Interactions Cafe

XVII.2 March + April 2010
Page: 80
Digital Citation

On design thinking, business, the arts, STEM …

Jon Kolko, Richard Anderson

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Jon: In 1996 I took a class called "Introduction to Design Thinking" at Carnegie Mellon, taught by Richard Buchanan; he'd been teaching it for years. I learned a lot, and it's obviously shaped the way I consider design, culture, and behavior. Why do you think it's only now, some 14 years later, that the language related to the intellectual and intangible aspects of design is beginning to catch on?

Richard: Also in 1996, when a definition of design that has little to do with design thinking reigned supreme—even more than it does now—graphic designer turned business designer Clement Mok published a design-thinking book entitled Designing Business: Multiple Media, Multiple Disciplines. I suspect it was read mostly by other designers, akin to the fact that Buchanan's class was taught in the School of Design rather than the School of Business. The world of business has been catching on more recently, in part because of the urgings of people considered to be from the business world rather than outside it, perhaps particularly Roger Martin.

The business media also began to catch on in recent years. Now design thinkers are increasingly writing for the business media, just as more are influencing MBA programs. As you'll remember, we published articles in interactions during 2008 about two of the early MBA-program examples—one Don Norman started at Northwestern University and one Nathan Shedroff started at the California College of the Arts.

An important additional motivator has been the nasty mess the world is in, which is often pointed to as powerful evidence of the inadequacies of applying analytical thinking—the dominant thinking in business—alone.

Jon: So in some respects, it seems like you attribute the historic lack of adoption of these techniques and methods to the audience to which they were positioned—we were teaching the right things, but to the wrong people. I agree, but only in part. Many in business are now celebrating the popularity of design thinking (some even adopting an acronym, DT, a sure sign that the movement has come of age). But it is the same business machine that encouraged and supported the single-dimensional view of design as a styling or decorative activity, and this is the same corporate infrastructure that jumped on bandwagons like IT and total cost of ownership, Six Sigma and quality, supply-chain management, off-shoring, and any other term du jour. I have very little expectation that design and design thinking are sustainable in a business context without a massive culture baseline to support them. Let me explain.

Nearly every policy we have related to education and research supports the funding of traditional approaches to education, and these policies shape the societal force that, in combination with larger events, shapes future generations. As a quick example, the recent recovery and reinvestment legislation has directed $2.4 billion to the National Science Foundation and a paltry $49.9 million to the National Endowment for the Arts—the closest thing we have to a formal government arm related to design and innovation. The $650 million dedicated to the Investing in Innovation Fund has characterized "development" or "pure innovation" strategies as the lowest funded, with a ceiling of only $5 million (compared with $50 million for a "scale up" approach). I highlight these financial disparities not to whine about how underfunded design is, but to point out that our policies are actively supporting the old ways of doing things. We haven't experienced a widespread cultural adoption of design, and we are in no way encouraging future generations to adopt and embrace design.

In the United States, children get 18 years of educational training in linear and logical thinking, with an explicit emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They then bring this knowledge to their advanced course work, and are able to better learn more complex principles—such as those taught in business school. But that baseline of STEM knowledge taught to our children has no parallel in design. So when college students encounter one or two design courses in their business training, which is focused on lateral thinking, abductive reasoning, and reframing, they have no deep, tacit knowledge of fundamental design principles upon which to build. To your early point, we are teaching the right things, but to the wrong people. We need to actively shift from emphasizing and supporting traditional K-12 education focused on science and technology, to emphasize an education that embraces design—or, as Richard Buchanan describes it, the new liberal art of technological culture. This isn't a business issue. It's a much more fundamental issue of our societal priorities.

Richard: You've scoffed at much of what is happening with design thinking in the world of business during several of our café conversations, and I understand your skepticism. But while lasting interventions in business can take a lot of time and effort, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Examples are referenced in this issue by Chris Pacione, and Roger Martin and Jennifer Reil even provide guidance to overcome some of the business obstacles that thwart design-based, breakthrough innovations. I certainly agree on the need for policy and education changes in the U.S. and many other places. Pacione also agrees and emphasizes the difficulty in achieving such change, as well as change in business. But note he includes computer scientists among the design-literate (see Figure 2 in his article); NSF funding and STEM education aren't necessarily solely promotions of linear and logical thinking. Design thinking happens within significant segments of those fields more often than the many recent discussions on the topic might lead one to believe.

Jon: I see only one major program funded by NSF—creativeIT—specifically dedicated to design and design thinking. But my larger point isn't about funding or research; it's that the adoption of design in business is one of many potential applications of design and design thinking, but it's potentially the least relevant and appropriate, given the deep ties between design activities and culture. I'm not sure that methods of abductive reasoning can ever really achieve their potential in an environment entirely focused on short-term profitability. I'm speaking of and proposing a larger change, one that requires an acknowledgement that design is bigger than business and can exist without the corporation.

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