The coming boom and bust of design thinking

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.”

18 Comments

  1. Nathan Koren
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    That’s an astonishing number of buzzwords crammed into a mere 114 characters, actually. I’ve been lucky enough to miss most of the rising-fad buzz of “Design Thinking” — although as a dual architect/MBA, I’m probably in a a better position than most to talk smack about both professions. Suffice it to say that I share your pessimism about the outcome of the current “Design Thinking” trend, and for largely the same reasons: designers have traditionally been relegated to a rather superficial role (a beloved old engineering professor of mine liked to define “architecture” as “what falls off a building during an earthquake), and would never think to bother with sub-surface organizational design issues such as, for example, the alignment of incentives at different levels of the organization; meanwhile, most managers and CEOs would never be willing or able to let designed processes be as all-encompassing or long-duration as is required to be effective.

    Moreover, unless you’re a sole proprietor or an all-star CEO who has your board by the short hairs, you’re simple never going to be able to truly implement design thinking within your organization — and even then, you won’t be able to do it quickly. If you do in fact have the sort of power required to make such sweeping changes, then your name is probably already Steve Jobs or Larry Page or somesuch, and the point is largely moot.

    The sad thing is that there is nothing wrong, per se, about the notion that design (especially with respect to process) should be a far more integral part of an organization. I haven’t read any of these “Design Thinking” books, but skimming through the articles, I can make some wild presumptions about what they’re saying — and very likely I agree with them. Where traditional “modern” organizational structures are focused on singular bottom lines — quarterly P&L statements, for example — then perfecting that structure is more of an optimization problem than a design problem. Postmodern organizational structures have introduced more variables into the equation — most famously the “triple bottom line” of economy / ecology / society — and once you’ve got multiple variables in play, you’re dealing with design rather than optimization. You aren’t just trying to balance various outputs — you’re trying to create synergies between them. An organization that is both willing and able to take this seriously will indeed prosper.

    But, it’s not a quick and easy fix by any means — which the expectation that language like “the premier organizational path to breakthrough innovation and collaboration” creates. Moreover, it’s probably not even the right fix during the current crisis-stressed times. I’ve been recently re-reading Jane Jacobs’ “The Nature of Economies”. One of the things she talks about, under the subject of “Avoiding Collapse”, is that complex organizational systems, whether biological or economic, have four means of averting catastrophic demise: bifurcations, positive feedback loops, negative feedback controls, and emergency adaptations. The latter is not actually as much of a catch-all as it sounds, in that it relates specifically to short-term corrective measures that would be harmful to the system under ordinary circumstances — such as a body developing a fever to fight an infection, or a lizard dropping its tail to escape a predator. Although feedback mechanisms and bifurcations are often susceptible to long-term “Design Thinking,” they are not any substitute for emergency adaptations, at a time when the shit is genuinely hitting the fan. If organizations are turning to “Design Thinking” as a short-term response to severe stress and crisis, they are likely to become either disappointed or extinct.

    Following the inevitable bust, I expect that we’ll see a backlash wherein the corporate world decides that the whole “Design Thinking” thing was yet another flash of Fool’s Gold in the pan. More’s the pity. There’s something to it, but only if it isn’t treated as the Next Big Thing.

  2. Posted January 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Noah – good to read your challenge of the wisdom that seems to be forming around design thinking and I understand your caution re the potential deflated expectations of what design thinking can do for board rooms and the expected backlash against designers.
    Having read a few of these books myself (Roger Martin, Tim Brown), and not being a designer myself, it struck me that the books on design thinking are perhaps less about inviting design*ers* into the corner offices, and more about skill sets and mind sets that designers posses in abundance (compared to MBA trained corner office folks) and apply these mind sets on a daily basis to board room type problems. The way I read the books, they (implicitely) propagate ‘right brain’ thinking (board room types are usually trained in MBA’s to optimize the left brain), including visual thinking; divergence before convergence; fast and cheap experimentation; synthesis following analysis; big picture pattern recognition; etc. I would include here abductive thinking, on which you yourself wrote a wonderful post a way back. So maybe the hype that is starting to arise about “design thinking” could be deflated and brought back to realistic proportions if we re-branded it into “right brain” or “abductive” thinking. This also decreases the odds of board room types externalizing their disappointment and making the designers into the scape goats when the hype is deflated – instead they will have to internalize and blame the other half of their own brain :-)

  3. Randy Bosch
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    “Design” is “only” ONE part of the process of analyzing, programming, designing and implementing a lasting, efficient, user program/societal need/environmentally and contextually responsive, on time/on budget and aesthetically constructive result – in any discipline or field of endeavor. Like so many other actual efforts, the concept and reality of “design” has been hijacked and misapplied to the point of irrelevancy in common understanding. It is time to truly re-comprehend “design”, identify and correct error in its mis-application, and return to a rightful course (i.e., Reformation and Renaissance).

