How design thinking helped me learn to love my discipline

The tools I use (Hi, Etch-A-Sketch!) and the sources I read may change, but my discipline remains the same. (Photo by Emi Kolawole)

When I first encountered design thinking, I made a common mistake among those who are tired or even burnt out as a result of doggedly working within their discipline: I thought design thinking could be my new discipline. I was wrong.

The d.school offered me, as it offers numerous people, an opportunity to explore a new path by way of learning a new way to work. This way of work, for those who are used to more traditional power dynamics and organizational structures, is inspiring, exciting and, ultimately, liberating. It frees you from the burden and isolation of your routine. But, in the process of learning this new way of work, it can be easy to lose sight of your discipline and the important role it plays in the application of design thinking.

Design thinking depends on everyone at the table having a discipline of some kind. In short, design thinking is not, unto itself, a discipline; it is a way of work that can be molded, shaped and applied to any discipline.

The lessons taught at the d.school offer people permission to think differently about problems and solutions. They teach people how to form connections among people of different disciplines that break down silos of knowledge and that lead to unexpected and useful outcomes. This way of work offers many people a new way to see the world — a way that feels much more natural and that dissolves the barriers formed by traditional power dynamics and ineffective workflows.

The excitement and inspiration can, however, obscure an important lesson I’ve learned in my time at the d.school: design thinking depends on everyone at the table having a discipline of some kind. In short, design thinking is not, unto itself, a discipline; it is a way of work that can be molded, shaped and applied to any discipline.

I took a hiatus from writing, editing and producing regularly to dive into human-centered design. I developed workshops and worksheets; I took and taught classes. I ran workshops away from the d.school. But something didn’t feel quite right. I felt adrift. It wasn’t until I dove into a collaborative writing project — a journal to help grow one’s creative practice — that I realized I had lost sight of my discipline: media production. Some aspects of my work during my hiatus — creating and delivering workshops and developing worksheets — felt much more comfortable than others, but I realize that it was because they called on me to work in my area of specialty.

I’m incredibly grateful for the time away from my routine, and I hope to take more breaks and explore more rabbit holes in the future. But I plan to always keep my discipline in sight and recommend the same for others introduced to design thinking.

If you come to the d.school and look closely, you’ll see that everyone at the d.school arrives with a discipline. Many people come as formal designers. Others are engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, human resources specialists, accountants, activists, politicians, event organizers and, yes, journalists. We come from all walks of life, but we all come to the d.school with a discipline of some kind and are at various stages of expertise. Some of our youngest students are just beginning to settle on an area of specialty and dive into their discipline. It’s wonderful to see them learn the design thinking process as they do so. They are much more nimble in their learning than I was at their age.

We collect the photos of students who come through the d.school, and I’m always excited to see the gallery continue to grow. (Photo by Emi Kolawole)

Their process of learning, where they are continuously called on to distinguish between design thinking as a process and their discipline, which requires regular practice (practice they can conduct in a human-centered way), has helped me immensely.

Ultimately, in order to improve your design thinking practice, continue pursuing expertise in your discipline. If anything, be even more focused on mastery than you were before you discovered design thinking.

That means, for me, writing every day, reading work by writers I gleefully envy (yes, envy can be a good thing), exploring diverse form factors, helping people gather and share information better and staying current on new tools. It means taking on projects that help me cultivate greater expertise and where the growth in my expertise is of benefit to the team. It also means remaining flexible and knowing when I am diving into an area outside of my expertise, exploring that area with curiosity and intention, but always knowing how to get home.

The wonderful thing about my discipline is that it has allowed me to explore a variety of different topics, such as politics, government, technology and now design. It also means cultivating basic skills that can be applied across various types and branches of an organization — writing, editing, public speaking and more.

Ultimately, in order to improve your design thinking practice, continue pursuing expertise in your discipline. If anything, be even more focused on mastery than you were before you discovered design thinking.

Design thinking needs my specialty as much as my specialty needs design thinking. Does that mean I will stop teaching people how to apply human-centered design or that I will quit making workshops or stop finding new ways to bring design thinking into organizations? No. It means I will invite people of various disciplines and levels of expertise to the table — people with whom I can apply design thinking to reach unexpected outcomes that serve those ends among others. In that way, I have changed. Rather than being confined to one industry, I can work just about anywhere because, now, I know how to work with just about anyone.