Design thinking in the New York Times

October 6, 2008 — 9 Comments

Janet Rae-Dupree wrote about design thinking in the business section of the New York Times this weekend. It is good to see the discussion about the broader role for design appearing in the mass media. The article illustrates the very gray line between the traditional role of design and the more strategic contribution that design thinking can make. It is sometimes hard to tell what happened from the physical outcomes alone which adds to the challenge when it comes to explaining what design thinking is. I find it very easy to slip toward describing what is simply good design (based on a relatively conventional brief) or what is good business using normal convergent processes. A test is perhaps whether the business (or organizational, or societal) outcome is significantly different than would have been the case if design thinking had not taken place. In other words, were new choices created not only about the product, service or experience but about the business goal itself? Did a product become a service? Did a service become an experience? Were entirely new users or markets identified? Were new to the world offerings created? These questions seem to reflect the higher bar that I believe we might expect to be the result of a broader application of the design approach.

I do agree with the comments from Lara Lee of Jump Associates and George Kembel of the D-school that we must be leary of claiming design thinking as the perfect and only approach to all problems. The ability to integrate different approaches seems to me to be at the core of design thinking itself and it would therefore be foolish to assume its primacy as a problem solving methodology. My argument would simply be that we have spent the last few hundred years assuming other approaches are best and that it is time to consider design thinking alongside the alternatives.

While I offered a simple view of what makes design thinking unique in the article, the discussion that resulted from my earlier post about definitions of design thinking gives a better impression of the richness of the subject. Check out the comments if you haven’t already done so.

Tim Brown


9 responses to Design thinking in the New York Times

  1. Although humans have a systematic way of thinking, behaving and living, they insist in using Boolean logic not only for its business endeavors but also applying it to its life.

    Using a system thinking pattern, or design thinking process, would not only push the entire human race to a more efficient world. It would increase tremendously the technology leaps achieved by each generation.

    Design thinking, as stated on both the NYT article and in your BLOG, is a tool that deserves to be used extensively. I would even suggest that analyzed with more detail, design thinking is the glue of all other thinking processes.

    I personally believe that, in a quest to find the next market buzzword, the marketers steer all of us from the initial raw concept of things. Since the early ages, design was design – purely done with the intent presented in this article. With time market changed the perception of design to concepts like re-engineering, waterfall-approaches, building block design and others.

    We should go back to the simplicity of the terms and, when doing design, just design.

    My best regards,

    Dalton Moraes
    Bachellor in Computer Science – System Analysis

  2. It is heartening to see ‘design thinking’ getting so much press. The challenge is to keep the dialogue at a level that will prevent it from becoming just another business fad. For example when design thinking is too narrowly defined as the process IDEO uses (as was implied in the NYT article) it closes the flow of ideas and inquiry much too quickly. There is a rich constellation of ideas about design thinking that expands our understanding beyond traditional material design. IDEO played an important part in pushing the boundaries of traditional designing but there is much more to the whole story. The full potential of design thinking is just barely discerned at the moment.

    Harold Nelson
    Advanced Design Institute

  3. I suspect it would help us all (those doing and receiving) to have more examples of this logic applied with an easily comprehendible outcome. Having representation of these samples on at a “pedestrian” level along side of articles like this will make it easier to embrace design thinking and justify the need.

  4. In the next year I plan on pursuing an advanced degree and until recently, an MBA was the most logical choice. That was, until, I began reading about Design Thinking and how the future of business will be built around this approach–or so I think.
    My question is does anyone know where this kind of thinking is taught at the graduate level? What about a continuing education scenario? If not, are there any in the works that you know of? So far, I see that Rotman offers a program…but that seems to be it. Any help is much appreciated. Thanks for a great blog Tim!

  5. Mike,
    You are right that the pickings are thin. Other options include Stanford where you can sign up to D-School classes if you are studying for a masters in one of the schools there. Another is the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where the ID program is heavily focused on strategy and design thinking. Patrick Whitney runs it. In London the Tenaka Business School at Imperial College seems to be focusing on some of this content in partnership with the Royal College of Art.
    Good luck

  6. Tim

    Just finished reading Papanek’s “Design for the Real World” in which he asserts that “design is basic to all human activities.” While I believe that some of the core processes we embrace in design thinking underpin human evolution and development (Papanek goes further and sees design as the “the primary, underlying matrix of life”), I fear that we no longer think design because the need to do so is significantly less. So much of our lives is served up on a platter requiring little thought, constructive discontent, invention, etc. – we seem to accept more and question less. We need some basic rewiring that renews the critical eye and the probing mind – throughout education, business and society – so that design thinking (in its broadest sense) shapes the way we engage with this world, whether through our families, our professions, our communities, etc. Its not that design-thinking problem-solving methodologies have been ignored – rather its that we have neglected them and they have become the preserve of the few.

  7. In your article for HBR, you write that Edison was a broad generalist. Can you show me a single job offer anywhere in the world that seeks a generalist? Isn’t it odd that your concept of a design thinker’s profile includes the characteristics of a generalist, and yet IDEO has no career opportunities to offer them? Isn’t it odd that at, you write about “the expertise of multidisciplinary individuals”, and yet your teams are composed of experts? There is not a single mention of a real generalist in your article. Why not?

  8. Alexander,
    I cannot speak for Tim but having worked with ideo and several other design/development contractors the term generalist is certainluy not used for number of reasons but the senior talent are generalists in breadth of experience, interests, and skills. They may have started as a hire or are placed into a project/client situation as focused on one aspect of design or development or even to a specific industry/application but to be of value they will move into all sorts of aspects of design and industry. The culture of these firms is very much open idea generation and sharing. Gerneralist is the appreciation for the complexities and simplisties of the situation. Appreciation is the ability to observe, learn, and contibute.

    Bill Evans

  9. R. Buckminster Fuller made some very interesting observations about the American automobile industry.

    When automobiles were a new technology designers were at the heads of the automobile corporations and hundreds of companies were competing to put out new models every year. Most of these companies were not viable financially and the bankers established that a minimum number of cars had to be produced by automobile company for it to be profitable. The designers were removed from the boards of these companies and replaced by production engineers who decided not to change the engineering design of the car each year, but to use style design to change only the outer appearance of the automobiles. This was a death blow to engineering innovation in the American automobile industry.

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