Has design thinking gone astray?

July 25, 2012

The term"design thinking" has certainly received its share of critical scrutiny. A movement that continues after roughly a decade of highly varied but widespread implementation, it is still evolving and going strong.

It was introduced as an opportunity for businesses in need of help with innovation, while design consultancies hoped a fresh approach to process might inject change. In addition to design, design thinking stimulated and inspired many other industries including a revolution in business and financial innovation. As a result, today, designers have a respectable place in the corporate boardroom.

Design thinking, however, is often implemented at a larger scale as the application of systematic rules – rules to a design process that by definition is sometimes dynamic and unpredictable. Design and creative endeavors, by their very nature, are best when there are few constraints – thinking “outside the box,” so to speak. With design, overarching principles must take precedent over strict, highly structured procedure, as good design rarely follows a paint-by-numbers approach. The creative process isn’t something that can be held to a tight set of rules. It would appear that with misuse, frequent misunderstanding and over analysis of design thinking, it may be time to remind ourselves that as designers we still need to focus on great design.

Design thinking is not the “end-all” solution, but rather a tool that might help highlight a solution.

Not to be misconstrued, there is still plenty of reason to believe in design thinking, but there may well be a widespread issue with interpretation and implementation. Design thinking neither negates nor replaces the need for intelligent designers doing what they've always done. Design thinking is not the “end-all” solution, but rather a tool that might help highlight a solution. Its purpose is to bring about insights by synthesizing untidy, disorderly, confusing, and all too frequently, conflicting ideas of experts from different areas to tackle difficult problems. By applying it to organizational structures, a cross-pollination of ideas can occur.

However ironic it may be, it appears that the ideas and theories behind design thinking – which were derived from the world of design – have come full circle to now impart a restrictive influence upon designers. To some extent it is the designer’s job to take chances and be fearless about making waves. Design thinking needs to be more about actions and less about restrictive theory. It’s time we designers stop spending so much time explaining design and remember that the execution of good design IS design thinking, and we designers are well equipped to deal with the risk and chaos involved.