Although Design Thinking grew quite popular in recent years, its practical applicability in ‘everyday business’ is a controversial matter. In this post, I will address Design Thinking as a process and the problems corporations have with it. Then, I present ideas to tackle these problems and conclude with a reflection.
The Design Thinking Process
Design Thinking is a problem-solving method and “an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign” (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, p. 330). At its heart are the “needs and dissatisfactions” (p. 330) of people.
Design Thinking projects go through iterative, cyclic processes starting with the identification of the problem by involving users’ experiences and empathizing with their situation (Schreibman, Papadopoulos & Huang, 2018, Unit 2, p. 2). The entire process is characterized by phases of opening up to gather new ideas and user feedback, and phases of narrowing down, aimed at defining possible solutions and developing prototypes to be tested. Going back and forth within the design cycle allows to contrast different ideas and evaluate their usefulness considering the overall goal (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, p. 337).
Design Thinking as Driver for Innovation
Tim Brown, founder of the global design company IDEO, regards Design Thinking as a means for organizations and institutions to generate innovative, user-centered solutions. The innovation process is led by “the designer’s sensibility” (Brown, 2008, p. 2). This emphasizes the fact that designers’ methods and ways of thinking are supposed to be incorporated in every step of the process (p. 1).
Today’s “innovation economy” (Rylander, 2009, p. 11) calls for new, original ideas rather than conservative, knowledge-based resolutions. Innovation-seeking organizations are confronted with so-called “wicked problems” (p. 4) which are characterized by various factors of uncertainty and trickiness. Despite “tame” problems that are clear and can be solved through knowledge (p. 6), wicked problems cannot be solved with linear approaches, but require flexible concepts. This is why Brown advocates the implementation of design methods in innovation processes (2008, p. 2).
Challenges of Design Thinking’s Practical Application
Bruce Nussbaum, formerly one of the biggest proponents of Design Thinking condemned it as a “failed experiment” (Nussbaum, 2011). His criticism grounds on experiences he made working with various companies on Design Thinking tasks. In some cases, Design Thinking was mistaken as a model of linear, pre-defined steps companies could lay over their development processes to call them innovative. In other cases, corporate environments oppressed Design Thinking because the process’ iterative nature was perceived as too messy and chaotic. The result was disappointment with the little innovative solutions coming out of these projects (Nussbaum, 2011). Other representatives of the creative sector share Nussbaum’s opinion (Courtney, 2018; Grant, 2019).
Overcoming the Mental Blockade
Stephens and Boland (2015) agree that corporations struggle with Design Thinking as they are not familiar with creative practices. Thus, feelings of unease, disorientation and resentment occur. The authors argue that aesthetic knowledge is a key element of Design Thinking which could help clearing the mental blockades. Aesthetic knowledge is “what we know about a problem or a situation through our bodily senses” (Stephens & Boland, 2015, p. 220). In other words, using your hands, eyes, ears, nose or mouth to engage with a task in a more physical way, may spark creativity and help to escape narrow, purely cognitive ways of problem-solving.
This can be as easy as re-arranging seating plans. Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library, New Jersey, tried to make visiting students feel less like in school and more like in a collaborative learning environment. She positioned the chairs in the auditorium in a circle and felt the positive impact of this simple idea immediately (Silvers, 2019).
Stephens and Boland (2015) present the case of a team of Canadian health care workers and community members who used Lego bricks to collaboratively develop ideas for a new health care facility focused on more efficiency and human centeredness (CBS News, 2014). The authors claim that building the hospital with Legos helped the team to envision the future workspace in small scale and allowed adjusting it in real-time to test different scenarios, e.g. how to position patients’ beds in the hallways (Stephens & Boland, 2015, p. 219).
These are just two examples of how Design Thinking helped institutions to improve existing situations and generate new ideas by including the bodily dimension in the innovation process. If companies are willing to engage in Design Thinking, incorporating aesthetic knowledge might be a solution how they can get closer to design practices and discover creative potentials more playfully and naturally.
Design Thinking in Education
Another possibility to improve the use of Design Thinking as a process is to familiarize people with it at an earlier stage. Razzouk and Shute (2012) call upon the educational system to teach Design Thinking skills for the sake of students’ future employability in our competitive world (p. 344).
The integration of Design Thinking in the schedules of schools and university programs in Business, Design, Engineering or the Humanities shows this transformation is already taking place. The MA Digital Cultures at Maastricht University is among these programs, equipping students (and future employees) with a methodological tool kit to address the wicked problems they will encounter.
Design Thinking allows participants to try things out, fail, and re-try. Especially through the employment of aesthetic knowledge, designers let ‘the child in them’ play around with ideas, build them physically and destroy them afterwards to start over from a new perspective.
Design Thinking can only benefit corporations and institutions if the caveats concerning unfamiliar design practices are overcome. Higher education institutions set a good example and start sensitizing students to new ways of ideation.
If we keep this up and allow the use of Design Thinking more in our social and corporate structures, there is a good chance that it becomes a useful creative mindset that will help us address societal problems with fresh, out of the box, user-centered solutions.
Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June, 84-92.
CBS News (2014). Hospital Planning Is Child’s Play With Lego, Health Group Says. CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/hospital-planning-is-child-s-play-with-lego-health-group-says-1.2776032
Courtney, J. [AJ&Smart] (2018, March 15). Why Do Design Thinking Projects Fail? – Innovation Advice By AJ&Smart. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSCdU60LZbc
Grant, A. [Tirian Innovative Solutions] (2019, May 20). Why Design Thinking (often) Fails. Who Killed Creativity. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DfSPVz0PG0
Nussbaum, B. (2011). Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/1663558/design-thinking-is-a-failed-experiment-so-whats-next
Razzouk, R. & Shute, V. (2012). What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330-348. doi: 10.3102/0034654312457429
Rylander, A. (2009). Design Thinking as Knowledge Work. Epistemological Foundations and Practical Implications. Journal of Design Management, Fall, 1-20.
Schreibman, S., Papadopoulos, C. & Huang, M. (2018, August 17). IGNITE. Introduction to Design Thinking and Maker Culture. Retrieved from https://clarin.oeaw.ac.at/moodle-dev/course/view.php?id=34§ion=0
Silvers, D. (2019). Design Thinking for Equity in a National Park. An Interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park. Design Thinking For Museums. Retrieved from https://designthinkingformuseums.net/2019/03/20/design-thinking-for-equity-in-a-national-park/
Stephens, J. & Boland, B. (2015). The Aesthetic Knowledge Problem of Problem-Solving With Design Thinking. Journal of Management Inquiry, 24(3), 219-222.