Hi there. I'm Matt. Don't hate the player. Hate the game.1

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Jun 15, 2009 | Comments


Business schools love frameworks: STP, SWOT, porter’s five forces, ideation, the 5ps, the 5Cs, etc. Those that have memorized such frameworks realize that they have no practical use in the real world.

I have a new framework for you: Design Thinking. Two weeks ago, Fast Company declared Design Thinking the “it” concept, soon to be the topic of countless books, blogs, and speeches.

What is Design Thinking? Consider the designer’s process, their scientific method–now mirror it onto any business problem fathomable.

Design thinking takes the sexiness of design and extends it beyond aesthetics to each step of the product development cycle. By disseminating the design process, everyone can be the clever, right-brain attuned designer, but without hipster glasses and all-black attire.

What’s the Design Thinking process? Evangelists organize the process into 4 steps. If I was to design a chair, for example, here are steps:

  1. What kind of chair (scope)? Designers need constraints. How will I use the chair? Where will it go? These constraints set the scope of the problem and the designer can begin to get creative.
  2. Look at more chairs (research). Designers look for inspiration. A team of designers will venture into the field, observing new chair designs, trends, and inspiration from industries far removed from the process. At this point, the design team has many ideas.
  3. The drawing board (prototype). With several possible ideas for the chair, the designer will quickly sketch/model each idea. Prototyping the idea makes it tangible, facilitating new ideas, revisions, and progress.
  4. The perfect chair (implement)! After several rounds of prototyping and revisions (and perhaps more research!), the designer will have a few solid creations from which to choose.

Contrast this with the processes in a typical corporation (I call it the Powerpoint Methodology). Decision-making involves a committee 2-levels removed from a project, who will decide among 4 fixed options described in Powerpoint. The project team chose 4 options because they filled the Powerpoint document and time allotted for their presentation. The company will spend more effort on deciding among the options than creating them.

The Powerpoint methodology is structured and linear (i.e, choose among these fixed options). The design process, however, has endless possibilities, where one can move forward and backward between prototyping and research, never bound by corporate bureaucracy.

Is Design Thinking legit? I’m willing to give it a shot. My reasons:

  1. Pro: Just about the whole Internet (and every Fortune 500 CEO) is on-board the “design is important” bandwagon.
  2. Pro: It’s painful if you’ve watched a traditional business team choose a logo. Slow-moving decisions are based on awkward consensus or brute force. Compare this to logo design in a creative firm, which relies on rapid prototyping and produces far more innovation.
  3. Pro: Rather than a single vision, design thinkers work in teams using mass collaboration. 5 heads at business problem are better than one. Having finished Wikinomics, this is a philosphy I share.
  4. Con: IDEO loves Design Thinking because they created it. Much of the online buzz sources from IDEO employees, which leads me to believe the whole concept is masturbatory.

Learn more about Design Thinking:

  • Forthcoming book proselytizing Design Thinking.
  • Design Thinking Blogs: Metacool, Design Thinking
  • If there was a design thinking degree, here’s the curriculum
  • What does design thinking feel like?
  • Harvard Business Review article on design thinking by IDEO CEO Tim Brown.
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  • Cmc

    I for one think it is bullshit. I think it's a bunch of hot air. Marketing material used as a means of selling design services. 

  • Great discussion Matt, I really like your contribution.

  • @Phillip: You're completely right. IDEO branded design thinking, to the extent that they pass it off as their own. This, in itself, is impressive. Though designers may have used it before, I think that IDEO is the first agency to sell it to corporations as a consulting package.

    I agree that this is the future of innovation--but not because it is associated with design. Rapid-prototyping is borrowed from engineering, though it does seem to mirror the design process well, making the term "design thinking" easy for corporate executives to digest.

    I'm also beginning to develop a different idea of design that actually runs counter to "distinguishing oneself." The superb designs that we see from Amazon, Craigslist, and Zappos have little to do with aesthetics and touchpoints, and more to do with UX. I'm beginning to think that even a homogenized design can overcome its ugly precense in the marketplace.

  • Great article, but I disagree that IDEO "created" Design Thinking. IDEO BRANDED Design Thinking. This is a concept that Designers have understood and practiced for decades. Meanwhile, walking amongst the suits muttering to themselves, because they were (are) continuously held down by lame homogenized decisions that were forced upon them as "just designers".

    This is the new age of innovation. Businesses are able to prototype and launch products & initiatives faster than ever thanks to our good friend technology, so it's only natural that design and ideas become the big winner.

    Design has always been about distinguishing oneself from others. Creating a look, feeling, or idea around your brand is paramount to succeed. Otherwise you are competing strictly based on price and perceived quality.

    Those things are certainly important, but consumers need a reason to remember / love your company or product. They are not loyal at the onset.

    I hope this trend picks up even more and finds it's way into smaller markets.

  • @Clive: Can't agree more, but then again, every firm claims that they invented some type of framework/idea/notion. But could you clarify what you mean by design thinking is better than IDEO? Is not design thinking = IDEO?

    @Paula: I'm familiar with the Rotman program in Toronto--widely considered one of the strongest "academic" design thinking programs.

    But I'm curious why you think that this is a stronger publication than the book I mentioned from Tim Brown. Is Roger considered the leading thinker? Do his ideas differ?

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