It's a sign of the times when The Economist, the house journal of the global business elite, holds a conference in London on 'design thinking' (official Big Rethink site here). Having attended the conference, produced in association with The Design Council and held over 11-12 March, I was left wondering one thing: why is design thinking such a hot topic with business leaders, given that it leaves so many designers cold?
The conference's brilliant chair, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, a global correspondent for The Economist and author of Zoom, began by throwing down a hefty gauntlet to design. He explained that the world faces crises on many different levels, not only economic and environmental: politicians and corporate leaders are also experiencing a profound crisis of trust and legitimacy. This, in turn, has triggered a loss of confidence in the old ways of doing things and has led business and governments to cast around for new ideas. As design thinking is offering itself up as a process to solve many of these problems, what has it got to offer? Gulp!
So, how well did the conference fare, given such a preamble? The short answer is that the speakers largely sidestepped the crises—and sidestepped, too, the subject of design thinking.
Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.
The big sidestep The format didn't help. There were too many rapid-fire sessions. Some were only 10 minutes long, leaving little time to develop much more than a sound bite or two. The Work Foundation's Will Hutton took a few bad-tempered minutes to tackle the economic crisis and make the case for more investment in R&D. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Robin Bew concisely delineated all the crises, but, sadly, had been briefed not to show any graphs. Would that really scare the designers?
A number of speakers, mostly from outside the world of design, addressed sustainability. They rehearsed familiar themes (cutting waste, apparently, can also save you money!). Tellingly, they made few connections with design thinking, apart from Jeff Denby. He made a memorable presentation on his sustainable underwear brand, and its on-trend ethical marketing practices. Some of the case studies on innovation addressed traditional design themes, but most didn't touch design thinking. An exception was the speech by UK Design Council CEO David Kester. He showed how the Council and Richard Seymour had coordinated a range of interested parties and design agencies to develop staff- and patient-centred design concepts to improve hygiene in hospitals.
The main attempts to connect design thinking with the grand themes of the conference were the workshops in the afternoon of the first day. Here, we tackled some board-level leadership issues like purpose and the business models of struggling UK companies and institutions like Royal Bank of Scotland and the National Health Service. However, most delegates found these a frustratingly superficial exercise, doing the cause of design thinking little service.
There's something odd going on when business and political leaders flatter design with potentially holding the key to such big and pressing problems, and the design community looks the other way.
To understand this paradox, we need to look back at why business and political leaders have become so enamoured with design, and why so many designers struggle with the concept of Design Thinking.
Leaders fall for designers When I took my first design job in a consultancy back in the eighties, business leaders considered design an optional and mysterious activity practised by a small cult of polo necks in Milan, London and New York. Today, by contrast, design is global, rarely off the TV, and a popular subject at college. It has also expanded its scope from products and graphics into interactions, experiences, services and, more recently, 'social change.'
In hindsight, the 10 years between 1997-2007 were the real boom years. Three events in 1997 set the scene for design's rise. Steve Jobs returned to Apple, which soon became the totemic case study of how to out-innovate the competition through smart design. The days of putting the case for the importance of design were replaced by CEOs wanting to be the Apple of their category.
Participants of The Big Rethink's workshops.
In 1997 Tony Blair's New Labour was elected with a mandate to modernise Britain, and quickly elevated something called Creative Industries to the forefront of a policy focused on the shift to a service-based knowledge economy. This was a strategy that would be replicated around the world in the form of countless policies for the creative sector. In the process, innovation came to be reduced to creativity—and the idea that scientists and technologists are themselves creative was completely lost.
The third event was the death of Princess Diana (bear with me on this one). The public outpouring of grief for this global emblem of vulnerability marked the arrival of a new culture of emotions. Western societies now had more therapists than policemen, watched Oprah and encouraged its citizens to 'express themselves.' This cultural shift from the head to the heart provided a fertile context for designers to be re-conceived by leaders as the authentic points of connection with impulsive consumers and voters—who were losing trust in their leaders.
