Helen Walters: Design Thinking? Prove it!

  • Helen Walters:
  • Design Thinking? Prove it!
  • From the Archives Open Manifesto #6,: Kevin Finn in conversation with the TED Editorial Director Helen Walters
    as they navigate and question the potency of Design Thinking

Kevin Finn: ‘Design Thinking’ is the hot topic of the moment, but what surprises me most is that business schools and corporations seem to be more interested in this area than the wider design community appears to be. Why do you think designers tend to bristle when Design Thinking is mentioned?

Helen Walters: It’s definitely curious. Executives seem to get very excited at the mention of Design Thinking (alternatively, they just look a little blank). Likewise, at BusinessWeek, when we were compiling the lists of the best schools to teach innovation or Design Thinking we researched many different programs around the world. The business schools definitely seemed to be more engaged with the topic, and very motivated to get in on the action. It’s like they’d read the memo that design-based skills might provide the competitive advantage of the future. In parallel, some design schools had also spotted the increased interest in the intersection of design and business, and marshalled their resources accordingly. But many designers and design educators actively roll their eyes at the topic of Design Thinking. It really prompts an interesting reaction: a knee-jerk ‘ugh’ of irritation and disgust.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, many of them fairly reasonable at first glance. As so many designers like to say when I’ve broached the topic with them, how would I like it if someone referred to ‘Journalism Thinking’? (Meaning, cut and paste to apply to your own field.) Many designers see Design Thinking as implicitly implying that ‘design’ is somehow not enough. They study for years and years to master a craft and a skill and yet, suddenly, these business folks are bandying around post-it notes and claiming to have mastered all that’s necessary to embed design in business. It’s galling, really.

Many designers see Design Thinking as implicitly implying
that ‘design’ is somehow not enough.

There’s also the question: What does ‘Design Thinking’ really mean, anyway? Ask even those who are in the business of promoting the discipline the most; all of them have slightly different definitions. Tim Brown of IDEO talks of design applied to save the world. Roger Martin talks of the opposable mind and the tension between the creative and the analyst.

Don Norman thinks it’s a term that deserves to die, while Larry Keeley of Doblin (with whom I’m working at the moment) calls for everyone to recognize the huge complexity of design and not to settle for superficial band-aid fixes, which won’t last or satisfy in the long-term. Offering up Design Thinking as a design-based process that guarantees business success is disingenuous in the extreme, and perhaps designers, attuned to the mess and chaos of their own process, recognize this most clearly.

Offering up Design Thinking as a design-based process that guarantees business success
is disingenuous in the extreme, and perhaps designers, attuned to the mess and chaos
of their own process, recognize this most clearly.

The thing is, the truly successful marriage of design and business involves collaboration and insights shared throughout every department of an organization. It’s not good enough to create a prototype and hope it’ll somehow be successful in the market. Designers and executives have to put down their suspicion and work together, each one reassuring the other that they’re working towards the same goal. This happens all too rarely.

The problem isn’t aided by the fact everyone thinks they’re a designer, many of whom only understand design on the level of arbitrary personal taste. So, doesn’t Design Thinking as a process help explain that design isn’t just an aesthetic add-on, just like journalism isn’t only about the arrangement of words? Although it’s an area more widely understood, if we look at the ‘Journalism Thinking’ analogy—and it’s only an analogy—could an even better understanding of journalism increase the number of people who can identify the analytical side of journalism, while exposing the hacks? Good journalism involves deep research, investigation, cross-referenced details and facts, story-telling and the craft of putting words together in an engaging and clear manner. And couldn’t this greater awareness even help newspapers with their goal of charging for content online in order to pay quality, trained journalists for their quality content and work? Is naming these processes with the word ‘thinking’ just an unfortunate semantic (or branding) issue?

There are a couple of things here, and actually the journalism analogy holds up better than perhaps first anticipated. One thing that I think both journalists and designers have to come to terms with, to accept at an atomic level, is that their industries have changed massively and irrevocably with the developments of the modern world.

