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The Highs and Lows of “Design Thinking”

The buzzword going around these days is “Design Thinking”. Management just got a hold of its latest “holy grail”. Training programs are slowly popping up all over the place. The top American business schools seem to have tapped into a new trend and topic in management having caught the wave in innovation and society’s burning issues.

If we plan on changing the face of paradigms and cranking out structures that breed more imagination, movement and flexibility, we’ve got no other choice but to think outside the box, give shape to our ideas, take the path less traveled, and approach the thought process with an open mind and a blank canvas. Shifting from mass consumption to one with meaning that spans both products and services, and being able to constantly adapt to market volatility and technological breakthroughs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the topics that companies will need to incorporate into their business models and strategies, not to mention having to provide ongoing and up-to-date training to ensure that their employees are adequately armed to tackle and tame the moving targets and changes that lie ahead.
To truly grasp the extent to which this concept has taken off, you’ve had to have set foot inside the offices of Ideo in San Francisco or Shanghai, where the creative realm strays far from the organizational norms in place already for the past several years in certain companies, compromising their ability to adapt and grow. Ideo CEO Tim Brown wrote “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation”, which sheds light on his views pertaining to organizations in pursuit of tomorrow. He is one of “Design Thinking”’s gurus, and has made quite a business out of it.
What makes “Design Thinking” so attractive in the first place, and most likely, is its modularity. Everyone’s got his own notion. Putting creativity in a box in an effort to make it fit the societal and corporate mold is nothing short of ridiculous, futile, and ultimately, counterproductive. The act itself of defining “Design Thinking” is an exercise laden with obstacles, bringing the very act to a screeching halt due to the limits that abound. The mere idea of pinning a definition on it means wanting to put an end to the creative process and innovation that dwell naturally there within, rather than coming up short with a definition that does the term little or no justice. Some, though, will do everything to try and make a “science” out of it. And you can bet that it won’t be long before there’s mention of “Design Thinking” researchers. Although the title won’t bring about anything life-changing, it will, at least, give a handful of academics peace of mind knowing that their pay is justified.
Let’s just say that it is a branch of management focused on “bringing together” a wide variety of competencies, be they technical, economic or social, and finding that patch of common ground that enables them to cast a collective take on tomorrow. In other words, let’s put our heads together, create, innovate, and forge ahead!
In corporate speak, it translates to speculation and forecasts on the organization’s future, field, operations and methods. It means reflecting on the how’s and why’s inherent to change and growth. A collective thought process needs to happen not only on the why for change, but also on the how it will come to fruition. With this in mind, strategy and sustainability go hand-in-hand.
The timing is right and the market ripe. Several companies are confronted with having to adapt to the profound changes undergone by industrial and commercial paradigms. Many are even changing their business model. The question no longer revolves around improving on what we already know how to do. It is now on being ever-ready and able to do something else or differently with what we already possess. “Design Thinking” is the counterpart of normalization and quality-driven policies that some companies have self-imposed. With a stranglehold on their own work methods, companies themselves have managed to put a serious, if not irreversible damper on the creative and innovative realm.
“Design Thinking” is in style. Master’s programs are drawing in droves in the United States as if Business schools had just discovered “Innovation Management”, which could not be further from the truth. In reality, it’s been there all along. A quick review of Peter Drucker’s “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” couldn’t hurt to see that there’s nothing new about “Design Thinking.” To argue the opposite would mean believing that we could refrain from “thinking” when it comes to project-“doing.” The bandwagon success that has emerged from the so-called ‘new’ trend leaves us a bit speechless, but not for long when we realize how much consultants and trainers are pocketing from it. It is painful enough as is that they try, nonetheless, to pawn it off as a novel idea.
Globalization is really at the root of these changes, for it depends on a kind of “sink-or-swim”, “finish-or-famish” or “publish-or-perish” mentality. It’s like telling Henry Ford and his theory of production to take a backseat to Darwin and his on “survival of the fittest” when it comes to running an industry. With the corporate angle aside, capitalism is now the driving force behind happiness and progress. As mentioned recently by Denmark’s Kolding School of Design Dean Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen in “A Manifesto for global design and leadership”, “The 19th and 20th centuries have forced companies to face up to two questions: What is profitable, and what is technologically possible? In the 21st century, the question has become: What makes “sense”? In a spirit of progress-driven logic, we can only hope that “Design Thinking” will set straight, once and for all, the financial tangents that have shown a tendency of being more speculative than entrepreneurial, as well as consumption-hungry marketing tactics despite a real push today on buying responsibly and reasonably.
Design schools can be thrilled knowing that their field is now associated with management. “Design Thinking” comes naturally to them. Designers do it just as Monsieur Jourdain did with his prose in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by 17th Century French playwright Molière; that is to say, constantly and unconsciously. What sweet revenge it is, especially as designers were often thought of as misfits, talented ones nonetheless, but not necessarily fit for business. Today, designers are the key in a company and its future. Their role is a strategic one, and their technological prowess, business savvy and proven track record fuel projects that “make sense” well before making “cents” and being technologically possible.
Designers and design schools have always done “Design Thinking.” Bringing engineers, marketing specialists, financial experts, philosophers and sociologists together, and getting them to work as one on the issues of tomorrow are concepts all too familiar to designers’ day-to-day. Their competencies, coupled with a knack for devising user scenarios, set them apart from the rest. Not everyone is cut out to be a designer!

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