against new criteria for success, while the recession brings new priorities.


All of this amounts to a great opportunity. But to seize that opportunity, designers need to be less pleased with themselves, and to put more effort into innovating how and what they do. The challenge is to match our raised ambitions with a higher-level game. Another workshop just won’t cut it!

19th September 2010


  • Kevin McCullagh

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