Design Thinking’s Convergence Diversion

(Updated from 2010)

We now tend to think of design thinking as embracing all that represents “new design.”  Yet there remains more value in some of the original views of design thinking from decades ago than in most of what’s presented today. Design thinking is often treated as a process for moving an idea from ideation through prototyping to a concept test or an early alpha design. Or we mean it to represent the creative process associated with the structural mechanics of a generic design process – identify user needs by empathy and observation, iterate a promising prototype, add visual design and some marketing and voila.

Let’s go back 30 years. The 4 orders of abstraction Buchanan (1992) describes in Wicked Problems in Design Thinking are usually left untapped in design thinking discussions. Buchanan lists:

  1. Symbolic and visual communications
  2. Material objects
  3. Activities and organized services
  4. Complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning

Another 4-phase description of design thinking is GK van Patter’s Design 1.0 – 4.0 as described in numerous NextD articles and presentations. The four phases are more of a process model than the design of things represented by each phase.

The NextD framework of D1, D2, D3 is in essence a complexity scale. It is a post-discipline view that is process, not content focused. As a field of knowledge design is an amorphous time warp that exists across several time zones or paradigms simultaneously.

The NextD view considers the four phases as processes in “designing for” which are generally:

1.0   Artifacts and communications (traditional design)
2.0   Products and services
3.0   Organizational transformation (bounded by business or strategy)
4.0   Social transformation (complex, unbounded)

These are essentially ways of viewing the changes in design practice, as design thinking, from the designerly and not a business perspective. A design approach to organizational transformation is not a business approach, even if both call the process “design thinking.”

As the debates about design thinking continue, I am (still) struck by several developments:

  • The re-emergence of design thinking as a frame and trend has emerged from business thinking, and not from the design disciplines. Design had largely ignored Buchanan’s  model, and the term was picked up by Weathehead and Rotman business schools. My own observation was that (Case Western’ Weatherhead School) Boland and Collopy’s Managing as Designing had a huge influence on business education.
  • Major design firms (IDEO, Continuum) started engaging in business consulting as much as design work. The language distinctions of design thinking as process are now influenced more by business need than design invention.
  • As the Design discipline does not own “design thinking”, there is very little agreement among designers as to, precisely, what Design Thinking is and how it differs from design methodology.  I trace design thinking to systems thinking, but there are real differences.

In “Learning the Lessons of Systems Thinking: Exploring the Gap between Thinking and Leadership” (2009, Integral Leadership Quarterly) I traced design thinking directly to creative systems thinking:

“Many systems thinkers explicitly oriented their theories to designing, at least starting with Newell, Simon and Shaw’s (1958) The Processes of Creative Thinking. Ackoff’s basic principles-such as starting from an ideal envisioned outcome and generate scenarios for reaching that vision-fit many of the practices espoused by firms such as IDEO, Jump, and Redesign Research. We may have dressed up the methodologies and supported them with design research, but design thinking is indebted more to systems thinkers than to traditional (industrial) designers. (Which may explain why design thinking is, unfortunately, rarely presented with the “designerly” richness it deserves).”

Most of that article discusses why systems thinking, even though taught to managers for a couple of decades in seminars and articles, largely failed in its mission to enhance management as a practice. A true evolving systems view of commerce would have treated stakeholders and customers as inviolable participants in the network of sustainable and virtuous business.

Innovation consultant Bob Jacobson has expressed that recently “design thinking,” as a business practice, may have reached a point of snake oil marketing. I have noticed design theorists backing off from the conceptualization of design thinking because 1) they didn’t get ahead of the curve of the meme uptake, as GK van Patter indicates, and 2) the framework for design thinking has been degraded by its many opportunistic deployments, making it “all things to all people,” and 3) it generally does not describe what designers do.

While designers will share their views of design thinking, they do not generally approach design projects from a “thinking” perspective. I see the very notion as having been conjured and defended by non-designers for non-designers to more credibly borrow from the universal patterns of designerly action. The attempts of non-designers to appropriate the terminology without the craft diminish the perceived value of design’s contribution.

So if we’re hoping to bring transformation to the enterprise, designing still plays only a supplemental role anyway.  Design thinking is viewed by most as primarily methodology (Problem framing, user focus, early field research, iteration, agility, contingency). It is not the substantive work of transformation. But our continued churn and recycling of “what it is” just points to the way our field valorizes itself and indulges its fads, as much as management thinkers do their fads.

Finally, Bruno Latour makes a clear point about the shift toward a humility and care in design in his 2008 speech, A Cautious Prometheus. Latour can be controversial, and this position is as divergent from methodological design thinking as one could imagine.

“As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word “construction” or “building”. Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the “real” practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew. In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something.”

The problem with design thinking may be the hubris that merely designing something is more than enough.  There are no design thinking formulas for transformation. Latour’s suggestion of “care” and “entanglement” foretells we must live in and with the real worlds of our societies and organizations. Transformative work leads us to become insiders committed to the worlds we care about. Design becomes secondary, a skill, that supports larger commitments to the world.  And this may be the biggest difference between “Design 1.0 and Design 4.0.”

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