Rise of design thinking The notion of design thinking, which began to be discussed in design circles in the mid-noughties, marked a high water mark of design euphoria. First, Roger Martin inspired it. His concept, 'Integrative Thinking,' suggested that the best leaders integrate left-brain, analytical thinking with right-brain intuition.
Then, design thinking was brought to life in stories about IDEO's T-shaped designers by Tim Brown, the consultancy's CEO and president. Brown triumphed at the Global Economic Forum in Davos in 2006. After that, the then assistant managing editor of Business Week, a design buff named Bruce Nussbaum, rallied for the cause.
In fact, design thinking always meant different things to different players. For some it was about teaching managers how to think like designers; for others, it was about designers tackling problems that used to be the preserve of managers and civil servants; and for others still, it was anything said on the subject of design that sounded smart. To most, it is was merely a new spin on design. All its proponents were, however, united by their ambition for design to play a more strategic role in the world than 'making pretty.' Who could argue with that?
Designers fall out with Design Thinking Today, as business and governments start to take design thinking seriously, many designers and design experts are distancing themselves from the term.
While I have often been dubbed a design thinker, and I've certainly dedicated my career to winning a more strategic role for design. But I was uncomfortable with the concept of design thinking from the outset. I was not the only member of the design community to have misgivings. The term was poorly defined, its proponents often implied that designers were merely unthinking doers, and it allowed smart talkers with little design talent to claim to represent the industry. Others worried about 'overstretch'—the gap between design thinkers' claims, and their knowledge, capabilities and ability to deliver on those promises.
Anna Rafferty of Penguin (top) and Joe Ferry of Virgin Atlantic.
Still, when design thinking began to get a name for itself, most seasoned designers merely considered it harmless hype. But as the hype gathered pace, attitudes began to change. Meanwhile, dark economic clouds gathered. The idea of design as a silver bullet started to lose its currency before the financial crisis, but once the recession bit, the questions for design thinkers sharpened.
In 2009 while contributing to a book on the management of design, I polled a few handfuls of design managers about design thinking, and detected a new realism in the air. One design director reflected on the boom years with a raised eyebrow and the comment 'Even Turkeys can fly in a tornado;' but when the tailwind dropped many designers who had talked their way into high flying positions were left gliding. Greater exposure to senior management had left many... well, exposed.
The concern was that too much time has been spent trying to outsmart the MBAs, and that design managers had lost their focus on delivering great design. The most common response to this feeling of over-stretch was to regroup and get back to basics, with many design managers pining just to roll up their sleeves and get back to designing.
Conference scribing by Cognitive Media. Download the full pdf here.
Time to Re-think From a personal point of view the most useful thing about the conference was that it brought into sharp relief the chasm between post-recession realities and how stuck in past design still is. After all, what's notable about the design thinking debate is not so much how design practice has changed, but rather how the audience for design has changed and raised its expectations. Sure, user research has been more formally integrated into our methods over the last decade and folks like Tim Brown have done us all a great service by articulating what we do in a clear and cogent way to non-designers. But as Bill Moggridge acknowledged to me at an event in 2007, 'design thinking is a new story, not a new process.' This amounts to old thinking, for new times.
Precision over Woolliness If we are to make the most of the new opportunities thrown up by the interest of business and political leaders, we need to start by firming up on what we're talking about.
Helen Walters, the new editor of Innovation and Design at Bloomberg Business Week, recently tweeted that we 'need [a] better definition of design thinking, more widely understood. Wild west of interpretation right now.' In her review of the Aspen Design Summit she warned:
those looking for a prescribed way to implement design thinking are destined to be disappointed. It's a messy, opaque process that depends as much on group dynamics as intellect or insight....the process was more important than the product.... the idea that people need a way to engage in multiple places within their community
She puts a finger on a new role for designers that many will not be happy with—facilitators of a public engagement process, in which the design of high quality new products and services comes second.
For those who want to start re-thinking and innovating in how design should change, the two stars of the conference—Roberto Verganti and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran—gave some pointers.
