Design Thinking: Manipulation, Utopia or Good Business?

Connect. Artist Taiki Arita 2017, photo by MM Shmailov

Design Thinking has become this buzz word that is growing in power and influence. It is very often misunderstood and its true meaning requires unpacking even for students of design. Every year I get a chance to meet and teach hundreds of design students on the value of intellectual property and innovation. I meet them at design schools and entrepreneurship classes. The first question I often need to address is — how is intellectual property related to the designer?

Their point of reference is that they are viewing themselves as service providers or classical designers as John Maeda categorizes this type of contribution in his yearly Design in Tech report. It is rare to find those that would view their potential contribution to a business or technology beyond the practice of classical design and the provision of the perfect product. The shift to the strategic emphasis or the fostering of constructive divergence is often a challenging notion.

When teaching the course on design driven innovation, the first thing we do is to correct the jargon. We explain that design as used within that framework is a methodology, a different way of thinking in a business environment. In this way of thinking — rather than center on technology or preconceived notions of what the potential users of their product might need and want — we encourage them to put the humans in the center and then think about the technological barriers or other constraints. In a class with a mixed audience, with veteran CEO’s, engineers, social scientists, entrepreneurs and designers — I often find that the designers are the hardest to convince on their potential as transformative power in an enterprise. On the other hand, those that have no training in design — do not understand how they can contribute as design thinkers. I then remind myself and the class that to be a design thinker, degree in design is not a prerequisite and is not always a solution. Citing Maria Giudice we explain that design is synonymous with change, and that designers, by training or by nature, are agents of such a change and drivers of innovation.

It is at this stage that most of the class is on board for a new adventure into a fascinating world. They learn to listen. Through painful practice, they ask a question and listen, even through the awkward stage of silence. This presents a big challenge when all you know and all you have ever done is try to complete the sentence of your partner in a dialogue, to show you know the answer or to fill the void with words.

Teaching that crossing a cultural or a disciplinary barrier and communication across cultures (e.g. for the sake of knowledge exchange) is a process is the next challenge. Living in a world of immediate results, this is of no surprise. Understanding that what “I” think is not the only right opinion is a challenge of its own.

We then start to explore the human factor — what does the user need, want or desire? It is here that the manipulation sets into motion and has to be neutralized. Our preconceived notions of what the human would need or want from a product or a service, our preset limitations that something is not feasible or too risky, limit us from contributing to true change. Listening to the needs and wants of the user becomes painful because it is at times in contrast to the status quo, the already thought out result, worked out strategy or the social norm. Shifting the mindset at this point entails letting go of everything you think you know and just having fun with the little Post-It’s compiled during the anthropological journey with the humans. It is at this stage that a vision is set. Brainstorming, sketching, telling a story in a comic’s type framework- the vision becomes grander than anything they have thought of, almost a utopia, with every needed and desired feature present but often without the feasibility to deliver.

This is my favorite stage in the process-this is where innovation comes in, providing the new and inventive solutions to uncovered problem. This is also where the true value of the design thinking as a methodology comes into play. One starts to think as a systems thinker, experiment and improvise, disrupt the preconceived barriers, open to new experiences and get hand’s on with the process to deliver a better service or a product. The hybrid talents come into play, those that were not trained in design schools start to think like designers and those that are trained as ones, understand and contribute to the mutual effort, adopting new skills and modes of thinking.

Design thinking is part of good business practice, even when, or perhaps exactly when, it permits the useful disruption to the status quo. Design thinking, proliferating even to business schools, is in fact becoming a sine qua non for every enterprise no matter the department to which such an entity belongs. To those who start to navigate this unknown — enjoy!