Design Thinking

Last week Brandweek had anarticle about Design Thinking, and I'll have to say it was a bit misleading.  I'm not going to nitpick the article, but I would like to address a few points that I think are valuable to understand about the topic.

I should start by saying that I am a proponent of Design Thinking, just as I am a proponent of Business Thinking, Legal Thinking, Engineering Thinking, and Political Thinking.  All are approaches to solving problems that have evolved to ensure rigor and best practices in their respective professions.  Where it gets interesting is when a problem in one discipline benefits from an approach used by another discipline.  The current buzz about Design Thinking is an answer to the business world's need to innovate.  The current processes used to guide businesses don't lend themselves well to doing something new that can't be measured by current benchmarks.  Designers regularly create new solutions that have no benchmarks, so taking a page from the way they work should be helpful to achieve these goals.  And it is. 

What gets misleading is when the distinction is blurred between an approach that is used in a discipline, and the work, skills, and deliverables expected of professionals in that discipline.  If a business person uses design thinking to develop an innovative business model, the outcome is still a business model and the profession is still that of a business person.  It does not mean they should be called designers, as they do not possess the skills required of a design professional.  If a designer uses business thinking to make their designs more relevant to the business, they are still designers.  The article references people with design backgrounds who are now in marketing roles.  That would be called a career change. 

Finally, it is misleading to narrowly associate tools with disciplines.  The article associates ethnography with the way designers learn about consumers, and suggests that focus groups are more for business goals.  This is just not true.  Ethnography is a research tool, and is used when a deep understanding of consumer values is necessary to solve a problem.  This could be a business problem, a design problem, or a pure science problem.  If we are truly employing design thinking methodology, we are less worried about what tools we are using, and are instead doing whatever is necessary to achieve our goals.

I don't know who first coined the term Design Thinking (I've heard it was either Tim Brown of IDEO or Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business), but Roger Martin's article is still the best I've seen in terms of defining the value of design thinking to a business.  His article on Reliability and Validity is well worth the read.   Reliability vs Validity.doc (42.00 kb)

Nov. 13 - Update today from Jess to clarify the attribution of who first coined the term Design Thinking:

As far as origins, Peter Rowe wrote a book called "Design Thinking" that came out in 1987. Not sure about earlier usage, but I'm skeptical of either Brown or Martin being the originator.  Here's the Google Book result for Rowe's "Design Thinking"