Archives For design thinking

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.

In my HBR article I gave a ‘definition’ of design thinking. It was:

Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

On reflection this is a narrow description that focuses on design thinking’s role within business. The next sentence that I wrote.“….design thinking converts need into demand” , which I borrowed from Peter Drucker, broadens things out a bit but still assumes an economic motivation.

I am grappling with two questions as I think about this.

1. Is there a general definition of design thinking?

2. Is it useful to have one?

John Maeda (President of RISD) would likely answer that question by saying “a banana”. He often talks about how hard it is to describe design and I agree with him.

On the other hand I think one of the biggest obstacles to using design thinking as an effective problem solving approach is anticipating what it feels like. We are not used to wondering about how processes feel. I think we assume they all feel the same and in conventional business that is probably true. They are mostly analytical, rational, formal and convergent. Analytical in that we break problems up to study them. Rational in that we take an ordered approach. Formal in that we can describe the approach and replicate it easily and convergent in that we start with available choices and work toward a single best solution. We have been experiencing processes like this ever since studying math or science at school.

Design thinking is different and therefore it feels different.

Firstly it is not only convergent. It is a series of divergent and convergent steps. During divergence we are creating choices and during convergence we are making choices. For people who are looking to have a good sense of the answer, or at least a previous example of one, before they start divergence is frustrating. It almost feels like you are going backwards and getting further away from the answer but this is the essence of creativity. Divergence needs to feel optimistic, exploratory and experimental but it often feels foggy to people who are more used to operating on a plan. Divergence has to be supported by the culture.

The second difference is that design thinking relies on an interplay between analysis and synthesis, breaking problems apart and putting ideas together. Synthesis is hard because we are trying to put things together which are often in tension. Less expensive, higher quality for instance. This is where Roger Martin’s idea of integrative thinking is important. Check out his book The Opposable Mind if you haven’t already seen it.

Designers have evolved visual ways to synthesize ideas and this is another one of the obstacles for those new to design thinking; a discomfort with visual thinking. A sketch of a new product is a piece of synthesis. So is a scenario that tells a story about an experience. A framework is a tool for synthesis and design thinkers create visual frameworks that in themselves describe spaces for further creative thinking.

I have always felt that the uncertainty of divergence and the integrative head-hurting complexity of synthesis are the unique characteristics of design thinking and they are also the things that make it really challenging.

The pay-off  is that feeling of flow that comes when ideas come together and take form. Is this when convergence is happening?

In my Harvard Business Review article I introduce the idea of design thinking with the example of Thomas Edison and the customer centered, systems thinking, approach that he took to the creation of the light bulb. The great engineer of Victorian England, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (pictured here), was also not a typical engineer. He cared about the experience his customers had when they traveled on his railways and steamships. He may have been a design thinker.

Something tells me that design thinking was widely spread long before design was seen as a profession and long before we started to write about it. The difference was that it was intuitive and its practitioners often seen as slightly odd. They were not typical inventors, engineers, artists or businessmen. They integrated aspects of all of these and they focused on creating solutions that met the needs of the customer. I believe that design thinking is part of a longer tradition of integrated, human centered, creative problem solving. The early examples were mavericks who used their intuition to determine how they approached and solved problems and created breakthrough ideas. Now we exist in a time where we need more than a few intuitive mavericks to tackle the challenges in front of us. We also exist in a time where we have compartmentalized ourselves into ever more specialist disciplines, using engineered processes to create incremental solutions. We need to be inspired to cut across boundaries to make new connections and insights. Some of the great mavericks of the past can provide such an inspiration. My list includes Brunel, Edison, Charles and Ray Eames, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs (of course), Ferdinand Porsche. Who else should be on the list?