Hello. I'm a fourth and final year student studying Interaction Design at Dundee University in Scotland. I'm currently writing a paper on Design Thinking and its role in the future.

Jonathan Baldwin told me to look at "the debate" around Design Thinking and said people here would point me in the right direction - does anyone have any thoughts? Why is design thinking so controversial and what are the main arguments for and against it?"

Thank you!

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Start by looking at "design" -- our understanding of that word (or lack of understanding). For too many people -- at least in the US, design is about adding pleasant visual affect to things or concepts already in place. What a thin notion!

I think of design as a vibrant process of finding integrated solutions to problems -- in which visual, function, spiritual, affective elements all might come together. To design a meal, or a bathroom vanity, or a bookshelf, or a poem is to give it form in context.

I'm a relative newcomer to the term "DesignThinking", but associate it with such core concepts. If it's controversial, that's because we don't understand the centrality of design. Arguments against it? I'd like to hear responses to that query.

On my blog (www.arthurfink.wordpress.com) I asked "Why Design Matters?" Deidre Johnson wrote a wonderful response, that speaks to your question. It's at http://arthurfink.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/why-design-matters/.
Thank you so much for your comment. Deidre Johnston's description of design is beautiful!
I think there is more than one debate about "Design Thinking". One, however, might be seen as a debate between the ownership of disciplinary qualities. I'll try and be non-partisan here, but I will be making huge generalisations – apologies to my colleagues.
ackgrounds and training have tried to soak up 'design thinking'.

Designers (particularly in service design) argue that they have skills and a way of thinking about and looking at the world that places them in a strong position to provide innovation. This is especially the case within traditional business models where innovation has often stalled. Designers – especially those with product, interaction or experience design backgrounds – and now service design - will argue that they place great value on human centred design, with the design process being bottom up whilst businesses are often a top down model of making 'things' and finding 'consumers' or 'customers' to sell that stuff to. The difference can be seen like this: Designers ask, "What are the needs, problems and opportunities?" whilst business execs might ask, "What are the opportunities to create a need?" (the latter traditionally done by marketing and advertising). That's a gross simplification of course.

In recent years innovation and creativity and 'design thinking' have become buzzwords in the business press as ways to gain a competitive advantage. From a service design perspective, the issue for most companies is that their products are pretty much identical within a market segment and actually any competitive advantage comes through innovation and, in particular, service innovation because that can be a point not just of difference but of uniqueness. So, plenty of MBAs and people with management b

Naturally, designers feel that is their turf and some argue that design thinking isn't something you can learn by reading a couple of books and then apply to your business, but something much more deeply rooted in having studied and practiced design as a discipline for many years. At the same time, of course, much of what designers working in service design or innovation focussed companies do crosses over with business management and marketing. If you are arguing that a company needs to re-think it's structure in order to move forward and innovate and be creative, at some point you are talking about management structures. Arguably designers are equally guilty of thinking they know about management from reading a couple of books on the subject and naturally the MBAs feel that's their turf.

A large portion of this debate was crystalized and/or kicked off by Bruce Nussbaum's article CEOs Must Be Designers, Not Just Hire Them. Think Steve Jobs And iP.... The question is, should CEOs be designers, or should they become designers. The Apple example isn’t the best because it's clear Steve Jobs is both a brilliant CEO and has a designer's mind and that's rare. Could Jonathan Ive run Apple as its CEO? I'm not sure it's his core competency. Could Bill Gates think like a designer? I doubt it. So that's also part of the debate.

There's another factor though, one that is pertinent to service design and the notion of co-design. One of the activities carried out on some (mostly service) design projects is working with all the stakeholders of an organisation in a co-design process to innovate and re-think their approach and services. There are a few reasons for doing this, but one is so that an organisation can go on innovating once the 'professional' designers have left. And in fact many people inside organisations do service design without ever calling it that or thinking about themselves as being service designers. This opening up of the design process to 'lay people' obviously raises questions and debate about the nature of the design professional. If you can teach people what you do, then what's your specific value as a designer? Is it really that easy or is there something more to being a designer or, more specifically, thinking like a designer?