Quality over Quantity Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Milan Polytechnic and author of Design Driven Innovation, argued that after two decades of designers successfully selling themselves to business, most companies use designers and therefore design on its own provides no competitive advantage. Just as companies competed on product quality in the eighties, and now it is an accepted standard, design is now just a ticket to the game. This is backed up by the lack of data to prove that design leads to profit. The point is not to argue for more design (he does not use the term design thinking), but how to deliver great design. In a fascinating conversation over drinks he also argued that there is a process that senior managers can follow to improve the quality of their companies' design, that does not rely on the gifted judgement of a Steve Jobs or an Alberto Alessi.
A focus on output quality also challenges a key tenet of design thinking—that managers can think like designers.
On one level they can. Let's agree that all of humanity are designers, and that design is one of the things that separates us from the apes. As Jonathan Ive put it: 'Design is not important. Good design is important.'
First, when we talk of designers, we usually mean professional designers, who have reached an accepted level of competence. They have survived a Darwinian selection process (there are far more graduates than jobs) and have clocked up well over 10,000 hours of practice on projects. We should remember that designers learn by doing, not by learning and practising a theory, designing involves a lot more tacit knowledge than in other areas of business. It's therefore hard to believe that senior managers can change their thinking habits of a lifetime after a workshop or two working with designers. And, to be frank, to suggest as much devalues what designers do.
Second, a key factor in creating good design that really does make a difference is great designers. These talented individuals are few and far between and provide critical competitive advantage. Let's forget about design thinking as a magic process, and focus on how designers and managers should best work together to deliver great quality outputs.
Vision over Users Roberto also showed that he was more up to speed with the latest thinking than the design thinkers. He is direct: 'Radical innovation does not come from users.' This is a point that Don Norman, a previous champion of user-centredness, now also makes. Roberto's research shows that the developers of the Nintendo Wii didn't get close to users, they got close to interpreters: media people, artists, designers, sociologists, retailers, suppliers, etc. The key to seeing the future first, Roberto argues, is about finding the right interpreters. That said, while designers talk radical innovation, they are mostly involved in incremental innovations. In that domain, we are right to expect that insight into users has a role to play.
Verganti pressed his point home with a tough truth. 'Designers have become less visionary. They have spent the last 10 years getting close to consumers and trying to become businessmen, and have lost their visions.'
Balance Left with Right Brain Thinking Vijay also had some unwitting lessons for ambitious designers. In fact, I would willingly have foregone most of the speakers just to listen to his penetrating questions and clever asides. Like Roberto his background combines left brained engineering with right brained exploration of meanings. He trained as an engineer at MIT before taking a brand manager job at P&G, and has reported for The Economist on a range of regions and industries.
The ideal of design thinking as laid out by Roger Martin, is to 'balance [left brain] analytical mastery and [right brain] intuitive originality in dynamic interplay'. While this is a founding principle my company, it has to be said that analytical thinking is not typically a designers' strong point. This was born out by one of the star design thinkers nonchalantly declaring that 'numbers just go over my head', from the conference platform. We are not taught this is college and it is not particularly highly valued in design studios. From my experience even the smartest designers have to be schooled in analytical rigour and robust reasoning. So designers are actually not great exemplars of the balanced thinking that design thinking takes its name from; and as Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz argues in this post, designers have much to learn from the left brain types.
Knowledge over Emotion Conviction Vijay often challenged speakers by marshalling a killer fact. Well, we need more killer facts in our business. Another rebalance designers should consider is becoming more worldly and knowledgeable in areas outside design. Too often designers weaken their case by not having a firm grasp on the big picture.
In a discussion with Richard Seymour in a break towards the end of the conference, he sighed. 'As ever, we always learn most from the academics and suits.' Yes, analysts rather than design thinkers gave the most guidance on the future of design.
Whether we call these new directions design thinking or not is another matter. It was the product of the design bubble, and the next decade will demand less spin and more delivery. How does thoughtful design sound?
See Core77's live coverage of the Big Re-Think here.
All images courtesy of The Economist.
Kevin is the founder of Plan, a product strategy consultancy based in London.
