Calling B.S. Part 3: Design Thinking

Design Thinking: Everyone is Doing it, Mostly Wrong

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Despite the recent popularity of the "dad bod," every hot new trend officially ends when dad, mom, Uncle Joe, the grandparents and the dorky neighbors down the street join the fun. Just ask Facebook. With “design thinking,” however, practically anyone with a sticky business conundrum now waxes rhapsodic on the method's purported magical properties to overcome every operational challenge. Even with everyone aboard the bandwagon, grandpa hasn’t managed to ruin the design thinking party just yet in part because no one can agree on what design thinking actually is.

Google "design thinking" and you’ll encounter 230,000,000+ diffuse definitions. Explanations range from maddening circular definitions, “design thinking refers to design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing,” to vague platitudes, “a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities.” Most would agree that solving problems and discovering opportunities is unquestionably positive, unless you are, as Donald Trump would say, a "dummy" or a "dope."

As noted in the companion post Calling B.S. Part 2: Innovation, marketers and designers are pretty good at talking a good game. Design thinking democratizes this piffle by proliferating it across other organizational functions like R&D and engineering. Sadly, ersatz design thinkers are frequently left with a surfeit of words, but little or no design or thinking.

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Even some of the most prominent figures in the design world and preeminent practitioners of design thinking have become more than a tad suspicious of the phrase. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, told the Harvard Business Review recently, “what worries me a little bit is that we have a lot of people out in the world who think of themselves as design thinkers without any of the actual skills that it takes to do design thinking effectively.” And Don Norman, one of the originators of the very idea of using design to solve practical, real-world issues takes things a step further arguing, “Design thinking is a powerful public relations term that changes the way in which design firms are viewed. Now all the mysterious, non-business oriented, strange ways by which many design firms like to work is imbued with the mystical aura of design thinking."