That D-Word…

I wouldn’t normally make a big deal of changing my tag on Linkedin. It would seem a little pompous, wouldn’t it?

However, I did this after giving it a lot of careful thought. In case you didn’t visit my profile before today (your loss, pal), my tag read “Design Strategist” instead of “Innovation Strategist.” The fact that I’ve had to change it says a lot about where we are as it pertains to overall corporate mentalities, and where Design Thinking (or DT, as I will refer to it in order to spare my typing fingers) is as a whole.

This month, the Harvard Business Review claims that “Design Thinking Comes of Age,” an issue that I recommend you get your hands on if you’re at all interested in the application of design thinking on a business context. And it seems as if it’s about time for DT to become more commonplace, as there have been lots of different best-selling books about DT in business, as well as success stories ranging from Apple to Procter and Gamble to Steelcase that validate the methods and practices in DT. The D-word, it seems, has finally become detached from the “make it look pretty” department to what Herbert A. Simon accurately described the term as in 1969's The Sciences of the Artificial, “a way of thinking.”

So, this is all great, right?

Design Thinkers are finally welcomed with open arms to organizations, right?

Design Thinking is a high-demand skill in the 21st century workplace, right?


Not quite.

As anyone that’s lived more than a day in this universe can tell you, the ideal situation is seldom– if not never– the same as the reality of the situation. In the case of DT, I can say from personal opinion as an active seeker of opportunities at the time of writing this, there are two main roadblocks keeping design thinkers from reaching the positions they want to– and should be able to– get to.

  • Communication: it is damn hard to communicate the definition of DT in a nutshell. An interesting example of this is the anecdote of what happened to most new Design Management students at SCAD during my first quarter there (and, as my friends have shared, during the quarter before). The term “Design Management” has been accepted in the design industry (mostly in the industrial design and service design community– people in the know) as the go-to term to define DT in business. However, when I applied to the program, I saw it at face value as “managing designers.” And, come on– That’s what it sounds like. That’s what it sounded like to a large section of those of us who applied to the program, only be tossed head-first into a completely new universe of uncovering user needs, synthesizing heuristics, and designing solutions applicable to real business problems. Without exception, when we found out what we were really getting into, we dove in and thrived. However, the fact remains: not even new Design Management students knew what Design Management even was.
  • Perception: That brings us to the second problem. If only a handful of professionals know the definition of the term, how realistic is it to expect hiring managers, CEO’s and the rest of the world at large to know? I mean, I’d hope that my CEO knew about DT and Design Management, but even in some very forward-thinking organizations, there is a disconnect. The key problem with this disconnect is that the word “Design” pigeon-holes design thinkers into a single department of an institution (not 100% of the time, but let’s say 85%): the design department.

That leads to the problem with the D-word. Despite all the changes in the economic landscape in recent years, DT is still relatively unknown; this is part of why it’s such a competitive advantage for companies, but it is also a problem because even companies that need DT in their organization will not hire a DT professional because they don’t know design beyond the graphics department.

For a DT strategist such as myself, this puts us in a catch-22 when looking for opportunities:

Design job recruiter: So you can do design?
Us: Yes, and I can also do a lot more, if you look at my portfolio–
R: Oh, yes. Well, we want someone who can do more stuff in design specifically. You would make a great strategy guy, though! Thanks for coming in.


Strategy job recruiter: So you have an MFA in… Design Management?
Us: Yes, it’s all about considering users’ needs in order to strat–
R: Oh, yes. Well, we want someone with an MBA. Thanks for coming in, though. You’d make a great designer!


So, my solution is to remove the word “design” from the equation. Does this mean that I’m giving up on design or Design Thinking? Absolutely not. I believe it is one of the most powerful tools for successful strategy, and will definitely help define the success stories of the 21st century.

I have changed my tag to “Innovation Strategist” not because I have decided to stop pursuing jobs in design, but because I want the right job in design. And, before I get called out on my own words for using the word “innovation,” I’d like to point out that I wrote that post. I know innovation and how it diffuses, and I know at least one way to discover, promote, and diffuse innovations: through design.

So the tag now reads “Innovation Strategist” because I don’t want to be seen as a guy who can create a strategy for your designs. I don’t even know what that would look like as a separate entity from your entire corporate strategy. I want to design a strategy that will lead to innovation and its successful diffusion.

Regardless of this change, I will continue writing posts such as this one in order to bring attention to the practices of Design Thinking. I would encourage my colleagues and fellow Design Thinking experts or experts-in-the-making to do the same. The world still doesn’t know Design Thinking, and it is because not enough of us speak up to tell them about it.