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What separates the high performing DT organization from the rest is the ability to move forward with insight and evidence and learn what works by rapidly implementing and testing ideas. Talented and insightful teams that are inspired by their customers are leaning into the future and reducing uncertainty, by experimenting with risky ideas. The organizations that support these teams fundamentally believe that there is a risk in not taking a risk......
When a business person starts talking the basis is always $$$ it has nothing to do with fixing problems, the problem is how to make $$$ in an ever increasingly competive environment. LIke a business major knows anything about design other than, it can make them $$$.
Another point, in speaking to the challenge of new opportunities for design raised by Helen Walters in another venue: I think we have to stop looking at design problems as the entire domain of one designer. The kinds of big design problems that Vijay Vaitheeswaran alluded to call for many people and many different capabilities across a continuum of design activities. Design could be so powerful for so many of these types of problems, but so far, the design community lacks the ability to marshall resources and organise on that scale. It's not that we can't do it; it's simply that we haven't yet learned how.
I for one, hold out a lot of hope that the meaning of design will expand along with the skills and proficiencies associated with it, and that the capacity for design to solve some of society's bigger problems will too. Graphic design and industrial design have more than a century's worth of practice and expertise behind them. The design of the 21st Century is still emergent. I think it's too early to call the game.
You can replace the word "innovator" with "designer" in this presentation and you'll see what I mean: http://bit.ly/3inno
The really-hopeless-at-math designers that you talked about certainly aren't the T-shaped designers that Tim was looking for. These designers can still be vital to the creative team--the "domain designers / innovators" mentioned in the presentation.
For the multi-disciplinary designers / innovators, the T-shaped description doesn't quite cut it. These designers are at least "double-T-shaped" (Judy Estrin's improvement on Tim's analogy. I prefer to call them "bridge-shaped" because then they can have as many deep dive points as are appropriate. "Bridge-shaped designers" also highlights a core function that these types of designers serve on the creative team--bridging domains and communication gaps.)
If domain designers know that they don't have to worry about the design/systems/integrative thinking stuff, and know that the multi-disciplinary designers who are thinking about it are there to make everybody shine, then the to-buy-in-or-not-to-buy-in issues melt away.
...and I've always believed designers are trained exactly to do that. Translate, interpret what the ends users are saying about their needs and what they actually mean, what business folks need to get done and what needs to be actually done to get them exactly that. Isn't the key to a good design decision, good observation, good analysis of what was observed and good illustration of what is exactly needed ?
I so much identify with the fact that design has become just a ticket to the game. Business folks have now started throwing in design jargons and showcasing all of their case studies to just drive home the idea that they are more design centric that their competitors and therefore better suited to the client needs. What most clients perhaps fail to realize is this exact difference: having a design thinking and having a design philosophy. Design thinking is limited to those who consider themselves the higher ups. managers and ceos who get through some ambiguous design thinking courses and expect things to change over a little period of time. Reading some books or blogs will only bring in a superficial understanding of the design domain. This is a real weird observation and off-topic, but for organizations to really follow the design philosophy, it starts to listen to its employees physical and mental workspace needs first. People who work for you can make you more design sensitive than the end user that you are targeting your product for. Learn through your employees. Learn what they needs and help them find creative solutions to their needs themeselves. Support them, translate that philosophy into the products you design as well. It should work.
That is a good and noble thing, but saddling Design Thinking with the task of solving all the world's ills seems unfair and sets it up for a fall (which this article seems to conclude is happening).
We have a school that is focused on Creative Leadership, and we define that term narrowly in the hope that it also won't become a short-lived buzzword. In our case, teaching the t-shirts how to think like the suits seems like the best way to ensure that creativity (or in the case above, good design) gets implemented at the top of an enterprise.
Far better to teach a "creative" how to run a business with innovation or creativity at its heart than to try to inject some creative gene onto a general manager.
Thanks for a thought-provoking aticle.
