The Highs and Lows of “Design Thinking”

Today’s designers need to play a strategic role to bring business into the 21s century

“Design Thinking” has become fashionable in management circles; it’s their latest “holy grail.” Training programs are popping up all over the place. Top American business schools seem to have tapped into a new trend and topic in management, having caught the wave in innovation and society’s burning issues.

Certainly, if we plan on changing the face of paradigms that breed more imagination and flexibility, we have no other choice but to think outside the box, give shape to our ideas, take the path less traveled, and approach the thought process with an open mind and a blank canvas.

When it comes to what companies need to incorporate into their business models and strategies, at the tip of the iceberg are at least three things that need to happen: Shift from mass consumption to one with meaning for both products and services; the ability to constantly adapt to market volatility and technological breakthroughs; ongoing and up-to-date training to ensure that employees are adequately armed to tackle and tame the moving targets and changes that lie ahead.

To truly grasp the extent to which this concept of Design Thinking has taken off, look inside the offices of IDEO in San Francisco or Shanghai, where you would not recognize the organizational norms of today. CEO Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, sheds light on organizations in pursuit of tomorrow. Brown, one of Design Thinking’s gurus, has made quite a business out of it.

What makes Design Thinking so attractive in the first place, is its modularity. Everyone has his own notion of it. And putting creativity in a box in an effort to make it fit the societal and corporate mold is nothing short of ridiculous, futile, and ultimately, counterproductive.

The act of defining Design Thinking is an exercise laden with obstacles that can bring the process to a screeching halt. The mere idea of pinning a definition on it means wanting to put an end to the creative process and innovation that dwell naturally therein, rather than coming up short with a definition that does the term little or no justice. Some, though, will do everything to try and make a “science” out of it. And you can bet that it won’t be long before there’s mention of Design Thinking researchers. Although the title won’t bring about anything life changing, it will, at least, give a handful of academics peace of mind, knowing that their pay is justified.

Let’s just say that Design Thinking is a branch of management focused on “bringing together” a wide variety of competencies, be they technical, economic or social, and finding that patch of common ground that enables them to cast a collective take on tomorrow. In other words, let’s put our heads together, create, innovate, and forge ahead. In corporate speak, this translates to speculation and forecasts on an organization’s future, field, operations, and methods. It means reflecting on the how’s and why’s inherent to change and growth.

Strategy and sustainability go hand-in-hand. The timing is right and the market is ripe for this shift in approach. Companies are confronted with having to adapt to the profound changes undergone by industrial and commercial paradigms. Many are changing their business models. The question no longer revolves around improving on what we already know. It is now about being ever ready and able to do something else or differently with what we already possess. Design Thinking is the counterpart of normalization and quality-driven policies.

Doubtless, Design Thinking is in style. Master’s programs are drawing in droves of students in the United States as if business schools had just discovered “Innovation Management,” which could not be further from the truth. In reality, it’s been there all along. A quick review of Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship will reveal that that there’s nothing new about Design Thinking. To argue the opposite would mean believing that we could refrain from “thinking” when it comes to project-“doing.” The bandwagon success that has emerged from the so-called “new” trend leaves us a bit speechless, but not for long when we realize how much consultants and trainers are pocketing from it. It is painful enough to observe that they try, let alone to pawn it off as a novel idea.

Globalization is at the root of these changes, for it depends on a kind of “sink-or-swim,” “finish-or-famish” or “publish-or-perish” mentality. It’s like telling Henry Ford and his theory of production to take a backseat to Darwin and his on “survival of the fittest” when it comes to running an industry. With the corporate angle aside, capitalism is now the driving force behind happiness and progress. As Denmark’s Kolding School of design dean Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen wrote in “A Manifesto for global design and leadership,” “The 19th and 20th centuries have forced companies to face up to two questions: What is profitable, and what is technologically possible? In the 21st century, the question has become: What makes “sense”?”

In the spirit of progress-driven logic, we can only hope that Design Thinking will set straight, once and for all, the financial tangents that have shown a tendency of being more speculative than entrepreneurial, as well as consumption-hungry marketing tactics despite a real push today on buying responsibly and reasonably.

Design schools can be thrilled knowing that their field is now associated with management. Design Thinking comes naturally to them. Designers do it just as Monsieur Jourdain did with his prose in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by 17th Century French playwright Molière; that is to say, constantly and unconsciously. What sweet revenge it is, especially as designers were often thought of as misfits, talented but not necessarily fit for business.

Today, designers are the key in a company and its future. Their role is a strategic one, and their technological prowess, business savvy, and proven track record fuel projects that “make sense” well before making “cents” and being technologically possible.

Designers and design schools have always done Design Thinking. Bringing engineers, marketing specialists, financial experts, philosophers and sociologists together, and getting them to work as one on the issues of tomorrow are concepts all too familiar to designers. Their competencies, coupled with a knack for devising user scenarios, set them apart from the rest. They are more valuable than ever. Not everyone is cut out to be a designer!

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries In 2008 ; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequenly on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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