Stories About Why Design Thinking Won’t Work is Exactly Why We Need Design Thinking

I recently came across this article in the Harvard Business Review from 2009 (yay for content curation giving older things new life) about how design thinking won’t solve your innovation problem. This more recent article on Fast Company makes a similar assertion, so I think it merits a response.

These two authors rightly takes issue with “design thinking” as a buzzword, a magic bullet that equals innovation. It’s not. But why the vitriol?

Who is Design Thinking For?

Where the HBR article misses the mark is in the author’s presupposition that only those with a design background (in the author’s words, “turtleneck-wearing creatives”) can use design thinking. That’s the mindset we as creatives need to break. “Designer” is a role. “Design thinking” is a methodology for coming up with new ideas, and the author conflates the two. Creativity is hard work. As Stephen Gates has said, “Creativity is a blue-collar profession.” And we turtleneck-wearing creatives — by the nature of our day-to-day — are well-positioned to help others draw disparate connections between seemingly unrelated things, and to do it on purpose. Caveat: I don’t own a turtleneck, so I may not be qualified to write about this.

People of all backgrounds can follow design thinking methods to grow in the practice of divergent and convergent thinking. In fact, the diversity of the team is precisely the point. In Group Genius, author Keith Sawyer tells a story about how a diverse team at Johnson & Johnson was tasked to create an upside-down squeeze-bottle that wouldn’t leak. The team had one member who grew up on a farm and spent a lot of time behind a horse-cart. Through his observance of the mechanics of horse sphincters they team found a solution. Makes you think twice next time you squeeze the ketchup, huh?

The point is, all the groups listed in the first article (the spreadsheet crowd, anthropologists, journalists, candle-stick makers, etc.) can and do have a seat at the design thinking table. The issue is that designers have for so long been excluded from the boardroom — only afterward to be told “make it pretty” — that there is a rightful course-correction in giving design thinking its due in the business setting.

Solving for Creativity

When I’ve conducted design thinking sessions, I’m usually the only one in the room with a design background. That’s why I lead the conversation and stay out of the solutions early on. Sadly, this is probably where the author of the HBR article saw a bad example. All it takes is one Michael Scott who brings a gun to an improv class to ruin it for everyone. The process is meant to draw out diverse ideas, not to “win.”

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“That’s why I always start with a gun, because you can’t top it. You just can’t.”

People are intimidated by creativity, so if you are known as the creative person in the group, the group may defer or self-censor. But creativity isn’t magic. It has to be drawn out. The group may think that the designer has already solved the problem. Honestly, who can blame them? We’ve grown a reputation. But creativity is a blue-collar profession, remember? Or maybe they think leader has already solved the problem and this “design thinking session” is just another consensus-building exercise like so much of bad brainstorming is. So it’s important to acknowledge that, and if necessary, even recuse yourself from offering ideas at the beginning. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable silence. The ideas will come when it becomes clear that The Creative isn’t offering any ideas.

I don’t see the logic in the argument against design thinking in the second article. Like, at all. The crux seems to fall around this quote:

Both design thinking and the rational-experimental approach implicitly establish problem solving as the remit of the powerful, especially when it comes design for social ends. They turn the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarified [sic] practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialized methodology.

Here’s the deal: Design thinking is a methodology for creating a thing, and to do so in a way that challenges the creators to look for unexpected solutions. That thing we create — whether an app, a logo, a physical product — lives and dies in the market. There is no greater test of the internal politics that governed your process than the market. People are going to use your thing if it solves their need, and they will discard it as soon as someone else’s thing does it better.

In the end, Design Thinking is no golden elixir for all your business needs. It is a process that is only as good as the work you put into it.

Art director, illustrator, and senior manager of eLearning Design and Development

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