I'm a bit dubious about right brain and left brain talk (the brain being massively hyper-connected) although it's a shorthand that seems to have stuck over the years. The distinction seems to me to be between design (and commissioning organisations) that takes context into account (whether it be technical, business, cultural or social) and design that is an expression of the designer's view. What design thinking methods do, imo, is muster the context as a platform for thinking through alternative scenarios which can be evaluated and, eventually, realised through what is traditionally seen as design. Omit those steps and you have disconnected design which fails to make an impact. However, take only those steps, without the skill to envision and realise a designer brings, and you may be short of a solution.
On the specific issue of user-centred design I partly sympathise with the Don Norman critique that you mention. I think much 'user research' is there for form rather than focused impact. But as a practitioner I am constantly surprised about how remote organisations can be from their users, and they, in turn, are frequently surprised when they see real, rather than idealised, user behaviour. Seeing the reality is often a prompt and context for innovation. I think there's a difference between invention and innovation and Norman is right about the role of user research in invention, but less on target regarding innovation.
As a left brain leaning genetic mix of an engineer (Dad) and artist (Mom) - I'm looking forward to contributing to the design industry's next evolutionary step :)
I've wondered if the design industry had gotten to be something of a bubble with an imbalance of whom design work is for - other designers, "normal people", the other "90%", etc. Still, high-design is valuable to push the envelope...we wouldn't have as efficient and effective air travel if we didn't reach for the moon and stars...
The article makes me consider the value of standards across an industry - perhaps the design industry needs some "left brain love" to create a new way to approach, use, improve, and value standards. It could be something many industries could benefit from...
Shalin (a.k.a. Left Brain Designer)
As of the topic on "vision vs users", many comments have suggested that there seems to be a misunderstanding on "getting close to the consumers" and co-creation.
do not feel the term design thinking leaves us cold. I do feel it is a great challenge to live up to its definitions when different types of problems are constantly added under this umbrella.
After all, like what Mr. Kenya Hara said on the very first page of his book, "Verbalizing design is another act of design." I agree on all the actions that need to be taken, but I also see the value of this "new story" as it does broaden, at least, my view on what design is and can be.
Kevin, this is a great article! Although I did not attend the conference myself, I can tell by the echoes that the two things everybody is uncomfortable with are the meaning of design thinking and, particularly for me, the controversial statement of 'vision over users'.
Verganti's quote about designers losing their vision through getting closer to the consumer and trying to be businessmen in fact outlines why we all feel so itchy about this. Is this what the so-called democratisation of design has done to us? We, the designers and design researchers/strategists, used to feel both proud and unique at being one of the few specialists to sit between people and business and understand both. However, we are now made to believe that we have stretched ourselves a bit too far, but have we?
I read the post twice.
The first time I thought, 'wow, challenging: are we at the beginning of a new era. Is this about paradigm shifting? A backlash? Will this be about designers withdrawing from the public exposure they have had? Wasn't it a good idea to open up our processes, techniques, and philosophies to everybody else back then? Was that all a mere distraction? Are we all feeling nostalgic about the days when Phillip Starck introduced Juicy Salif?'
Then a second read of the post made me feel much better about it all and I understood why it didn't feel right to me in the first place. While I agree with Verganti that 'the key to seeing the future is about finding the right interpreters', I would question his opinion of whom those interpreters are.
Aren't we, the designers/researchers/strategists, supposed to be the interpreters? That is what we do, isn't it? We observe people and conduct ethnographic research but we also talk to industry leaders and experts in various fields: the suppliers, editors, retailers and artists. And we, the interpreters, are responsible for translating all the information and insights into ideas and platforms that contribute to either radical or incremental innovation.
I would therefore argue that in the example of Wii, it was the people in charge of the product's development at Nintendo that were the Interpreters and not the artists, media people, sociologists etc they talked to instead of their users.
And finally I'd like to add that, yes, I agree with Verganti's quote that 'radical innovation doesn't come from the users' because it was never meant to be that way we are not expecting to go out there and observe innovation, uncover it, let alone give users the tools to innovate. For instance, we observe behaviours and uncover insights and patterns, which only we, as the interpreters of people can uncover, and we as the interpreters of businesses can translate.
