There is tremendous excitement right now about “design thinking” (see Helen Walters’ review of the best design thinking books of 2009, for example). Battered by economic failure, public uncertainty and the failure of traditional forms of leadership and management, many are gazing hopefully towards design thinking as a new management wonderdrug that will help them make sense of what is going on and secure their next big bonus, election or promotion.
A Tweet I received a few days ago from @rosariocacao is typical of this excitement. See if you can count the number of buzzwords crammed into just 140 characters:
“Design thinking – the premier organizational path to breakthrough innovation and collaboration http://bit.ly/6assM“
While I too am excited that the general public is starting to better understand and appreciate the value design, it may be wise to inject a small note of caution gained from bitter experience before we get too carried away. By way of credentials, I should state that I am a firm believer in, and advocate of, the value of design. I’ve been a practising urban designer and community planner for over 12 years now, having worked internationally in the US, the UK, the Middle East and many countries in Europe. I’ve also taught and lectured on different aspects of design at universities around the world, including MIT, Harvard GSD, Berkeley, the Bartlett, Roma III, Stockholm KTH and many others. Finally, I consult frequently on strategy, management and design for organisations like the UN FAO, the UK Department of Health, the National Health Service, BP (formerly British Petroleum), GSK, etc. So don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in the power of design to change the world; in the right context. It this very experience that causes me to pause when I hear some of the more hyperbolic promises and excitement of its role in the business world.
Why “design thinking” will probably flounder in 2010 (or maybe 2011)
Here is my prediction for why design thinking will disappoint the coming year. If 2009 was the year of flirtation and romantic fantasizing about the promise of design thinking, 2010 will be the year that business and design get sloppy drunk together, stumble back to the nearest bed, have a night of mechanical, awkward sex, pass out, and then wake up to an uncomfortable morning of disappointment, embarrassment and shame.
As mainstream clients and partners begin to pick up on the design “buzz”, they’ll begin to buy into design for all the wrong reasons – because it is sexy, because they read about it in the HBR, because they see it mentioned in the management section of their local Barnes and Noble, because they’re desperate for a quick fix, or because their higher ups have forced them to.
The result will be unstable partnerships and elevated expectations that are prone to collapse.
Here is why. Design as a social process works best when engaged early and at the highest levels. Unfortunately, most designers in the real world play the role of aesthetic window dressers. Whatever our speciality, we are most often engaged to bring a given product, building, or service to life that has already been substantially conceived by others before them.
Despite what you learn in design school, in the real world almost all strategic decisions about that product or service you have been hired to design have been made long before a your are ever brought on board. What this means is that the vast majority of design, say around 95%, is employed in the gradual improvement and maintenance of the status quo.
Although a few enlightened managers or CEOs certainly can and certainty will benefit from bringing designers into the strategy formation process early (thereby taking advantage of the truly transformative nature of design), the everyday realpolitik of most organisations will actively work against this from occurring.
Designers will more often than not be brought into a situation with the promise of revolutionizing an organisation, yet won’t be provided with the right background, training or level of access to truly produce the desired systemic change. As a result we’ll be promising ecstasy but only be able to deliver enthusiasm, resulting in failure and disappointment all around.
As long as managers are unwilling to divest themselves of this power (which they hold on to for some very good reasons, not just self-interest), the more radical and profound promise and potential of design thinking will rarely materialise.
Despite this hard reality, the buzz of design thinking is on the rise and the Juggernaut has already been let out of the gates.
I therefore suspect that we will soon begin to see a lot of MBA’s running around pretending to be designers, a lot of designers pretending to be MBA’s and a ton of money wasted on poorly conceived partnerships which fail to deliver on their promises.
This will lead to widespread failure of design-led projects followed by blame, finger pointing, bitterness and a general disillusionment. The press will howl about wasted money, trained designers will close their ranks and make vague allusions to the difficulties of the design process, blaming customers and clients for “not understanding design” and being poorly educated. Management and MBA’s will retreat back to their business schools and boards room, licking their wounds, promising to “go back to basics”, only to promptly start all over again in a year or two looking for the next new buzzword to take advantage of in their never ending quest for higher performance.
2010 is shaping up to be a year of design thinking booms, followed rapidly by a bust-up and bitter divorce. Like all buzzword bubbles and crashes, most of what is truly valuable about design will be ignored, most of what is important will be lost and the baby will tend to be thrown out with the bath water; leaving both designers and managers bruised, battered and embittered from something that truly does have the potential to transform both for the better.
UPDATE 1: Just came across Don Norman’s critique of design research, which argues many of the same points I’ve just made from a different perspective.
UPDATE 2: See this post by Helen Walters about the NHS60 logo for a sample of the kind of public reaction we’re likely to see more of in 2011.
UPDATE 3: I’ve removed the original “Walk of Shame” image from the beginning of this post at the request of an anonymous reader. The image, found here, was intended to evoke that particular sense of embarrassment which comes from doing something overly intimate with a total stranger, based on a night of romance and heightened expectations, then realizing your mistake after the fact and retreating home with your tail between your legs in your wrinkled evening clothes from the night before. It was an obvious allegory for design and business, but the image was a bit risqué so I decided to take it down. In the words of the photographer of the original image, “here’s to all of you who will and won’t admit to a human carnal mistake. Relax, have fun, and be careful out there.”