What’s the Problem with Design Thinking?

As promised in my last post here is a run down of Helen Walters’ post called ‘Can Innovation Really be Reduced to a Process?‘ in which she discusses the issues with design thinking.

Helen Walters

“At the recent Design Research conference in Seattle, the consensus reportedly held that whether or not you like the term, design thinking is here to stay … Nonetheless, it’s also somewhat hard to find many fervent supporters of design thinking. Designers I’ve talked to still bristle at a phrase they see as subtly maligning the validity of the rest of their work. Executives meanwhile, still seem baffled by the term, even if they quite like the general idea of adding design into the business mix.”

“Perhaps some designers will welcome the passing of the design thinking baton to executives. Perhaps they’ll be relieved to see design thinking shaking out as a useful problem-solving approach for executives to use when appropriate. But to me, this shift emphasizes the need for leaders of both business and design to further clarify understanding of who does what, when. Design should neither be aggrandized nor trivialized. But it feels like it could play an infinitely more significant role if only those involved could figure out more convincing ways to articulate its value. For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative. Given the real need for innovation in every part of culture and society, that seems like the biggest problem of all.”

“For designers to have strategic impact, they need to work with managers to ensure that the business elements of a project are being catered to, too. That might not play to the innate strengths of designers, but it’s vital for leaders to figure out ways for everyone to get along so that innovation can be a team sport.”

The main problem is that in order to explain design thinking, it has been presented as a somewhat repeatable and reusable business framework. However, this contradicts the nature of innovation, where messy processes are used and adapted to significantly change the current situation. Of course executives want understandable and repeatable processes to implement, but by trying to portray design thinking as one of these, we won’t do it justice. It is complicated, and changeable, and if we implement it otherwise then we’re not really practicing design thinking. So it appears that design thinking may not necessarily be doomed, but that it isn’t being implemented ‘correctly’ in organisations, and thus isn’t creating innovations to its full potential. The question is really – can design thinking be implemented successfully, or is it fundamentally flawed. If it is flawed, is it time to move on to a new innovation approach? Perhaps Creative Intelligence?


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