That is, as I could experience and observe, we learnt to use a method or framework "traditionally" developed or used only in one context (porter's 5 forces for eg) in another.
Then as BusinessWeek's covers splashed "The Empathy Economy" and "the strategic power of design as a force for increasing shareholder value" (I have NO idea where I read or heard this and even accepted the choice of wording myself, unquestioningly, for a few years) along with Dan Pink's then book, The whole new mind, it seemed as though the whole concept of what "design thinking" was became amorphous, fuzzy and the online equivalent of that silver bullet that many have mentioned above.
The rest has been captured very well by Kevin here in this article.
Now the question is, what next?
I have posited in the past that "collaborative intelligence" might be a better way to frame the concept of bringing design skills, engineering processes and business methods together, as a means to address intractable or "wicked problems" - I am more so inclined to do so now, five years later. In fact, John Camillus paper on HBR on strategy as a wicked problem captures many of the essential fundamentals of the "user centered approach to problem solving".
Perhaps, if nothing else, this gives rise to the thought that rather than let leading design studios or rock star designer's take the lead in framing the solution space, what is in fact needed is a place for all of us to have a conversation that debates and defines this subject area?
Look at how the comments are already flowing from your thoughtful and provocative argument, thanks Kevin :)
Business must understand the role of design as it relates to strategic decision making.
Design must understand the importance of strategic relevance over stylistic relevance.
Business must be more 'design oriented'.
Design must be more 'strategic'.
It's that simple -- it has nothing to do with 'thinking' but more so with 'management', 'collaboration', 'mutual understanding' and 'interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary' execution. I've been teaching a course on Design Management for the past four years and this is the way we run it -- we are NOT teaching MBAs to be 'designers' or 'think like designers'. We are teaching MBAs to understand the role of design and implement design into the strategic thinking EARLY ON rather than WAY DOWN THE LINE.
Feel free to read my thoughts 'On Design Thinking' here:
One way "design thinking" is valuable is that its methodologies and processes attempt to force us out of our comfort zones. However, as other studies prove, radical innovation -- that is sustainable radical innovation -- is more dependent on corporate culture than on one time intensives. This is what Verganti's research also showed. Just as products have meanings and languages, corporations can have meanings and languages. Language is culture and culture defines behaviors and behaviors determine actions taken and actions not taken. What the discussion about design allows us to do, more than anything, is influence the conversation.
Thank you for your balanced and irenic coverage of the symposium.
Glad to hear some design people out there are still grounded and sceptical!.
Take the Wii example you used. If you've read the 'Iwata asks' conversations about Wii development from Nintendo website you'll see that the goal for Miyamoto with Wii was to create a more inclusive gaming experience where the whole family could play on equal terms. This came from an observation where people who could master the complex console controller would be playing and the rest of the family was largely ignored and were left outside of the experience. This is a very keen observation indeed and leads to myriad of opportunities. In any interview with Miyamoto I've seen this common theme come up. This I'd say is the essence to Wii experience.
So the key with user center design - or design thinking (as I understand it :) is not to ask user what they want (which leads to incremental innovation) but the understand them, their context and the needs and drivers and design for that. In the case of Wii: How can we create a more inclusive gaming experience for the whole family together. Once you have this you look at different solutions to problem, mew technologies and prototype the hell out of it (as nintendo did) with the best and the brightest designers and engineers (preferably together). Nintendo also had bunch of technologies from the past that did not use to be mature enough and it all cam beautifully together. So to me Wii is such a user centered innovation as it understand the context and it's users quite deeply (in a way sony and microsoft had completely failed to do). This led to Nintendo being able to make the right compromises in technology to balance the price and experience just right.
So to say revolutionary innovation does not come from users is technically true. User will never come to you and say: "I wish I had a TV remote I could swing like tennis racket and use it as a pointing device for my next generation console that's actually only marginally more advanced that the previous generation was". However the way I preach and practise user centered design is not about asking. It's about understanding, being empathic and especially about having the best designers, engineers and managers to design and deliver the best new products and services that users will intuitively gravitate towards, as they just make sense.