Before I start, I need to get this out of the way. In my opinion, design thinking used to be known as thinking, in the same way that thought leadership used to be called leadership.
In a recent post, Helen Walters pointed out the snags many of us run into as we work to unite business and design. Peppered with subheads like “DESIGN THINKING IS NOT DESIGN” and “DESIGN THINKING DOES NOT GUARANTEE SUCCESS,” the piece examines expectations, successes, and quagmires in business and design’s shotgun marriage.
Thinkers or Artisans?
In modern English, design’s etymology splits into two conflicting pieces: 1. intention — that is, design thinking, and 2. pattern drawing or decorative arts. This is design’s “serious image problem,” Helen tweeted about on April 6. It turns out that in English, design is either manifesting one’s intentions, or making wallpaper. It depends on the context, so the name of our discipline is often misinterpreted. Just ask your grandmother what design is.
We need to recast design as an intention-oriented practice, where deliverables could take the form of a new compensation structure for employees, or as an altered product formulation, just as easily as the form of sleek objects, logos, and pack designs we are known for. It can no longer be ignored that design work applied on the outside, or as an afterthought won’t fix problems in a business’s core assumptions.
In the Dutch language, design is divided into two words: ontwerpen and vormgeving. Thinking and Making. Ontwerpen is the planning part, the design thinking, the consideration of intentions and desired outcomes. Vormgeving is more associated with the making phase, where intentions are translated into systems and objects. They had these words long before agencies had planners or businesses had strategic innovation firms to consult.
Religion, government, and corporations have been practicing design — designation — or acting on intention for thousands of years, designing laws, systems, and messaging for their sole benefit. This is the true lineage of design thinking. Everybody is a designer, and they’re designing more than us.
Sadly, most of our institutions are in a death-spiral of legacy contracts, enormous, obsolete capital investments, and paralyzing pressure from market analysts. More often than not, these institutions resort to designing for self-preservation at the expense of everyone else. As seen recently in Vanity Fair and The New York Times, the shrinkage of the middle class is a popular topic these days.
Innovating or designing our way out of this will continue to be painful. Just watch the daily machinations of the US government’s budget fight. Today, lobbyists and PR people are deployed more than ever before, as organizations representing the top 1% of US earners fight to maintain the status quo.
The elusive results designers and innovators seek lie in fairness and sustainability. We believe profit will follow. We need to design a new generation of organizations and systems, which are truly win-win for all of us, for the planet, and the beings we share it with.
To make this shift, designers must become business-savvy. May I suggest educating every designer in business, public policy, and sustainability? What about educating MBAs in design? How about getting us together before we graduate? This shift in education would help all involved.
The wider acceptance of design thinking as a business term is clear evidence that a window of opportunity has opened up amidst the myriad crises humanity now faces, and those of us with design backgrounds are ready to play where the stakes are high and the mission is critical, ready to help change the world in positive ways.
I think the world's finally realizing it's a bad idea to throw out design with the mass-advertising bathwater. - 1 week ago