Which Comes First?

I live in a world of Design Thinking — I teach a version of Design Thinking to masters students at Parsons, where we are doing our level best to push the field and discussion forward. I work with a team to develop a unique version of Design Thinking for Accenture. I can look across the street and see IBM’s new Design Thinking approach (beautifully done, I might add), and the dozens of other large companies trying to harness the magic that is Design Thinking.

And almost every one of these methodologies hearkens back to Tim Brown’s core aphorism of Design Thinking — that of desirability, viability and feasibility. In most cases (my own cases included) I see it translated into the people side of things, the business side, and the technology (or digital) side. All work equally well to paint the picture that true innovation (again, use whatever word you’d like here) requires keeping disparate, at times competing, interests in tension. Or the way I like to think about it, solving a paradox.

But there is a question that has been brewing in my mind recently: which comes first? Which of these three takes primacy and drive the other two? (Seriously, please help me answer this)

Now, there certainly are a few obvious qualifications. In what we often term as human-centered design, Design Thinking should be driven by a focus on people, which is what makes it a distinct process from other strategic or management approaches. This certainly carries weight, as Accenture has built deep capability in merging business and technological expertise, yet we are now developing our approach to Design Thinking.

But even if I am now tackling a wicked problem using Design Thinking, don’t I need to consider that in our modern world, where almost every interaction is not only mediated, but oftentimes driven by the interfaces and technology available to us? And if that seems to far a stretch, simply focus on the types of business or societal problems that designers seek to solve at scale, and try to find an interaction that isn’t driven by the changing technological landscape. I’d posit that in nearly every instance of modern societal life (perhaps excluding our most intimate moments) our expectations have changed because of the new digital tools at our fingertips. The newest form of this is my inability to wait more than two days for packages to arrive, but you can find evidence of this phenomenon throughout the history of technology (think about how our society has developed due to the advent of the car, and consider the technological driver behind a whole host of personal interactions).

But perhaps this isn’t even the full picture — because what is a new technology if not implemented through some organization. This falls, in most respects, to business or government, and for now putting government aside, might the business consideration be paramount, for without this structure (or its cousin, the non-profit) there would be no mechanism for us to design at scale. Design would be forever left without the tagline of “Thinking” and the complex, higher order disciplines of service design, experience design, organizational design, or even my beloved strategic design, would not have a place. So might a case be made that business is, in the end, paramount, if it is the bedrock with which technology spreads and new experiences are (largely) consumed?

Alas, I seem to be at a crossroads. Does one take supremacy to the others? Is there one I can call the foundation, the cornerstone, of Design Thinking? Is there any way for us to figure this out?

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