To Make Design Thinking Work, We Need To Set It Free

John Kolko doesn’t get design thinking. In his latest blog post he writes:

John Kolko is a designer with a Wikipedia page and he is the author of six books on design. He is not the only one who doesn’t get design thinking. There is a lot of bashing and evangelizing going on these days. In his latest blog post, Kolko also references a lot of these articles on design thinking. All these people don’t get design thinking. Most people get that design thinking is an important force in design and business today, but don’t understand why. A lot of people that talk about design thinking are not designers, John Kolko is an accomplished designer with decades of experience. Because design thinking is tightly coupled to design, his opinion carries some weight for me. When an academic bashes design thinking in the Harvard Business Review, it somehow carries less weight.

John Kolko admits not getting design thinking.

Natasha Iskander pretends to get it in her HBR article but clearly misses the point completely.

I have a theory.

Theory /ˈθɪəri/ noun: a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

I have a theory about what design thinking really is and where it’s true value lies.

I have an idea for a new narrative for design and design thinking.

The mental model of the designer

John Kolko points out a couple of things I can use to explain my theory of design thinking. In his article he says:

He goes on to argue that without the doing, the thinking is powerless. If you look at design thinking from the perspective of the designer — that is what Kolko does — thinking and doing are inseparably linked in the head of the designer. A designer cannot do without thinking and cannot think without doing. Most people cannot do without thinking but most people think without doing. Designers don’t think without doing. That is what separates designers from other people. For designers, thinking is doing is thinking is doing. In the mental model of the designer, separating the two makes no sense.

It gets especially awkward when people without a design education, design experience or design talent start “designing” with post-it notes in design sprints or after a two-day boot camp. Since thinking and doing are inseparable, to the designer, it looks like non-designers are all of a sudden designing. Which, to a designer, sounds equally stupid as a designer doing brain surgery after a two-day boot camp. To a designer, design thinking looks like opening the gates of design to everyone and their mother. And if these people start designing, they are doing it in an incredibly simplistic and stupid way with their post-its and double diamond processes. There has never been a designer that designed anything with post-its and double diamonds. Real design is messy and much more visual than that. It takes years of training, experience and a ton of innate talent to create genius simplicity from chaos.

To a designer, design thinking is just fake design done by fake designers. Design thinking is just a way for consultancies to sell work. The only upside for a real designer is that it creates more of a buzz around design, more respect for the designer and allows the designer to sit at strategic tables. Kolko suggests that designers just enjoy these perks while they last, until the next fad hits the boardrooms.

That’s one way of seeing it. I think Kolko’s article describes the designer's view of design thinking very well. I have seen similar points of view with a lot of other designers.

The mental model of the business consultant

The people benefitting the most from the whole design thinking hype seem to be the management consulting firms. Every self-respecting management consulting firm has acquired at least three design agencies in order to own a chunk of the design (thinking) market. The story they try to push is that in order to do design thinking, you need both the design and the thinking. The acquired design agencies can do the design and the management consultants can do the thinking. If you want to apply design to strategic business problems, you need both designers and strategic business consultants. So who can you call best if you need some design thinking? A management consulting firm that has devoured some design agencies.

The problem with this mental model is that I have yet to see the first example of design capabilities being used to solve strategic business problems. The only strategic business problem that management consultancies with designers on board seem to be fixing is the need for a good User Experience of products and services. Everybody and their mother knows that UX is the name of the game of the competition for businesses right now. And for a good UX, you need design. The dominant business model I see today is management consultancies offering their newly acquired design capabilities to their existing management consulting clients. In a recent study from McKinsey on the business value of design, they proved that investing in design makes your company twice as profitable.

For management consulting firms, design thinking is a ticket to move into the design business. Design thinking has enabled the consulting firms to offer design as a service. This means more business, more revenue, more profit.

In the McKinsey study, they also name some side effects of investing in design. Design might help you break down some walls that separate the silos in your organization. And design might help you with risk management and agility. But the bottom line is that design is an asset that yields a high Return On Investment (ROI). They focus on the output of design:

So both designers and business consultants see design as great products and services. Both see design when they look at design thinking. Truth be told, the report of McKinsey is about the business value of design, not the business value of design thinking. But the strange thing is that the word design thinking is not mentioned once when they talk about the value of design. Whereas designers like Kolko worry about the fact that consultancies use design thinking to sell design. The truth is that consultancies like McKinsey sell design straight up, without design thinking. The designers in consultancies are doing the same work that they were doing when they were still in agencies. They are not doing design thinking. Within McKinsey they define design thinking as a methodology:

Disconnect design and design thinking

It seems like the people doing design thinking are not the people doing design .They see design thinking as something that is done separately from design. McKinsey offers design through their acquired designers and they offer design thinking in their management consulting. The two are not necessarily connected. And that is okay, but:

  • Because design thinking has the word design in it, designers questions whether only designers are qualified to do design thinking. Deep in their hearts they believe only designers can, and should, design and thus design thinking.
  • Because design thinking has the word design in it, management consultants think they are doing design when they are doing design thinking.