My personal and partisan view is that it's completely possible to think like a designer without having trained as one. Some of the best designers I know didn't train as designers and some of the worst ones I know did. But the converse is also true. I think having a design – or some kind of creative discipline – training gives you a better chance of thinking that way. I also think that one of the skills of a good designer is being able to assimilate a lot of new information and situations very quickly and see the (often hidden) patterns underlying them in order to think about how things might be altered. In other words, designers look at something and think, "What is it? Why is it done that way? How could it be done differently?".

I don't think that's a difficult concept to grasp, but it's very hard to teach (I teach designers). It's very hard to teach to people who have been embedded in a dogma of business that can often be all about efficiency beyond every other concern. The "design thinking" way of thinking is – or should be – inherently open to re-thinking and thus avoid ever being a dogma. Of course, that's not necessarily true because there are often good reasons for not fixing something that ain't broke.
Thank you for your input - this comment has been invaluable in deepening my understanding of the "debate" surrounding design thinking. Do you mind if I quote you in my essay?
I like to view design thinking as an integration of quantitative & qualitative thinking. If you look at the business world, the focus is more on quantifying each step & measuring the performance. On the other hand the focus of design world is on identifying unmet human needs & creating products /services /experiences.
Business world is good with creating systems & platforms at the same time have metrics to measure the performance. Design world is good with identification of unmet needs of people & creating what people need.
To me a design thinker is a person who can integrate thinking of both these worlds & provide solutions which people are looking for, at the same time have business acumen of scaling these solutions to earn profit.
The design knowledge provides an understanding & creative ability to relook at traditional models & change/create new models whereas business acumen gives the ability to understand the financial implications at the same time an ability to create business systems.
I agree with Andy about reason why companies are looking for design thinking & innovation and also to the fact that its possible to think like a designer.
I guess there is some debate about the measurement of the outcome of an innovation/design thinking based project. Because we don't have too many metrics through which we can foresee the value/outcome of such projects, companies will be slightly uncomfortable about choosing solutions derived from design thinking.
Good points and that integration or synthesis is key, whatever background you have.

The attention to metrics is one of the issues facing any designer engaged with a business focused project. Metrics are useful, but they're only useful when they're measuring things the tools are designed to measure and that's a large part of the culture clash. Does it make sense to try and measure a customer's emotional connection with a company in any kind of numerical or financial way? How is it at all provable that a particular piece of service design work, which can be quantitively shown to have great affect (not effect), has a knock-on effect many years later? I know, for example, that I'll have a mobile phone (or similar device) for the rest of my life, yet few telcos appear aware or interested in thinking that far ahead, maybe because it isn't measurable. Triple bottom line thinking seems to be at least a start in the right direction.
Andy Polaine asks, "Does it make sense to try and measure a customer's emotional connection with a company in any kind of numerical or financial way? No -- of course not. Any numbers produced will be false.

But do we have affective connections to organizations, technologies, tools . . . and can researchers get us to testify to those connections? Of course. When I sit down at one of two local coffee houses on a given block, I may know that it's because that space is more visually pleasing. I remember inexpensive restaurants that served me on such wonderfully designed china. Part of the design experience stayed with me. The open door to the brightly light kitchen in the fancy restaurant that totally ruined the mood. I've not forgotten. The customer service rep who asked right away what I thought was a fair settlement to my complaint -- and then said, "sure!". Management needs to know that their effort, or their expense for design, made a difference.
This is a new angle and one I hadn't previously thought of - thanks!
Joanna,
I usually like to give an example to answer your question.
I am quoting from one of my blogs

I recently came upon the following definition of Design Thinking in Wikipedia.

Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, Choose, Implement, Learn.

This took me back to 1998/99 when I was working for a company who manufactured Vinyl Dip Molded products for automobile and medical device companies. The product was made by dipping aluminum molds in liquid vinyl and curing the same by passing it on a conveyor through the oven. Once out of the oven the products were stripped manually from the mold and post processing was carried out. Post processing operations included punching and trimming of the products on fixtures.

