Changing the Definition of Design

Readers of this site will know that I am perplexed by the term “design thinking.” This consternation stems from the lack of a good definition, particularly with regard to what separates a “design thinker” from a plain old good designer. Design culture in North America and Europe has seen a profusion of nomenclature in recent years from interaction, to experience, to service design, all in addition to design thinking (I’ve observed the same thing happening in Australia and Asia as well, but I can only speak with direct experience of the North American and European contexts).

Is there a new practice of design brewing? If so, what makes it unique and how do we define it? How do we understand who is a design thinker and who is not? And perhaps most importantly for the readership of this blog, if design thinking can be “practiced by anyone” as Tim Brown suggests in Change by Design, what is it that professionals contribute? What unique things do design thinkers do?

My hunch is that the recent usage of the name stems from a professional concern for differentiation and is therefore an attempt to establish a competitive advantage by creating-and being a first mover within-a new market of design services. This has obvious benefit for a group such as Brown’s IDEO as they seek to distinguish themselves from the clamor of the world’s many design firms. Professional practices use names to create territories and things that they own, but what happens when the conversation expands beyond a single corporate entity and begins to encompass a larger community? As groups around the world try to redefine the practice of design, we risk a profusion of names for what are essentially just slightly different variations of “good design.”

To ask it another way, is there any reason that some designers should not be design thinkers?

I’m trying to ferret out whether “design thinking” is a useful term amongst the community of designer-peers or if it’s more appropriate, in a non-pejorative way, simply as a PR tool.

The design community has generally not communicated the value of our various practices very well to the public, so it’s exciting to have a new way of posing a value proposition that people actually buy into! If the term “design thinking” is a tool for differentiation within the market then it’s easier to accept, but now that it’s spilling into schools-and particularly business schools-the term is in danger of creating more confusion than value.

The design community seems to be experiencing an identity crisis compounded by its myriad PR failures. The more I dig into this question, I see the energy put into supporting “design thinking” as two matters that are confusingly grouped under one name:

  1. A renovation of the definition of what it means to be a “good designer” to include systems and strategies as well as enhanced skills in observation, analysis, and communication.
  2. Recognition that the best way to increase the standing of “design” in the eyes of non-designers (read: potential clients) is to educate them through exposure to our process

It seems that the hoped-for outcome is:

  1. Designers who understand their work as integral with a variety of contexts: physical, organizational, market, environmental (#1)
  2. Non-designers (“design thinkers”) value the design process as a contribution to their core business/mission whether this is product based or not. (#2)
  3. An increasing number of designers involved in strategic decision making (result of A+B)

As I continue to try to make sense of “design thinking,” I took the opportunity of a recent flight to read Tim Brown’s new book and conducted a little experiment. I’ve transcribed every most mentions of “design thinking” and “design thinker” as a way of attempting to find Brown’s definition. It’s one of the most coherent available at the moment, but it’s still fuzzy and I’m still having problems rectifying the implications of the following statements with their relationship to the deprecated terms of “design” and “designing.”

Taking lines out of context is a cruel and unusual thing to do to another author’s text, but it’s done in good sport as a quick and dirty attempt to conjure a definition where one does not otherwise exist. Sorry, Tim!

Design thinking Is…

Design thinking is founded upon “The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints.” p.18

“Design thinking is expressed within the context of a project that forces us to articulate a clear goal at the outset.” p.21

“Design thinking is the opposite of group thinking, but paradoxically, it takes place in groups.” p.28

“Design thinking is embodied thinking-embodied in teams and projects… but embodied in the physical spaces of innovation as well.” p.35

“Design thinking is rarely a graceful leap from height to height-it tests our emotional constitution and challenges our collaborative skills.” p.65

“Design thinking [is] a continuous movement between divergent and convergent processes, one the one hand, and between analytical and synthetic, on the other.” p.70

“Design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity… for integrative thinking.” p.85

“Design thinking… [is] allowing customers to write the last chapter of the story themselves.” p.148

“Design thinking is ideally suited to enhance… [a] human-centered, desirability-based approach.” p.159

“Design thinking is unlikely to become an exact science but… there is an opportunity to transform it from a black art into a systematically applied management approach.” p.176

“Design thinking is being applied at new scales in the move from discrete products and services to complex systems.” p.178

