Design Thursday: The Buzz Around "Design Thinking"

The phrase "design thinking" is certainly in vogue these days. In design circles, it's been part of the lexicon for several years. Stanford's d. school, to cite just one example, even uses the term on its home page. But now it seems that the phrase has entered the common vernacular—a Google search turns up roughly 141 million results. Which leads to three thoughts:

*While "design thinking" is on many, many minds, there's less than universal agreement on what it actually means. Consider a quick survey of references on design thinking and business:
For Roger Martin, design thinking "is about shaping a context, rather than taking it as it is."
Jeanne Liedtka asserts that design thinking "deals primarily with what does not yet exist."
Tim Brown suggests that design thinking is "inherently a prototyping business—once you spot a promising idea, you build it."

All of the above are aspects of design thinking. But when you add them and the many other definitions all up, a comprehensive description of the term remains less than clear—and leaves you wondering whether "design thinking" has really been thought through.

*As "design thinking" morphs into a buzzword, is it now becoming so widespread—and so vague—that it's demeaning to other professions? Dan Saffer raises that concern while crafting his own definition. "Are we saying that other disciplines aren't creative?" Saffer writes. "Certainly, design thinking is innovative and focused on problem-solving. But so is the thinking of many different types of professions: lawyers, engineers, and contractors, to name only a few."

*As the term's popularity ascends, there's a danger that we automatically assume that "design thinking" should be the de-facto approach to cracking any kind of creative problem. As Peter Merholz points out, that kind of hype fuels a "dark side" to design thinking—an arrogance that leads to "overbearing control," a "weakness for styling," and "condescension toward users."

Despite the lack of an adequate definition, "design thinking" is a powerful tool. But it's not a panacea. As any smart designer will tell you, sometimes "business thinking"—measurement and analysis—is more than sufficient.

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  • Ankur Gupta

    I think d.school says it well. Its a collective approach of various creative fields. All fields have different creativities but it is trying to bring them together and let them intersect with each other.