Design & Design Thinking

If 2016 is remembered for anything (apart from the passing of some great actors and artists), it should be remembered as the Year of the Words. Which words? Take your pick: we had ‘post-truth’, ‘deplorables’, ‘fake news’, ‘hygge’ (thanks Denmark) and of course ‘Brexit’ . There are probably a lot more, however the one that has been ricocheting around in my brain (probably due to my calling) is ‘Design Thinking’.

It seems that everywhere I go and in every business context, everyone is encouraging everyone else to engage in some ‘Design Thinking’. Presumably so they can achieve Word of the Year 2015, which was of course ‘Innovation’. I strongly suspect, however, that many of those who advocate ‘Design Thinking’ (with a capital D) are those who have a similarly shaky understanding of the process and outcomes of capital-I-Innovation and operate under the false belief that sitting in a room full of beanbags qualifies. In this paradigm, ‘Design’ is a mysterious and capricious fourth muse who appears after inhaling a mixture of polystyrene fumes and hot single origin Java.

I’ve even had a number of acquaintances tell me that Design Thinking would be a great addition to whatever methodology or framework they were peddling at that time. “Hey, let’s do some design thinking at the end of our project!” or “Hey, wouldn’t Lean Six Sigma be even better if we threw some design thinking in the mix”. Umm. No. Actually it wouldn’t because you’re DOING IT WRONG.

Let’s be clear; the word ‘Design’ has a specific meaning. The interwebs has tried to tell me on many occasions that design is “the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction.” This is what happens when you crowd source (Word for 2014) knowledge to Wikipedia. Sometimes you just get rubbish knowledge. To this definition I say “pfffft”, which is the rudest noise I can type. Design is not an outcome. Design is a process and a way of thinking. It’s not a result of solving problems. It IS problem solving. The creation of a plan, convention, object, interaction or whatever is a result, but not the point. What I mean is this; you can design the most wonderful widget you like, but without a structured approach to understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing, then the widget will be useless.

The implications of this fact are threefold. One; any individual or organisation that wants to apply design thinking must apply it from the start of the problem solving effort. It’s not something that can be added later in the improve phase like some magical special sauce. Design thinking doesn’t sit alongside methodologies and tools – it sits atop them and governs their application at the right time. Two; Design Thinking is data driven. Loafers, lumberjack shirts and goatees are optional, data is not. This is a departure from the typical understanding of design as something that is entirely intuitive and driven by inspiration rather than understanding. Three: true design in all its forms is iterative but rapid. The emphasis is on testing and improving the product (hopefully rapidly and co-developed with the user) until it is fit for purpose. In this regard, design thinking has no room for ego driven decisions about “my idea”.

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