Though the phrase "Design Thinking" has been gaining in popularity for the better part of the last decade, it really entered the mainstream design vernacular last year with the introduction of several articles and books on the topic from designers and educators such as Tim Brown, Roger Martin, Roberto Verganti and Harmut Esslinger.
Unfortunately, judging by a popular January 9th New York Times article, very little has trickled into a mainstream conversation. The article, entitled "Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?," attempts to tackle the shifting landscape of MBA business education by using Roger Martin and the Rotman School of Management as a case study but actually frames the argument not around "design thinking," which has been his main selling point for rotman, but rather around "critical thinking." The article goes on to elaborate on the specific practice of "Design Works" at Rotman but uses this as the one single "design thinking" example among a list of other programs. As I read this article, I was surprised that one of "design thinking's" biggest champions seemed to be proselytizing a new definition for his maverick approach in arguably the most prominent article to date. Has the fuse already run out on "design thinking," just like when Bruce Nussbaum announced the death of innovation in late 2008?
What I am trying to get at here isn't really a question of whether or not it matters if a "design" leader adjusts their language but rather to pose the question of why we concern ourselves in believing that any of these ideas are actually crafted to help promote design as a discipline in organizations and not simply promoting the individuals who espouse them.
When compared to the established educational and intellectual design ideologies, "Design Thinking" seems to lack the depth to promote design or designers in business organizations; perhaps it is simply another buzz phrase enlisted to differentiate and highlight an upcoming trend in business. Design should never be trivialized to a two-word catch-all for representing what we as designers have always brought to the table. Unfortunately, within the current economic environment, the concept seems to fit nicely as a neat solution to our problems. Seasoned design professionals and educators find themselves affirming this idea, adopting it as a new direction, fully aware that "design thinking" is something that they have always done.
The real answers for designers' concerns will never be drawn from the work of a few individuals at the top of the field but instead by the empowerment of our own practice to move ourselves into positions in a world where we can productively influence business. The broken paradigms of business will not change unless designers rise to their potential and those involved embrace us as equals on real actionable terms.
Willem Van Lancker is a product designer (UX) at Google with a passion for ethnography, maps, data visualization, and producing delightful user experiences.
Willem came to Google from IDEO where he worked as a communication designer focusing on understanding business systems and organizations through visual communication. Previous to IDEO, Willem worked for Apple, where he designed user interfaces for products including iPhone and iPad, and adidas, where he created new brand identities for various major league sports teams respectively.
Willem is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a degree in Graphic Design. While at RISD, Willem teamed with a small group of Brown and RISD students to create A Better World by Design, a now-annual three-day conference encouraging social and environmental impact within educational policy. He also served as a researcher and core member for RISDâ€™s Strategic Plan, charting a new course for RISDâ€™s academic programs and student life initiatives focused on how students of different disciplines can innovate through collaboration.
When he is not working on new innovations for Google, Willem can be found writing, sailing, playing squash (both the sport and the gourd), following English (and American) football, and occasionally regretting the decision to eat that bacon-wrapped hotdog from a food-cart in the Mission District.