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What Designers Need To Know About Design Thinking

I'm a designer, first and foremost. My undergraduate and graduate work are both in Business Administration. Design Thinking straddles these two disciplines, and as a result, many designers are utterly confused, frustrated and even combative when it comes to the topic of design thinking. I'm going to attempt to clear the air, in hopes that we can all have a more productive and informed conversation.

First, I totally get why so many designers are put off by the topic of design thinking. It is hard to find a good definition, and when you do, it's often part of a company's approach or methodology that's declared as their unique approach to solving problems. Blah blah blah.

Most definitions that I see people use aren't really definitions at all, but rather a model or workflow, which further confuses everyone involved. Webster's Dictionary isn't a picture book.

In order to begin to understand what design thinking is, we first have to wade through an endless amount of agencies marketing propagandas. Empathy, hexagons, iteration, gag, gag, gag.

To further confuse things, the business world talks more about design thinking than the design world does! As such, many designers simply assume that design thinking is the business world's way of valuing design, and MBA students are being taught to think like designers. I chuckle when I see designers puff up with pride when the make the connection that design is now part of business strategy. I also want to vomit a little.

  • Design Thinking is not Human Centered Design.
  • Design Thinking is not thinking like a designer.
  • Design Thinking is not scientific inquiry.
  • Design Thinking does NOT make you a designer.

If it's not empathy and hexagons, then what is design thinking?

The late Bill Moggridge, when asked to define Design Thinking, gave us the best definition I've ever heard. He said:

Design Thinking is a multidisciplinary approach to solving problems using design methodologies.

Do you see mention of a designer, an artifact, or output? Nope. Design methods are as close as we get to any reference to design. So what are design methods? Read this and come back.

The truth is, design thinking is a business word, not a design word. Design thinking is an approach that the businesses uses to generate new and creative ideas to help solve problems. It's simply a way that businesses extract value from the design discipline, outside the traditional design departments.

By now, many designers are feeling left out. MBA students stole a word that designer's have used to define themselves for ages. Designer thinkers are driving strategy, while clashing with traditional designers. Fear not designers, here are a few things to keep in mind.

A Designer's tips for surviving design thinking

  1. Let go. You don't own the word design. As much as it pains you (and I) to see non-designers use the word design to describe what they do, it's ok. No one is trying to undermine the craft of design.
  2. Articulate your craft and the value you bring, apart from an agencies approach to selling work. Design has value, apart from design thinking.
  3. Get an MBA. Seriously. If you can't though, start by reading everything from Michael Porter, Roger Martin, and Harvard Business Review. If you want to be a part of the design thinking conversation, you have GOT to level up your business acumen.
  4. Designers think differently than MBA graduates, and the differences are important and valuable. Don't forget that.

Now, a note to the business world. The confusion goes both ways. Many of the designers you know aren't ready to be part of the design thinking conversation. That's ok. Bring them in anyway. Teach them. Help them understand the value they bring to the conversation as designers. Design thinking is multidisciplinary, and in my opinion, best executed with practicing designers.

Design and design thinking are not at all the same, but they are a powerful duo.

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