What is Design Thinking?

Photo showing Andy Budd

This is a short article answering the question ”What is Design Thinking?” which Andy Budd has written. Andy Budd is running a full-day workshop about Design Thinking during beyond tellerrand in Berlin on November 5th.

Design Thinking is nothing new. In fact it’s a concept that’s been around since the 70s. There are countless books, articles, and academic papers on the subject, not to mention a plethora of popular TED talks. So why does the concept get such a hard time, especially from other designers?

I think one reason is a vague sense of “Emperors New Clothes”. We see articles in prominent business magazines like Harvard Business Review claiming that Design Thinking is the new business strategy, and we say to ourselves “Design Thinking is nothing new. I’ve been a designer for and I’ve always thought deeply about my work”. It feels like a personal affront to our professionalism. That somehow we’ve not been trying hard enough all this time. So we push back.

It’s understandable, but also a massive act of self harm.

For far too long, businesses have conflated design for aesthetics — what Buchanan described as first order design. However we know that design is much more than this, much more than look and feel. Great design has the ability to solve a whole range of business problems — the third and fourth order design problems in Buchanan’s model.

With the emergence of Design Thinking, the perception in Boardrooms is starting to change. Design Thinking has developed into a powerful brand that sits separately from “design doing”, and executives are desperate for a piece of the action. It’s no surprise then, that some of the hottest MBA courses around are effectively design courses, teaching a whole new class of graduates in a design-led approach to problem solving.

The large businesses consultancies were quick to catch on, and have been selling Design Thinking programmes into blue chip companies for the past five years or more. Teams of recent graduates with little more than a semester of design experience are now teaching boards how to think like designers, while we sit around and argue semantics.

As a result, we’re currently facing our biggest existential crisis of late. As design teams are increasingly being bought in house, we’re also moving further down the value chain. So unless we get off our high horses and embrace the concept of Design Thinking (even if we know the term to be bullshit), we risk being pigeonholed as the delivery people.

If that happens, we’ll see executives, product managers and business consultants taking on the more conceptual design challenges, while we’re stuck in the second half of the double diamond, tasked with implementing somebody else’s poorly thought out strategy.

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