Making sense of Design Thinking: Three definitions, two problems and one big question.




It won’t surprise anyone who read this blog that I am not an admirer of the Design Thinking phenomenon. I will call myself a skeptic observer. However I am not directly oppose to it. If you wonder how come, you should consider the confused and blurred presentation of Design Thinking throughout the design world – I don’t know if I’m ‘against’ or ‘for’ something so ill defined. So while trying to refine the point for myself, I am defining it in three ways, noting two major problems and asking a question.


First, Design Thinking as Synthetic thinking.

At first, in 1960’s, researchers from the field of Cognitive Psychology (notably Herbert Simon - used Design Thinking in parallel with the term Synthetic Thinking – the combination of ideas into a complex whole. The general notion is to define a philosophical difference between the traditional scientific analytical thinking and a type of thinking specializing in convergence, rather than divergence. Implicitly it should be noted that Design Thinking is not new and has nothing to add to the well-discussed subject of the limitation of analytical thinking and management. In fact, I was first exposed to the term over 20 years ago by my dad, an architect. Today I find it more than ironic that the people who promote the Design thinking notion are among the more analytical, systemic and process-driven persona in the design world. After all, the notion of Design Thinking, as well as Synthetic thinking, was originated to a degree as the antithesis of Analytical thinking. Naturally as a ‘classic’ designer, I am fully on-board with the notion that the convergence of ideas into a cohesive whole, or to be precise, the Quality of such convergence, is at the core of what I do as much as any designer work since Brunelleschi. I also believe non-designers acting and implementing Synthetic thinking daily, throughout many aspects of life. Possibly any large complex problem is by definition solved through Synthetic/design thinking since by analysis alone you get nowhere.


Second, Design Thinking as a Methodology.


Over the last decade, in part because of the growing recognition in Design, the methodology of design was gaining credit as a worthy management method. This lead to formulating Design Thinking as a methodology – the prescribed process of Define-Research-Ideate-Prototype-Choose-Implement-Learn ( Again, there is nothing new about it since it resembles any design process description I heard off. I have two major problems with the Design Thinking methodology-

a. I think Design thinking is regressive and risky for design since it is placing thought (‘define’) always before action (‘prototype’) and analysis (‘research’) as the precursor to creativity (‘ideate’). I simply don’t believe the wheel was created through this process. In fact, the real challenge designers face is the opposite – a recognition that action (prototyping, sketching) often precede thinking and many products, inventions and great companies were born out of a burst of creativity and not through a regimented thought process. Furthermore, the notion of linear process as the absolute gold-standard for proper management and creativity is, in reality, one big fallacy. Linear process’ are seldom the way the world works. The non-linear and even chaotic nature of creative thinking is curtailed by a false presentation of a sqeeky-clean linear process.

b. I find it disingenuous to retroactively assign ‘design thinking’ label over the work of some of our best entrepreneurial thinkers. The ‘Design Thinking’ community is full of that.  I recently read in a blog that both Steve Jobs and Philippe Starck are among the top-20 design thinkers. These are two great creative individuals yet we simply don’t know if they are ‘design thinkers’. I will more than surprise to find Starck’s legendary-quick artistic process is actually a premeditated Design-thinking act. Steve Jobs is obviously one of the best technology leaders we are blessed with. Jobs’ Apple is a brilliant continuum of visionary business leadership, yet it could be called ‘Design thinking’ only through an act of jarring revisionism: Apple or the Macintosh platform was not envisioned by a declared design-thinker, following the process mentioned above. So the problem here is simple – where is the proof for Design thinking efficacy? It will be nice to see real examples of true ‘design thinking’ process succeeding in real life, delivering the true proof-in-pudding for the efficacy of design-thinkers as business leaders. 



Design Thinking as a Marketing slogan.

Third and last is the hidden definition – what is not said clearly and is not discussed openly is quite the obvious, that Design thinking is a marketing slogan adapted by a very large and influential Innovation consultancy to redefine its services to be somewhat-similar to Business consulting. Nothing wrong with that except that it’s not clearly discussed and acknowledged. The transformation of a message from ‘Innovation’ to ‘Design thinking’ is therefore also an amazing business strategy transformation through PR and marketing campaign. The large Innovation agencies of the early 2000’s transformed their message for ‘Design thinking’ not only because of a sudden discovery or change of heart – simply put, they had to. The business of a large creative agency at the early of 2000’s was based on Product Development (aka ‘Innovation’), or to be precise, selling Engineering hours. These expensive billable-hours went to China and something new had to be found. Luckily for them, the MBA methodology was overhyped and too expensive with results varying and less than perfectly quantifiable. And here laid an opportunity: Creating a new strategy based on old corporate in-roads from the ‘Innovation’ era with more tangible results compared with McKinsey’s. The transformation of large Design agencies to a worthy competitor of the large management consulting firms is a very interesting phenomenon. I am sure that if it is truly successful, design as a whole will gain some additional respect, maybe to level MBA grew to become the preeminent management methodology. However, there is some hesitation by the large Design thinking agencies to clearly position themselves as direct competitors to McKinsey, Boston Consulting and such. This hesitation is telling and perhaps a sign of weakness, possibly due to clients reaction. Lately I was privy to two cases in which very large clients received the results of a large Design Thinking project and… opted to continue with actual design work with a more traditional design house. It looks as if in reality clients perceive ‘Design Thinking’ as Think-but-don’t-Design, not as Think-then-Design as suggested.


So here comes the big question – why won’t Design Thinking be presented as service, on par with Business Consulting?


About the author

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards.