Ideas / Design Thinking

In defense of design thinking.

James Young, Principal

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo.” As a long-time advocate for design thinking, I couldn’t agree … less.

The way the author writes about design thinking makes me wonder if she’s referring to the same methodology I know well and have used for years (quite successfully, I might add). That’s because there’s plenty of evidence that design thinking helps bring user-focused innovations to life.

Design thinking = uncommon sense

She writes that one of the criticisms of design thinking is that it’s “little more than basic common sense.” (For one thing, we all know how “common” actual “common sense” is.) Another criticism is that it relies more on anecdotes than data, missing the point completely, because the anecdotes are the data.

Designers don’t dictate; they empower

But she’s just getting started. Next up is this: “Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process [and] limits the scope for truly innovative ideas …” Nothing could be further from the truth; design thinking welcomes non-designers into the process. When I run design thinking sessions for companies, all ideas carry equal weight, whatever the job titles of the people contributing them.

In fact, designers serve the design thinking process best as facilitators and coaches, drawing ideas from whatever cross-functional team has embarked on the design thinking journey. This democratizes the process and places the ability to design in the hands of the team that needs to solve a problem. So when design thinking is done properly, it becomes approachable and effective for all.

Was it really design thinking, or did you just call it that?

I believe that, because so many organizations are interested in using design thinking to innovate, it’s become fashionable to tear it down. And when people like the HBR author cite examples of when design thinking has failed to deliver, it’s worth taking a look under the hood of the failed project. Most often, the lack of success can be traced back to the team not using the process correctly.

Similarly, I would say that while many organizations say they do design thinking, they may just be speaking to a particular design thinking practice; that is, they’re using one or two of the tools but not employing the design thinking process regularly or holistically.

Learn the tools and the trade

However, organizations can learn how to use the toolkit of design thinking the way it should be used – and has been used successfully in the arenas of business, public policy, and more. It does take time, and effort, though … a three-day seminar can give you the fishing pole (design thinking tools), but it takes more time to teach you to fish (that is, to understand design thinking as a big-picture problem-solving methodology). If you’d like learn more about bringing design thinking into your organization, I’d love to speak with you!

James teaches design thinking and innovation at Stanford Continuing Education, and has put design thinking to work for many well-known companies (Yahoo!, Adobe, Intuit, and more).