My role was that of a Plant Engineer wherein I was involved in plant maintenance, process improvement, equipment trouble shooting, designing /building new production equipment and building fixtures for the post processing operations. I got to play with control systems, built pick and place robots and had a lot of fun.

The Director of operations gave us the Define phase of the problem to be solved

DEFINE

The new years contract with a major automobile company required a more competitive price structure. So the goal was to try and take the number of operators from 4 to 3 by using work saving tools if feasible
Increase operator comfort level by a more ergonomic arrangement of the production cell
RESEARCH

I spent a day on the line observing the operations and talking to the operators and production supervisor
The consensus was that the line was producing many different products using a multitude of fixtures and the operators had to walk back and forth with the fixtures from storage to work table. There was also a lot of heat from the oven which produced a level of discomfort on warm days
The talk with the operators also indicated that they would love to sit down and discuss ways and means of improving the system
IDEATE

We assembled a team consisting of 2 operators (Happy Harry & Simple Sue) who were very familiar with the production line, one production supervisor(Big Al), the director of operations (Old Man Phil) and one engineer (Tinkerer Dan)
We went over various interesting suggestions on the first day which included rotating horizontal carousels, multipurpose fixtures, industrial cooling fans, work rotation, telling the automobile company to take their business else where and using a robot
We then decided to sleep on our ideas and return the next day
PROTOTYPE

We had a pleasant surprise the next day
One of the operators carried a fan into the conference room. He did make a strong statement on a great simple cooling idea
The other operator had a small card board model. The model was a 4 sided horizontal rotating carousel. On each side the operator had made small models of multipurpose fixtures.
Harry and Sue had another surprise for us. They claimed that the new fixture could actually make their work much more simpler and it would only take 3 operators as opposed to the 4 we were using in the present operation
We took a break for lunch to mull over the suggestions and the models presented
CHOOSE

The choices were really simple in this case.
We decided to go with carousel for production and the fan for cooling
We also decided as a group that there would be no pressure on the operators to manage with 3 if for some reason the rotating carousel was not as efficient as we had hoped for
IMPLEMENT

We built the rotating carousel in house using 80/20 erector sets
The whole system took less than a week to complete
The operators were involved during design and construction offering valuable suggestions along the way
The system was completed, commissioned and tried out
LEARN

This is what we learnt from the project
The effort was successful
The team did reduce the operation to 3 operators
The team also increased production by 25%
The company was able to get the new contract
The exercise encouraged the team to continue the efforts on other manufacturing cells
We improved the system as we went along
Process improvement does not have to have big investments or take a lot of time
What was really important was team effort, imagination, involvement of line staff, common sense and a will to succeed
Of course back in those days we called this KAIZEN

So in essence from my perspective Design Thinking has been practiced for ages but now it has a name
Hope it has been informative for you

Regards

Daniel Christadoss
Thank you very much for your comment. The more I research, the more I realise that Design Thinking has been practiced for many years - such as by Josiah Wedgwood when he created a production line. It is rather odd how so many people are skeptical about it now that is has a definition.
Joanna,
Thanks for the feedback. It is nice to know that the comments we make are helpful and meaningful
All the best with your essay
Daniel
Johanna,

You're probably done your paper, so this is more of a pointer for future readers.

Debates around design thinking that I haven't seen mentioned in this thread.
1) most designers aren't design thinkers, because most designers are focused on style & aesthetics, not interaction or context. Even fewer look at reframing problems. This is shifting, but slowly.

2) most design thinking draws on an awful lot of other disciplines, particularly the social sciences. Why should we polarize business vs. design thinking without recognizing the contributions of many other disciplines (Peter Merholz posted about this recently on his harvard business blog. Fred Collopy has a good recent (2009) critique of the term on his Fast Company blog)

3) Most academic approaches to design thinking land on the idea of abductive thinking (compared to inductive or deductive thinking). Abdutive thinking is about generating new possibilities in order to understand and solve a problem. While designers excel at this, it's certainly not restricted to designers (or we go the Herb Simon route, where every human endeavor that generates possibilities is design).

Hope your paper received a great mark!

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