“Design thinking is about creating a multipolar experience in which everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation.” p.192

Design thinking principals are “user-centered research, brainstorming, analogous observation, prototyping.” p.224

“Design thinking requires bridging the ‘knowing-doing gap.’” p.227

“Design thinking starts with divergence, the deliberate attempt to expand the range of options rather than narrow them.” p.229

“Design thinking balances the perspective of users, technology, and business.” p.229

“Design thinking is fast-paced, unruly, and disruptive.” p.234

“Design thinking has its origins in the training and the professional practice of designers.” p.241

Design thinking needs…

“Design thinking needs to move upstream, closer to the executive suites where strategic decisions are made.” p.37

“Design thinking… demands divergent, synthesis-based methods.” p.160

“Design thinking needs to be turned towards the formulation of a new participatory social contract.” p.178

“Design thinking… must find ways to encourage individuals to move towards more sustainable behavior.” p.195

Design thinking does…

“Design thinking… [translates] observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.” p.49

“Design thinking extends the perimeter around a problem.” p.205

Design thinking “[builds] on one another’s good ideas.” p.225

“Design thinking can not only contribute to the success of companies but also promote the general welfare of humanity.” p.227

Design thinking can…

“Design thinking can be practiced by everyone.” p.149

“Design thinking can help us chart a path into the future.” p.149

“Design thinking can provide guidance… on a large scale and even at the level of the most challenging problems we face in our society today.” p.201

Design thinkers are…

“Design thinkers… cross the ‘T.’” p.27

“Design thinkers [have] the ability to spot patterns in the mess of complex inputs, synthesize new ideas from fragmented parts, [and] empathize with people from different contexts.” p.86

“Design thinkers can ‘build’ prototypes in the cafeteria, a boardroom, or a hotel suite.” p.106

“Design thinkers… can use… empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.” p.115

[Design thinkers have] to be comfortable moving along both… axes [of space and time].” p.133

“Design thinkers have been drawn to the greatest challenges” p.203

“Design thinkers have become adept at approaching important social issues from the angle of individual motivations and the behaviors that follow” p.220

“Design thinkers have become activists and are applying their skills to sources of social dysfunction.” p.220

“Design thinkers observe how people behave [and] how the context of their experience affects their reaction to products and services.” p.229

Design thinkers use a “human centered approach” to “inform new offerings and increase likelihood of their acceptance by connecting them to existing behaviors.” p.229

“Design thinkers may be in short supply, but they exist inside every organization.” p.234

Design thinkers ask “‘Why?’ [as] an opportunity to reframe a problem, redefine the constraints, and open the field to a more innovative answer.” p.236

“Design thinkers observe the ordinary.” p.237

Design thinkers do…

“A design thinker will bring into harmonious balance” desirability, feasibility, and viability. p.18

“Design thinkers… have shifted their thinking from problem to project.” p.21

Design thinkers “[help] people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.” p.40

“Design thinkers have upped the ante, beginning with the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” p.56

“Design thinkers… continue to ‘think with their hands’ throughout the life of a project.” p.106

“Design thinkers… anticipate the needs of their customers and build on the ideas of their colleagues.” p.121

Design thinkers will do…

“Design thinkers must also consider the demand side of the equation.” p.199

Design thinkers should be “sitting on… corporate boards, participating in their strategic marketing decisions, and taking part in the early stages of R&D efforts.” p.229

“Design thinkers will connect the upstream with the downstream.” p.229

3 Comments so far

  1. neilsyd55 on March 11th, 2010

    Bryan. Your help please! Do you know how design thinking made the journey from the design universe in to Business Schools? I have recently been asked to help a business school with its public/student profile and “design thinking” is everywhere. Most of what I am hearing seems either prosaic or irrelevant. Am I missing something important here?.

  2. on April 16th, 2010

    Nice – I think you’re on to something. An ideology (or vocabulary, at least) shared between designers and managers is valuable for both groups, even if it’s a little cheesy (deep dive! ideate!) and smacks of a greasy PR campaign. It’s not rigorous, but at least it’s a conversation.

  3. Ainsley on May 7th, 2012

    Designs has its very broad on understanding. For me putting those designs really must have a very keen eye on details. I think this step really include a sense of mastered skill taking other eyes on what designs for them to fit.

    Ainsley from calage distribution 

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