This was a powerful, articulate and comprehensive article, both for its historical background and for its arguments—probably the best dissertation I’ve read regarding design thinking. This should be a must read for anyone interested in the subject. That said, while there are many points I agree with, I am not convinced that I share the same conclusion.
Kolko concludes with the following statement: “The popularity of design thinking will leave behind two benefits: validation of the design profession as real, intellectual, and valuable—and a very large need for designers who can make things.”
While I can only hope that these benefits will come to fruition, my recent experience suggests otherwise.
I work for a large, conservative financial enterprise where “design thinking” has caught on like wildfire. Being a senior member of the UX design team, I was elated back in 2015 when I saw the HBR cover on “The Evolution of Design Thinking.” I figured this would serve as catalyst to increase requests for our services and spur more intellectual conversations about design. Instead, while everything remained business as usual, what I witnessed was lines of business reaching out in every direction seeking external design-thinking expertise.
What ensued were initiatives with no less than seven different entities offering design thinking training/consulting. Once I discovered these, I reached out to the appropriate parties with two words of advice/caution: 1) Uh, you do know that we have these skills and resources internally, don’t you? and 2) Be careful. If we’re going to be getting training from multiple providers, we run the risk of learning multiple dialects with emphasis placed in different areas.
It’s time for designers to take back design thinking. Only then will the design profession truly benefit.
My intervention got me invited to several of the training programs. I sat through “pitches,” one-hour computer-based training modules, three-hour sessions, and a three-day immersive workshop. In all but one of the sessions, what I experienced was “training” provided by nondesigners who clearly were parroting well-orchestrated design-thinking scripts. These individuals had little to no practical knowledge or experience doing design. Additionally, none of them acknowledged the design profession as the resource that has developed, cultivated, and still uses these techniques on a daily basis. Worse yet, in several instances, I had to correct the instructors because their comments or advice were just inaccurate.
So, as a designer who endorses Simon’s “everyone is a designer” philosophy, I’m concerned that the subject is being taught by too many people who don’t truly understand the intrinsic nature of the design-thinking process. I’m afraid that this rote, mechanistic training will result in a host of graduates who at best will set up Tuesday afternoons to “do design thinking.” While I support the socialization of design thinking and the democratization of design, I see little evidence that the design profession will benefit or be credited.
Imagine someone outside the financial/accounting worlds whose only experience with GAAP was through an intensive training course. This is what we are experiencing. It’s time for designers to take back design thinking. Only then will the design profession truly benefit.
Great article! I love how Nelson and Stolterman (2003) define design: an emergent compound composed of real, true, and ideal. For me, design thinking is a blueprint of how a designer thinks. Reading about design thinking does not make you a designer; it just tells you how designers think. Unless you put theory into action you cannot practice design.
Interesting analysis, and perhaps relevant in certain examples and as a particular view. I would like to point to the demise of the auto industry in England in the 1960s and the rise of useful, well-made, and reliable cars from Japan. What followed was the collapse of the British car industry. The principles that created this situation were the same as design thinking.
What this article shows us is that going to a few training courses is not sufficient to create true value in an organization. But in what field is this true? I would say that no one who has taken only a few courses in a subject, whether it’s engineering or philosophy, would be in a good place to use it effectively.
If this is what the article is saying, then I would not expect a design-thinking agency to use such inexperienced people. I suggest that this is the primary mistake, rather than that design thinking is somehow fundamentally wrong.
All trends go this way: from a sporadic start, to juvenile thrusts, to finally learning what works. Design thinking will eventually develop into a mature, skills- and experience-based competence. This will also slowly seep into the mindset of businesses—unlike now, when it’s often just an add-on. Give it time. It has been decades and still some international auto manufacturers lag behind what they should have learned from the 1960s.
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