Backlash: Designers versus Design Thinking

10 Jan 2010|Darrel Rhea

Since Roger Martin and I co-chaired a DMI conference on Design Thinking in June, I have been hearing and reading a lot of very good designers respond by expressing their discomfort, mounting all out attacks, and some even denying the existence of the subject. While there are a larger number of designers that are enthusiastically embracing the notions behind it, it is clear there is a backlash. Where is this coming from?

Many people ascribe to the view that design is about problem solving. It should come as no surprise that the part of the design that is most valued and appreciated is the solution. When it is beautifully expressed, the solution is easy to grasp. The quality, utility and novelty of the solution can be inspiring. Designers’ personal identities are deeply associated with the elegance of a highly resolved and refined solution that is beautifully articulated. What gets celebrated in the media and awards? Solutions.

The processes used by designers to get to those solutions are often considered less important. Of course designers have processes, whether intuitive, highly rigorous and structured, or (as Roger Martin would argue) something in between. When subjected to analysis, processes aren’t very glamorous – even creative processes sound like dry white toast. They aren’t very personal either. We all want to be recognized for our own creative genius. If our genius is the outcome of a process, then does that mean anyone can achieve what we can? Emphasizing process in design demystifies it, and can be seen as devaluing the role of the designer. If we deconstruct design into component parts, could we go so far as to create an algorithm for replicating it? Horrors! Designers want recognition for their different and special genius, not for their processes or tools.

Design Thinking shifts the emphasis away from outcomes to process. This is unfamiliar territory to many accomplished designers, and is creating discomfort among some whose clients are asking questions that they don’t have thoughtful answers for. While design processes have been a standard feature in proposals for work (especially over the last 10 years), they have described the activities in the development process. What is changing now is that clients want to understand how a designer will approach a problem – how they will think about the problem.

What makes the threat worse is that some of us who are the strongest and most vocal proponents of Design Thinking aren’t necessarily design practitioners. Business consultants, academics and design managers are not only on the bandwagon, they are leading it. Yes, we might have design backgrounds and manage design-oriented companies, but most of us talk for a living. We might design at a high level, but mostly we manage design or innovation programs. Think how it must feel to the celebrity designer to have the media be focusing not on them but on Design Thinking and on non-practitioners. Ouch!

If you buy into the “problem solving” definition of design, a key thing to remember is that there are two words there. The problem is now getting more focus. How we frame the problem is critical to finding great solutions. In the old days, designers would ask for the specifications and then go about designing the solution. The definition of the problem was assumed correct. Today we realize that how we define the problem is the most important element for achieving design breakthroughs. The best designers have always been very good at this, even if they down-play its importance.

The definition of the problem is becoming central largely because design is being applied to much larger problems with greater significance and impact. We are designing the user experience for large companies, healthcare systems and tax systems. We are designing the organizational structure and culture of companies. We are designing the conversations that produce business strategy. When the scope of design is at this level, the “architecture of the problem” becomes key. Often organizations are investing millions of dollars in these efforts. It is right for them to be concerned that the most robust data is being used to understand the problem, and that the analysis and synthesis is done with state-of-the-art consciousness and rigor. Everyone now expects designers to define the specifications. How they define it is what I consider to be the thinking part in Design Thinking.

Once the problem has been defined (or hopefully redefined), and iterative prototyping begins, then of course, the thinking continues. Designers would say that “Thinking cannot be separated from the act [of design] itself.” In this phase of activities, they are right. But like it or not, the contemporary practice of design now includes finding and harnessing the intent of organizations, guiding them in an inquiry for what problems they should solve, who should they solve them for, and what principles they should use to evaluate their success, and what strategies they should deploy. Is that design? In my world it sure is, and you better have some solid thinking behind it before you start doing.

This designer backlash is a battle for the definition of design. Those who resist Design Thinking have an understandable pride in their formula for success and their accomplishments. But design is now being applied to a class of wicked problems that is challenging all of us and stretching our competence. It isn’t just about creating the elegant solution; it is also about redefining what solutions the world needs. That non-designers are embracing design is a good thing for the field of design, and a great career opportunity for designers. But it will require embracing change, and redefining our identities as designers.

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