Saving Design Thinking from itself

Sevra Davis writing for the RSA on a danger facing ‘design thinking’ 

And yet, as more and more businesses, governments and institutions describe themselves as ‘design-led’ ‘design thinking’ is in danger of being devalued. Too much of what is practiced under the name of design thinking seems to comprise little more than running structured workshops. The process can now sound technocratic and can feel meaningless. We are now faced with real questions about design’s preparedness to tackle complex issues and the capacity of design methods to deliver scalable solutions. This is a shame as design thinking was borne from a desire to share the creative process more widely.

Something that’s coming up in my reading on this topic, and in my own experience, is the issue that design thinking stops being an ideology and starts being a methodology instead. What I mean by that is it stops being a way of thinking and starts simply being a collection of tools. Most of those tools already existed – for example, brainstorming or kaizen. As Tom Kelley says in The Art of Innovation, a lot of people do brainstorming already, but they do it occasionally, to tick a box. Instead it should be practiced regularly as part of your day-to-day approach to looking at what you do.

Just carrying on with the old way of doing things, but calling it ‘design thinking’ to be trendy, is a sure-fire way of devaluing the concept. Worse, saying ‘we do design thinking’ without buying into what that means isn’t actually design thinking.

Too often, even with the best intentions, design thinking has been adopted too quickly and without a real appetite for the messiness, circularity and long (and sometimes drawn out) timeline that successful design process really requires.

This links to a personal frustration to me working in higher education – we’re asked to be innovative but being innovative means taking risks, experimenting, trialling, iterating. But we’re told we have to be right first time, and we’re not allowed to change what we do without going through all the administrative hoops. (See my post on quality assurance versus quality enhancement).

We can’t have it both ways. Innovation is messy. Telling people to be innovative without taking risks is like asking children to ‘play quietly’. It’s an oxymoron.

But while creativity is often portrayed as being random (which is why it’s also seen as something only ‘gifted’ people can do) the creative process is in fact remarkably structured.

Davis mentions the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond model of the design thinking process which emphasises the divergent/convergent pattern.

Double diamond design 600

In the first stage design thinking refers to a process where a problem is identified and explored and then insights are discovered to arrive at a more specific problem definition, which then results in a design brief. In the second stage a range of solutions are developed and prototyped before a final solution is delivered.

It’s important that we avoid adopting important ideas in name only and ensure that the benefit of powerful concepts like design thinking are not lost simply because they become trendy, or because someone goes to a seminar on it and brings back the gist of it, but not the meat.

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