The Myths of Design Thinking

Attending a couple of talks at the World Design Congress crystallized some of my concerns about how design thinking gets talked a lot about these days, and how designers are ascribed almost magical powers because of it. The talks by Tim Brown of IDEO and Roger Martin, dean of  the Rotman School of Business, each touched on three “myths” about how designers think, and how designers can play a role in innovation and business.

  • Myth One: Designers think systemically. The notion here is that designers think “outside the object” to look at the system surrounding it. Ideally this leads to a broader understanding of the problem and a more comprehensive solution.
  • Myth Two: Designers like constraints. According to Martin business people hate constraints while designers like them, and I’ve heard variations on this before.
  • Myth Three: Designers are user-focused. According to this myth, designers are by inclination and training empathic to users and are eager to understand everything they can about in order to design better products

The reason I’m calling these myths is that they are ascribed to designers as though they are universally-held skills. For better or for worse, this is inaccurate. Absolutely some designers, maybe even many, are fluent in one or more of the above areas, but definitely not all.

There are many designers who would like nothing more than to craft products that are conceptually and aesthetically wonderful, but which are not hampered by constraints of BOM costs, ergonomics, or component packaging. One of our most talented industrial designers at frog was talking about constraints recently, and how he has only recently come to embrace them as catalysts for innovation - like many designers he used to see them as impediments.

Some of the most revered star designers work this way, some of them were even speaking at the Congress.

And don’t get me wrong - often you need someone who can reliably the envelope and crank out inspring ideas. Design is a constant balancing act of embracing and ignoring constraints, of focusing on the micro product and zooming back out to the broader system and user context. There’s too much detail to deal with everything in one go, so having people who specialize in one level is not in itself detrimental if balanced out by others looking at different levels.

But by the same token there are designers out there who either due to inclination or education fit the stereotype of the auteur creative who wants nothing to do with business or engineering constraints and are not particularly good at collaborating with engineers and marketers. This type of designer feels that beautiful aesthetics are justification enough for whatever other problems they cause. They are not particularly interested in what users want, and instead assume users are just like them and have the same values and priorities.

Undoubtedly this stereotype is slowly diminishing in frequency, but it is by no means gone (and we probably don’t want it to disappear, the world would be much less interesting). It’s only quite recently (last ten years or so) that design education has started looking beyond the object in how it trains designers at the bachelors level. (For most designers, bachelors is as far as they go, relatively few designers have masters and I have yet to meet one with a PhD.)

My fear is that two forces will collide and cause a backlash against design thinking:

  1. Designers who are more the auteur type will jump on this design thinking thing because it’s the hot thing to do, and seems to be a way to get business people to pay attention to design. Unfortunately they do not have the training or the natural skills to deliver it. This will hurt their credibility, and that of other designers.
  2. Businesses are hearing all this hype about design thinking and will assume (not surprisingly) that all designers are design thinkers. They may hire a designer who is not very skilled at it, and be disenchanted by the lacklustre outcome. They will not hire another designer again.
In fact I think we are very close to such a collision and that a backlash is imminent in the next 12 months. We need to cool things down (are you listening BusinessWeek?), get over the hype without losing the momentum, and as a profession be more precise about what we mean by design thinking and how it does and does not relate to actual design work.