Bruce Nussbaum, one of the most vocal advocates for the design thinking movement in the business world, has now called Design Thinking a failed experiment. As someone who’s worked in the design thinking industry, I came into it with my own expectations, and then learned how it is practiced. You can see my understanding of how state-of-the-art design thinking is practiced here. After four years of practicing design thinking, I’ve concluded that Design Thinking as generally practiced has a rather narrow application. Design thinking consultancies help businesses do one thing really well: come up with a new product or service idea. Yes, some consultancies have been expanding the use of Design Thinking, and I feel like I’ve been a part of pushing that boundary at Continuum over the past few years. By far, though, the most common Design Thinking project is a version of wash, rinse, repeat. (Or rather: interview, extract insights, brainstorm new ideas.)
Like many others, I was quickly attracted to the idea of “Design Thinking”. The appeal is clear. It’s lofty enough, with an almost limitless scope of application. It’s vague enough to be defined however you imagine it to be. It has resulted in some pretty nifty products. No wonder it’s gotten a lot of attention over the past decade. (I’m sure the shifting of much design work overseas has motivated designers to fuel this movement as well.)
How I Saw It
With plenty of inspirational success stories, but no clear definition of design thinking, I had rationalized in my own head why the designer’s thought process was valuable far outside the scope of the traditional graphic design project. In my mind, a brilliant designer was one who could reduce complexity to its essence. One who made sense of what really mattered and cut away all the inconsequential noise, capturing complicated ideas in their simplest form. Wasn’t logo design–the distilling of an entire corporation down to a simple mark that might be printed in a quarter inch of space–the ultimate challenge in reduction? I also believe great editorial design helps people get to the crux of an issue, by creating a hierarchy that highlights what really matters. These skills seem invaluable to business innovation. Simplifying, or abstraction, is what helps us make connections between disparate worlds. These unexpected connections are certainly a great source for innovation. And being able to simplify a business to its essential building blocks seems the best way to start re-imagining what exists, from the most fundamental level. Furthermore, graphic designers have the skills to capture these simplified representations of complex ideas in ways that make it easier for others to participate in their creative evolution.
Was Not How Others Saw It
After getting my first job in design thinking I came to realize that the general philosophy and practice of design thinking had a different rationale. I found design thinkers to mostly come from an industrial design background. Design thinking, it turned out, was based on applying the first step of the product design process–obtaining a thorough understanding of end users–to help companies figure out what they should do next. In practice, this generally consists of a series of interviews with customers regarding broad values, hopes, and aspirations, out of which are drawn some key insights. This helps develop customer-centric offerings, resulting in products and services that resonate with customers.
I wholeheartedly agree that the number one priority for a company should be providing value to customers. Without a strong customer value proposition, there’s no point in bothering with anything else. However, when looking for growth, I think there are other sources of innovation where design thinking of the other type might come into play.
Let’s Broaden Our Perspectives
My favorite model for a business model comes from Mark Johnson’s book, Seizing the Whitespace. It has essentially 3 components: the customer value proposition, the key resources and processes that a company uses to create value, and the profit model. Considering this framework, I would say that design thinking has been well applied to finding sources of innovation in the customer value proposition category. The other corners of the model offer opportunities for innovation as well, and Design Thinking as I originally envisioned it may be more applicable here.
Take the key resources and processes, for example. Businesses tend to start small and simple, but over time they grow and take on a life of their own. Tasks are specialized, divisions are created, and pretty soon all these divisions begin to evolve in their own ways. Pretty soon nobody in the company has a complete picture of what the company is doing. I did a project in a B2B sales organization which had gotten so unwieldy no one person was able to explain the full scope of the sales process. After talking to a number of people all over the organization, I was able to piece together the pieces of the puzzle and create a comprehensive diagram, which showed where the strongest points of influence were. Understanding the full picture with some level of detail makes it possible to envision new and improved ways for the system to work. Also, understanding the levers of influence helps focus innovation efforts. For example, we discovered that a problem with the supply chain was negatively affecting one point of influence. A-ha! Innovations needed in the supply chain. Not what our client was originally thinking, but I think it was my designers ability to put together the pieces and visualize the organization in a new way that led to insights like this one.
Design Thinking can be useful in finding innovations in the profit model as well. Conceptual abstraction, like William Golden creating one of the longest enduring logos by recognizing CBS as simply the “eye on the world”, helps in making connections between otherwise disparate companies. Recognizing that your company is essentially trying to make something more accessible will help you find inspiration from companies in other industries, such as Zipcar, or MinuteClinic. This can lead to a wealth of ideas for profit model modifications.
I’m not saying that these skills for finding business innovations lie only with designers. I think a blend of business thinking and design thinking is ideal, and particularly like what Dev Patnaik has to say about Hybrid Thinking. I think it would certainly behoove designers to consider other applications of their thinking to business problems, beyond the well-trod path of consumer insights. Businesses would benefit as well.