  4. Posted January 7, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Noah, Thanks for citing not one but two links to some of my recent writing! This is a great thread. For the past few years, design thinking has certainly been bubbling up as an idea promoted by smart thinkers and executives, and as someone who has been writing about those ideas for some time, I’m certainly watchful for any backlash. As Nathan Koren points out, design thinking isn’t a short term proposition, and as I think most of its evangelists would agree, anyone looking for design thinking to provide a panacea for all difficult business problems is destined to be disappointed. Design thinking is both a mindset and a tool. It doesn’t replace the need for smart business practices, and it doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly has to fashion themselves as a designer. I happen to believe that it provides a tremendous opportunity, and there are good examples out there that show its impact on both business and society. But it’s not easy, and it’s not a quick fix, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to get executives and designers understanding each other, something which will take education and humility on both sides. The former is happening (at the risk of overloading this thread with BW posts, you might be interested in looking at a special report we produced looking at those schools looking to bridge the business/design divide. But there’s a long way to go. Some who try it may fall by the wayside, disenchanted (and frankly I’d like to write about them too.) But as the ideas become less alien, perhaps they’ll also become more ingrained.

  5. Markus
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I think the sentiment of this article is brilliant. The key is the cause whatever it’s called – helping companies make stuff that’s more people friendly and meaningful whilst ensuring the organisation benefits from a better return on investment.

    The push back of course is outlined elegantly in this article. Design thinking is a buzz word, but it reflects a principle and translates it into something the everyman can vaguely understand: surely that’s a good thing?

    The challenge here is not the word – it’s our ability as designers and strategists to convince the world that we are worthy of solving real problems. Moaning about our lack of access to problem is pointless – get out there, grab the problem and prove that design can do what they moan they never get the chance to do – that’s what I do every day and whilst a lot of my projects contain some compromises, it works.

    And lastly, the Don Norman article is monumentally flawed in particular the perspective around invention – if you invent, you do it because you believe you can make a difference to people, even if your invention is initially misplaced. Design research is essential and whatever it’s called, the methods have been in use since time began: watch, learn and invent.

  6. Elliot Felix
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    Noah – Thanks for this cautionary tale. The promise of design thinking seems to grow daily. As a consultant at a design strategy firm as well as an occasional professor in a hybrid design and management program, I witness the design thinking buzz first hand.

    However, I think there is something to it, if you can get passed the hype. Your fundamental caution seems to be that since design is generally relegated to styling a product or service (or organization) whose strategy has long since been decided, it can never make good on its promise. Thus, it can never deliver the innovation, transformation, or other value people had hoped for, and so there will be a backlash as execs decide they were sold a false bill of goods.

    In many ways, designers have been demoted to specialist stylists in certain disciplines, with architects probably at the extreme end of this. Design favors the cult of the new over the tried and true. There is generally not culture of evidence or assessment. And as designers specialize, they cede the role of synthesis and holistic thinking. At the same time, we’ve been living in an increasingly analytical world, dominated by efficiency, optimization, and of breaking problems into parts so that each domain can stake a claim to expertise – this is how you get things like VaR which create GFCs.

    Design doesn’t have to be divorced from strategy though. If design, as a way of thinking, can be a means rather than an end, the conversation can shift from the value of a design to the value design creates. By adopting the habits of mind of a designer (observation, empathy, systems thinking, tolerating ambiguity, etc), the toolkit to put that thinking into practice (scenarios, prototyping, distillation, etc), and the design process (participation, iteration, etc), design can shape strategy and create value. This is the promise of design thinking.

    Though the term is new, enabling design to play a strategic role is not – it’s something we’ve lost. One of my favorite examples of this is the national park visitor’s center, created as part of the Mission 66 program. Faced with a population boom and lots of deferred maintenance on parks, it was either scale up and pave over every trail or create a way for more people to experience the parks without overrunning them. Voila the visitor center that could give you a small serving, educating and orienting you along the way. If design can define the problem to be solved, it can play a strategic role. Then it can influence more of Papanek’s pyramid and deliver on its promise. My $0.02.

  7. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Nathan, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. There aren’t too many architect MBA’s around, so I appreciate your comments even more!

    I think you’re right re: the conservative nature of most boards. It reminds me of a story I heard recently where a client came to the designer and said “I want you to give me something like next iPod!” To which the designer replied, “OK, give me a CEO like Steve Jobs”.

    My point is not that design thinking is bad, but that it is difficult, complex, uncertain and creative – qualities which are hard for most corporations and clients to take on in the context of a PR buzz. It’s not an easy fix, as you said, yet people are looking to it as one. That is the crux of my critique.

  8. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Berend, and hello from some place other than Twitter!

    The more we deflate the hype and focus on the real value, the better, IMO. I am a huge fan and practicioner of design thinking, which is why I am critical of it’s buzz and overhyping.

    And thanks for the reference to abductive thinking. I am glad you enjoyed that post! Always looking forward to conversations around these issues.

  9. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Agreed Randy. Thx for your comment.

  10. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Hi Helen, thanks for stopping by the blog and offering your thoughts! It’s an honour. ;-)

    The BW report you linked to highlights the best parts of what design thinking can offer business schools. The more CEO and managers we have who can tolerate uncertainty, creativity and complexity, the better. I hadn’t seen that, so thanks for the reference.

