Design Thinking isn’t Design, it’s Design Thinking.
Is one of the latest magic tools for businesses and consulting actually a good thing for Design and Designers?
Many people in the world and business still see ‘Design’ as that thing which makes things look good, function well, and perhaps have an emotive quality. Recently (although in reality it has been in the public arena for at least a decade now) there has been the emergence of the term, tool, discipline, and mindset, that is ‘Design Thinking’. ‘Created’ and coined by Tim Brown of IDEO, [see my other blog, ‘Dangerous Times in Design’, if you want the defintion/ know what it is] it was a nice power move to make; affording designers a whole new playground and application of their skills, and executives a seemingly original angle at which to approach their business problems with. Since then it has slowly gathered favour and momentum, but its use and users have constantly been changing…
The early adopters of Design Thinking were/are the consultancies — both design and management. Design consultancies originating in digital, brand, product and even advertising all realised it was a capability band wagon worth jumping on. After all, they had the designers, who had that intrinsic creativity. With a bit of education, and experience in applying design thinking, they could then potentially tackle whole problems and develop holistic solutions. No longer would be they be limited to applying ‘lipstick on a pig’, or just making the app, product, or marketing material/ad campaign. No, this was real power to shape… and with that, a fee that reflected it. Saying this, the sell was always going to be difficult. Why would companies pay their ‘design’ agency to solve their business problems? After all, they had been doing it themselves, with tried and tested processes for years and been successful(?)… and if it wasn’t they themselves, then surely it was the management consultancies, their go-to bed fellows that would be the next port-of-call?
… enter the Management Consultancies. Management Consultancies are brimming with clever, very hard working people who crack complex problems and projects at break-neck speed. These consultancies are there to provide, and by that implication, sell, the latest ways of thinking that give their clients a competitive advantage. One of the latest of these capabilities is of course Design Thinking (and/or Service design — the remit to more holistically solve problems, looking beyond experience design (front of stage) and into backstage workings, organisations, business & behaviour). This new fangled ‘human centred’ approach makes obvious sense. Of course we should ‘put the customer first’, and ‘have the customer at the heart of everything we do’. This isn’t new, but somehow business had forgotten this over the last few decades (perhaps its memory is cyclical) — hence it makes for a refreshing change and something everyone is adopting.
And what everyone (or most) want, consultancies are happy to provide. There have been several avenues to achieve this from training staff in the tools and methods (of Design Thinking) so it becomes part of their professional armoury, to whole acquisitions of design companies. Examples include Accenture-Fjord, EY-Seren, Deloitte-Market Gravity, McKinsey-Lunar. Each have had varying success, with perhaps the obvious comment to say that the road has been rocky. After all, for grass root designers, working in management consultancies was never going to be easy, but that’s for another blog.
What is really at the fore here is that Management consultancies (whose client book and relationships are much wider and deeper than design consultancies) started to sell a strategic level of design to their clients. Not necessarily as outright projects or capabilities, but as a new tool that their consultants could leverage to do even better work. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, having management consultancies champion design thinking has been of great benefit to its cause, but has muddied the waters of what ‘Design’ is and who does it.
As discussed in my other blog post — ‘Dangerous Times in Design’ the move to Design encompassing design thinking, has, overall, been of a net positive effect. The key here is, (I believe) the design application being done by management consultants, companies, and that too by many designers within management consulting & companies, is Design Thinking, not necessarily Design.
When we’ve abstracted and codified the approach so that it is just another tool, or at best a method, where anyone, after a brief period can ‘accomplish’ it, then it becomes difficult to label that a profession.
Bright consultants in these places are picking up the core of Design Thinking and its tools quickly and applying it to the plethora of projects they fly around the world solving. But this doesn’t make them ‘Designers’, it just makes them consultants with Design Thinking as a skill to their bow.
Am I just being precious? Is it because I, and many others I know, spent years training to be designers, and now it appears some people can pick up design thinking over a few weeks or months, (and I’m not just referencing job experience, but places like General Assembly (GA) that offer short 3 month courses to become UX designers) that I feel hard done by?
But I believe that Design is more… it is certainly more than ‘Design thinking’, that’s for sure.
Perhaps it’s really all about positioning. Let’s call things as they are more accurately.
Design Thinking is a mindset.
At its lowest common denominator it’s a bunch of tools that can be executed to illustrate a human centred point of view. This, even at this level, is a good thing that consultants can, and should adopt, blending it into their work. But this isn’t Design and doesn’t make them Designers.
Designers do of course exhibit Design Thinking, sometimes outright, like the management consultants do to solve problems more holistically, but many times they do this intrinsically — when they just go about designing stuff! This Design Thinking is more a part of Design. By itself it isn’t, but as a component of the greater process of creation; when combined with craft, creativity and a different level of empathy and understanding, then, it becomes Design.
It’s not all about the consultancies of course. Many businesses, especially larger organisations are empowering their staff with Design thinking workshops and Customer first/centred initiatives. This again, is a valuable thing.
What people should remember is, that as they would never consider calling themselves fashion designers, interior designers or product designer, unless they had spent years mastering the craft, that same logic is true for those designers that bring years of true design experience and focus to tackling problems or opportunities in services and businesses. Due to it being less physical or aesthetic does not make it less true to design and easier to conquer and label.
I have seen designers use the components of Design Thinking and Service design in very different ways and to a very different effect as non-designers. The value is not just in knowing how to use a tool, but the population and application of that tool, and of course what you do with it!
Design Thinking shouldn’t have the word design in it. It’s misleading.
The flavour of it that non-designers leverage is about a human centred approach.
This is what it is about and should be called — a human centred approach to problem solving.
Designers (and others) doing real design, do design thinking, where a human centred approach is intrinsic to the act of creation and craft.
Those of you that are ‘enlightened’ by Design thinking — you do not need to become service designers. Do what you do best, just add a human centred approach to your skillset/the way you problem solve.
Design Thinking is only a component of Design and doing it does not make people designers.
I find the term mis-leading. A human centred approach is what management consultancies, companies and organisations really need. This can be provided expertly by designers, but can be equally as effective through empowering their staff.
I head up design and innovation; creating and running Innovation Labs around the world for Royal Dutch Shell, Global Commercial and Chemicals. I’ve been a designer both consulting and client side, having done a diverse range of projects, both craft and strategic. I have a bachelors and masters in design from Brunel University London, and an MBA from Imperial College Business School. I give talks and lectures at universities and conferences to a plethora of professions, all about how strategic design is changing business and the world.