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Is design thinking dead?

Design Thinking

Let’s wind the clock back to 1980. Apple approaches a company called IDEO to design a mouse for their shiny new personal computer, the Lisa (a grey cube boasting a beefy 5MHz processor). It needs to be simpler and more intuitive than anything else on the market. And cheaper, naturally.

 

IDEO came up with a small plastic box – tactile click button on the front, rubber ball on the bottom. It fit snuggly into the palm of your hand. They’d just stumbled on the first modern-day mouse.  That mouse changed Apple’s entire production philosophy. They weren’t just a tech company anymore. They were a tech company that thought like designersThat’s a classic example of Design Thinking – a methodology that uses good design to find smart solutions to problems. But there are plenty of others.

Design Thinking is a buzzword that’s become so ubiquitous over the last ten-or-so years that people are already calling it extinct. In the advertising and agency world, mass adoption is the same thing as redundancy (the thinking being – it can’t be innovative if everyone’s doing it).  But design thinking isn’t new. Theorist Horst Rittel lectured on design science in the 1960s. When mankind was discovering flare jeans and the avocado, Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was already writing books on user-centricity, iterative workflow and the importance of prototyping. And of course designers have been doing it since someone suggested shaving the corners off a square. 

Design Thinking

The rise of design thinking in the commercial and corporate zeitgeist follows a pretty familiar trajectory: a few early adopters repackage some existing thinking, a buzzword pops up, the rest of the industry quickly embraces the process (with varying degrees of success), and the innovators say the thinking is dead. Happens like clockwork. But is design thinking really cactus? Let’s break it down.

Critics of design thinking generally fall into two camps: people who think in terms of brand, not design. And people who bet heavily on design thinking and haven’t seen concrete results.  The first group argue that design thinking (and its little cousins UX, UI, usability testing and experience mapping) inevitably lead to everything looking the same. Individual people are hard to predict, but as an aggregate we’re pretty average (by definition). So skewing your products toward what most people want out of a website/car/cereal/mobile phone regresses your product toward a pretty frictionless, boring mean. You’ve lost your most important asset: your brand

The second group heard about design thinking in a flashy, one-day workshop and immediately adopted it as their entire business philosophy. Every department was encouraged to ‘think like designers’, even IT (who were probably quite cynical about the whole thing and just wanted to get back to work). A few months or years later, the business is carrying on pretty much as it was before, and design thinking becomes the target – it didn’t work, it doesn’t do anything, it’s snake oil with a cuter bottle. 

There’s a few problems with both these arguments. For one, design thinking is a tool like anything else. Used well, by certain departments at certain times of the ideation process, it can be great. Used badly, or with unrealistic expectations, it's hopeless. If you try to build an entire house using only a hammer, your opinion of hammers is going to be pretty low.

Another problem: if you assume design thinking will change how people work, you’re setting themselves up to fail. People are busy, they have deadlines, stress and an over-flowing inbox – they will always (always) return to the path of least resistance, given enough time. Design thinking can’t change human nature.

The best way to use it? Like a scalpel. Surgically. Insert design thinking into relevant departments at relevant times and see what happens. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. Maybe the Dev team can benefit from iterative website roll-outs, but Finance just really needs to knuckle down and finish these spreadsheets, thanks.

 

Want to learn more about design thinking? Check out our Design Thinking for Innovation course here.

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James Shackell
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