Design thinking in the New York Times

October 6, 2008

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.