Design Thinking Combat Zone: Undermining Decades of Industry Progress

Recently the design community has developed a giant central rift over the concept of Design Thinking. There are those who absolutely love Design Thinking, what it stands for, and practical applications they’ve been able to employ in their workplaces.

There are others who are blowing the whistle on Design Thinking and are trying to explain the reasons why, “It doesn’t exist.”

Here’s the thing. For decades, designers have been silo-ed away in dark rooms and viewed as tortured artists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an artist, in fact, many designers are incredible artists, but their skillsets also extend far beyond. Designers are problem solvers, business leaders, execs, founders, innovators driving the future of technology, the list goes on.

Design Thinking really took off because for the first time in decades, designers had a way to explain and then clearly demonstrate why they should be permitted to exit the dark room and contribute to the high level conversations. Instead of being given instructions on what to create, they were given the opportunity to actually design solutions to the problems companies and clients were facing.

Design Thinking gave designers the vehicle they needed to have conversations with C-level staffers around why they needed a (I hate this phrase so much but I’m going to use it here for dramatic effect… wait for it…) seat at the table. (Blech. But You get the idea.)

Prior to Design Thinking taking off, it was EXTREMELY difficult for designers to break out of the design room into a space where they could help guide business decisions.

And the companies that embraced design leadership and let them join the conversation? They have been making it rain when quarterly earnings reports come around.

Not going to lie, you hear the occasional horror story about how a company embraced a really terrible design leader and wrote off the entire industry as a result. But those stories are few and far between these days given the high bar put forth by the industry.

Talented design leaders are absolutely crushing it right now in senior staffer positions.

So what’s the big deal about this whole Design Thinking fight? Who cares right? It’s conceptual.

Except it’s not folks. Design Thinking is the crowbar that opened the door to enterprise companies letting designers in to help guide business decisions in addition to product design decisions. People who are discounting it now, aren’t discounting it in a designer only vacuum.

Enterprise companies and C-level leaders are now paying more attention to the design industry than ever before. This argument that previously may have gone unnoticed beyond our immediate design community is being seen by C-level staffers and they’re starting to question their investments in design leadership in general. They aren’t paying attention to the nuances of the language being used, they’re just seeing a headline that says Design Thinking is dead. Then they’re giving their design leaders the side eye in board meetings. We’re undermining our own industry, and we need to knock that ish off before we sink ourselves back into the dark silo-ed off hole from whence we came.

If we want to fight about nomenclature, and specifics, and concepts surrounding methodology and what is and isn’t design, it’s fine. If we want to redefine Design Thinking, and create new terms and descriptors it’s cool. But loudly and proudly shouting that Design Thinking is BS, is… well it’s BS. It needs to stop before any more damage is done to designers on the threshold of pushing through to having the opportunity to make their products better from the top down.

And seriously, there are still enormous enterprise companies that don’t even HAVE product designers. At all. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

So designers, let’s not distract ourselves so much with internal arguments that we lose our footing in the corporate world. We can evolve our thinking, adjust our methods and keep moving forward without cutting each other down. Let’s just do our best to keep kicking ass in the board room and keep our sights on our mission as an industry: Improving the world around us for the next generation, one project at a time.