But design thinking is not design. If you are decorating your walls with post-its, you are not doing the classical design that requires training, talent and experience that only designers have.

And design is not design thinking. A designer that has mastered type, whitespace, color and rhythm is not necessarily qualified to use the mind-, tool- and skillset he developed for years to solve complex business problems.

Design thinking is a new paradigm

The way I see it, design thinking is a new paradigm, a new way to look at the world, a new way to think and see, a new way to approach problem solving, a new way to do business. This new paradigm is about using the right side of our brains in problem solving. For the last century, under the flag of scientific management, we have been using our left sides of our brains to approach problem solving. This already starts in our education system and ends in the structures, wold views and methods of the companies people work in. They all value left-brain thinking over right-brain thinking. We have all become specialists, not just in our niche of choice but also in using our left brain halves. We have come at a point in history when using only our left halves of our brains and just focussing on small parts doesn’t cut it anymore. We desperately need the help of our right brain halves to see the whole, to tell stories, to find the right questions, to be creative, to engage our visual thinking capacity. That is what design thinking to me is about, about activating the right side of our brain. This doesn’t only increase our problem solving capacity with a 100 precent, it also facilitates better communication and learning processes.

The brain of designers

Design thinking, using the right side of our brains, has long been used by designers to design stuff. Design is in its very nature a complex, uncertain, messy, fuzzy process. The left part of the brain is of not much use in design. You have to use intuition, feeling, stories, trial and error, seeing the whole picture and details at the same time. The analytical left brain is useless for that. So the thinking of designers is done mainly in the right half of the brain.

Anyone can use the right side of their brain

The trick of design thinking is to use this right half of the brain also in other areas. Just because designers use this half, doesn’t mean others can’t use it as well. Through their work, designers have been training, using and developing the right side of their brain for centuries. From a training perspective, they are lightyears ahead of non-designers when it comes to the development of the right hemisphere. But this doesn’t mean anyone can’t access, train and develop this half as well.

How to access to the right half of the brain

This is what all the lego-workshops, drawing-for-executives trainings, post-it sticking-meetings are for. To create a doorway into the right side of the brain. Designers use a different doorway. They design super cool stuff that only designers can design and access their right hemispheres that way. But other people need another gateway. They don’t have the time, talent and skills to master the tools and craft of a designer. But they can use the right side of the brain. The workshops and bootcamps might seem idiotic and simplistic to a designer because they are about only a fraction of what design really is. But if you see them as a different gateway into the capabilities of the right side of the brain, they become useful exercises. They are not design, but tools, exercises that open the door to the possibilities of right-brain thinking and doing.

So designers do design thinking. Of course.

But non-designers can also do design thinking. It’s not the same, but they are using the same human capabilities that designers have been using for centuries.

Designers make cool products and use sophisticated expensive computer tools.

Non-designers solve complex business problems and use post-its, lego bricks and prototypes made in MS Powerpoint.

Designers have been using their right brain halves for as long as there are designers.

Non-designers are now discovering the power of the right half of their brains and adding those capabilities to their analytically trained left brain halves.

Set design thinking free

Maybe this wil stop people from arguing about what design can and cannot do, what impact it will and will not have and who is entitled to do or not do it. McKinsey researching the ROI of design is like researching the ROI of having a pencil. Arguing that only designers can do design thinking is like saying only pro soccer players can use their head to change the trajectory of a ball. Most people have not been exercising their right brain halves, but anyone can use it. That is what design thinking is all about. Everyone can have their own door into the power that lies in using the right side of your brain. Some might use the Adobe Creative Suite, others might use post-its. Some might draw like Leonardo da Vinci, some like nine year olds. Some might wear black t-shirts and sneakers, some blue suits and ties. If you don’t have the talent and are not able to develop your skillset, you will never create beautiful designs. If you don’t dive into the peculiarities of the way business is done, you will never solve complex business problems with design. But anyone can use the right side of their brain as they wish. Most people have chose to neglect it in favor of the left side, but more and more people are waking up to its value.

The Ministry Of Design

I, for one, think it’s great the employees of McKinsey and their clients are waking up to this new dawn of whole-brained thinking. But we need integration. Integration of right brain thinking into left brain fields, left brain thinking into right brain fields. That is why I work as the State Secretary of Integration at the Ministry Of Design. To promote the integration of both our brain halves. Not just to make design better, but the world.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

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Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.