    I’m conscious I came off as a “design curmudgeon” or somehow against design thinking, which is certainly not the case. As long as we look for quick fixes to any complex problem though, we’re bound to get trapped in a boom and bust cycle. My hope is to temper some of the less realistic enthusiasms around design thinking in a way which can help clients more effectively take design thinking on board, not reduce the enthusiasm or diminish the value of design.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in other venues.

  11. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your feedback Markus. What your comment reminded me of is that the best way to overcome the buzz and its pitfalls will be to take the bull by the horns and make something happen ourselves. The more talented, savvy designers we have tackling socially relevant, entrepreneurial problems, the better the world will be.

    A note of caution, however. My experience is that designers (as taught for the last 40 years or so in design school) might be great at defining problems, creating visions and offering solutions. But the process of “user-centered” design is relatively new and, at least in architecture, still not embedded in the culture. A good designer does not a businessman make, so the same critique I made of over-eager CEO’s seeking a “design thinking” panacea could apply equally to over-eager designers seeking a “business thinking” one.

  12. Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Elliot – Yes of course there is something to design and design thinking. I didn’t in any way hope to tarnish that promise.

    Your comment in particular encouraged me to elaborate more on the link between design and strategy. That is when design can play a fundamental role, not just a “style specialist”, as you say.

    So stay tuned for the next post, tentatively entitled “The Right Kind of Design”. And thanks again for your comments.

  13. Posted January 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Noah — I appreciate your post and your skepticism and echo many of the sentiments of Helen Walters as well. It occurred to me — based on your post — that what we are really dealing with are leadership issues and the art of creating value for people. It is no secret that businesses in our hypercompetitive, product-saturated world must find ways to reinvent themselves, redesign their business models, and restructure their value-added equations. In a nutshell, what is needed and demanded is the courage to challenge our assumptions and rethink existing paradigms. This is a leadership challenge not a design challenge. The design challenge is a secondary to the primary or root cause. I think this is what you are saying, I’m just saying it a little differently. Please provide any needed correction.

  14. Sue Butcher
    Posted June 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I entered a search for the buzz word “designer” in management because of this terminology being used by American Airlines in their new structuring and organizing policies. When I read the word: Designer, I was in shock! What is going on in the business world 2012? Thanks to this article and the responses in the blog my questions and thoughts were answered. Exactly as I thought and good luck AMERICAN AIRLINES if you think this glamourous new word is going to solve your problems.

  15. Posted July 26, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Hi
    Invite all the smart, intelligent and clever readers to my design portal. I will post this article there asap.

    Brilliant article! Best!

  16. Pradeep
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Noah,
    Metaphor used in your very straightforward article between Design and Corporations(one night stand) is apt.
    It is unfortunate that all what you state is actually being encouraged by Designers themselves.
    Your note is a not just a “small note of caution ” but a big one when such beliefs form the basis of National Design policy formulations.
    This unholy nexus between corporates and Design zars , if allowed to determine a nation’s design policy , as has happened here in India , will only ensure ensures that Design outcome will either have a ‘stillbirth’ or become a ‘social boycott’ due to it being an outcome of an unholy alliance.
    Design I hope does not become a Management Toy or a Fad.
    (Please note I am a Designer, an engineer, and also a Management professional. I have great regard for what the industry/corporation have contributed to Design. My worry is the hijacking of Design by a few corporate stars and a few self proclaimed Design zars.)

  17. Noah Raford
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Pradeep,

    Good points, thanks for your comments. I wrote that article a while ago now (back in 2011), but it is surprising how relevant it still seems today. While much of the hype around “Design Thinking” seems to have died down, it still is very much active in many corporate and government circles. I think your warnings are wise and I should hope we all have the patience and skill to help our managers avoid such “bad couplings” whenever they can.

    Thanks again and all the best,
    Noah

  18. Noah Raford
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Marcio,

    Thanks a lot! This article is a bit old now, but still very much makes the point. I enjoyed your blog and wish you and your readers all the best.

    Cheers,
    Noah

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by frankspencer, Venessa Miemis. Venessa Miemis said: thx4article on coming Boom/Bust of #designthinking @nraford http://bit.ly/8McGgy (thought u were sending porn for a sec from image, lol) […]

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  3. […] of this blog will be familiar of my critique of “design thinking”; that it is ill-defined, over-sold, and under-delivered due to overblown expectations and an […]

  4. […] The coming boom and bust of design thinking […]

  5. […] that warn of it’s impending failure as a practice [Why Design Thinking Won't Save You , The Coming Boom and Bust of Design Thinking]. I’ve been eager to enter into the conversation, especially because some of the arguments […]

  6. […] Still others argue that Design Thinking was doomed from the start. It will never produce the results we were hoping for because design considerations will always be an afterthought, long after strategic decisions about a product or service have been established. Business is driven by numbers and expediency, not creative chaos. Therefore, designers should just be resigned to their fate as “aesthetic window dressers.” […]

  7. […] The language of design thinking is ripe for evolution. Bruce Nussbaum aside, there has been much written on the concern with the term “design thinking”, most notably that it focuses on thought […]

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