Here in Australia businesses and government are really starting to take notice of design thinking. In the early 2000s IDEO began popularising the idea of ‘design thinking.’ This wasn’t the first time the phrase was known among design communities (a book on ‘design thinking’ was first published in 1991 by Peter Rowe). But it was IDEO who used the phrase to shift the perception of design as product to emphasis the ingenuity of design for its process and its principles.
My mind map from 2002 on ‘The application of Design Thinking to business organisations.’ This map helped shape my university dissertation: ‘The business of design: how the application of design thinking can impact on business organisations.’
The process, principles and attitudes of designers are what constitute ‘design thinking’ and while many other professionals and disciplines share similar processes (eg. crafting strategy, facilitation), principles (eg. anthropology, social sciences) and attitudes (eg. artists, musicians) it is this gestalt of attributes (Banerjee, 2008 calls this the ‘design complex’)¹ where the organised whole is more than the sum of its parts.
It is the whole, not a single attribute, that leads design thinking to encourage new and different ways of looking at the world, new and different kinds of cultures in organisations, new and different ways of learning and of doing. It is perhaps why design thinking applied to only one part of a development process, say a piloting stage (designers would argue this should be prototyping) that design thinking doesn’t work to its full potential (and I’ve experienced a few of these types of projects before). If design thinking is brought into a process late, then all it’s going to do is expose the assumptions of which an idea was based. The idea of design thinking is to begin with understanding the human experience and human behaviour to create things (products, services, systems, spaces) that are useful, usable and desirable.
To get the ‘whole’ of design thinking we need designers. The designer is the agent of ‘design thinking’ and if an organisation is looking to spread design thinking systemically throughout, then designers need to be present.
I know of only a very few business organisations that commit to bringing designers on board to be custodians of design thinking from within. It is these organisations that are going to be the real innovators. This is because design thinking is not an applied theory. It is a vocational activity and its practice is learnt by doing. Learning the craft of design thinking is not done in one day, nor one week. Richard Sennett (2008) argues that to be a master of a craft takes 15,000 hours. My partner (an accountant) calculated this to be about 5 years full-time work doing that same craft. I’m not saying that business organisations need to go to this extent of having employees become masters of design thinking, but the point here is that design thinking is learnt by doing, by experiencing design and practicing its craft. It is quite different from the pedagogy of applied theory.
All this is not helped either by the prevailing model of the design ‘consultancy.’ Not all design companies call themselves a ‘consultancy.’ I have avoided calling design companies ‘consultancies’ firstly because many designers I know refer to their practices as ‘studios’ and secondly because I don’t believe that ‘consultancy’ is the best model for helping organisations do design thinking.
Fine if a business organisation wants to know about design thinking, but if they want to do it, both organisations and designers really need to think about models of engagement that will help them achieve what they want to do with design thinking. By this I mean how designers and business organisations work together to create a design thinking organisation. Some suggestions might be to:
- Second designers into the organisation for a period of time. Management consultants do it, so why not designers?
- Build an internal design team (this is already being done in a few, very few, Australian organisations and also in UK local councils);
- Have designers develop with a core team from the business organisation design thinking capability and then, build a design thinking pedagogy that can be scaled and championed (by the core team) throughout the organisation (challenging but it has been done before too).
Maybe there are other models of engagement out there that I haven’t come across or thought of. Maybe you know of some, in which case I’d love to know.
So, how can design thinking be applied to business organisations? In summary my post has outlined that business organisations (and also designers but on the flip side) wanting to use design thinking need to:
- Firstly understand design thinking. Understand that the organised whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Understand that design thinking is not an applied theory. To do design thinking it must be practiced, experienced
- Understand that a designer is the agent of design thinking. That a designer encapsulates the gestalt of design thinking attributes and thus the presence of designers within an organisation is important in learning design thinking
- Think intelligently about the kinds of engagement models there might be for designers and business organisations. Intelligent engagement models will to bring design thinking into the organsation in ways where the potential and value of design thinking will be realised.
Note: I have been sitting on this post as a draft for weeks (mostly because I’ve had a few other things to blog first) but what prompted me to post today was this article in The Guardian newspaper on the use of designers within government, such as in Finland. The article states:
“In the business world, plenty of design consultancies offer to redesign systems and improve customer experience – they call it “design thinking”. However, they are increasingly discredited for their vague promises to make executives “think like designers”. Strategic design, however, is not just about thinking, but about how to bring that thinking to an effective outcome. That doesn’t mean hiring in McKinsey or Ideo to do a bit of consulting, it means having a design professional embedded in the process.”
¹“What makes the designer a promising agent is not a single attribute, but the gestalt of the skills, cognitive processes, design methodologies, attitudes, and structural aspects. I will refer to this as the “design complex”. (Banerjee, 2008)