The arrival of technological tools, which afford access to all, have fundamentally changed the nature of disciplines that—at their heart—serve an audience. Now that everyone can design, can write, can blog, can (pretty much) produce 3D objects, this reality changes what it means to do these activities as a professional. Now, as you rightly point out, in some ways this enormously aids the standing of both professions. As people realize how very bloody hard it is to design something beautiful or to write something insightful, they might step off and cede the floor to those trained in those professions.

On the other hand, there’s no reason to assume that they’ll do anything of the sort. Unless there’s an active outreach on the part of those professionals to explain why the depth matters, why the process counts, it’s distinctly possible that people will do their thing and be totally happy, oblivious to the fact that there’s another way, while at the same time being dismissive of what they see as the indignant bleats of a dying breed.

I say this entirely without rancor or blame. I think it’s up to those of us who chose to immerse ourselves in learning the deep craft of a profession to ensure that we are not so enamored with how things used to be that we can’t also seize these tools and add them to our own boxes of tricks. Explaining and showing—through words and deeds—why someone should pay for a service they can likely get for free or for cheap on a crowd-sourcing site is also critical. I don’t see designers doing a particularly good job of explaining their worth, at least not at a consumer level. This is somewhat different at the corporate level, though we’re also seeing seismic shifts in this realm too.

On an aside, the other day I found myself unexpectedly crossing a picket line of union workers striking outside a restaurant in Manhattan. I felt really uncomfortable crossing the line, but I was struck by the behavior of the striking workers—and their comments to me and all those choosing to go into the restaurant. Having strangers scream at me that I’m a “scab” and “a disgrace to my mother” had a curious effect:

It ensured that I went into the restaurant and, in my own small belligerent way, exhibited my right to make my own choices, despite the fact that my sympathies were actually with the strikers. But their antagonistic behavior, screaming at those who really weren’t actually responsible for the problem at hand, turned out to be an approach that backfired with stubborn mules like me.

Sometimes I see designers metaphorically screaming at clients and consumers who don’t know any better—and how could they, given the absolute dearth of design education from the earliest age? Those being screamed at might either learn to tune out this antipathy, or perhaps actively head towards it. We need to promote a better education of what design is, who benefits from it, and why it matters. Designers need to drop the resentful defence and step up to become their own best champions. God knows, no one’s going to do it for them.

Designers need to drop the resentful defence and step up
to become their own best champions. God knows,
no one’s going to do it for them.

To an extent, I do think the Design Thinking issue is a semantic one. But there’s another issue here too: The identity crisis of the design field at large. Think about it, there are so many sub-specialties of “design.” Someone who designs a font can square up against someone who designs a website, who can line up against someone who creates textiles, and so on. All rightly claim the title of designer. All rightly claim to think while they design. In the end, Design thinking is a particular process employed by corporate innovation departments who understand that design is important and want to ensure it’s embedded in their business. Yet, there’s little clarity about what role any one type of designer plays in the Design Thinking process (merely to facilitate the discussion and to pretty up the post-it notes?) Again, it’d be helpful if the design industry, at least its leadership, could figure this out… stat!

You’ve alluded to a point that I’ve been grappling with for a while: Do the vast majority of designers you encounter understand the term Design Thinking? Could their reticence for this movement simply be a misunderstanding of the term, resulting in it being easily dismissed? For those who fully understand the term, I doubt they would offer up Design Thinking as “a process that guarantees business success.” As you point out, this would be disingenuous in the extreme—and hardly believable. Shouldn’t Design Thinking be seen like any other tool—used where appropriate and in the proper context of a wider strategy? This is something only designers can explain—but only if they fully understand it first. In your opinion, has Design Thinking been dismissed by the majority of designers before it has been fully understood or interrogated?

I’m loath to make sweeping generalizations. I know and talk to a lot of designers from lots of different disciplines. But particularly in recent years, my work has seen me focus more on those working within larger corporations, who are often a lot more familiar with Design Thinking and its practices than, say, a solo practitioner focusing on designing book covers.

But even with those who use Design Thinking as a matter of course in business, it does seem like they often use different definitions, and this does slightly worry me. I remember having a conversation with a woman who runs a large corporate innovation department in the United States, along with a design consultant she’d actually worked with for a number of years. As we talked, the disconnect in how they viewed the discipline—two people who actually worked together—became embarrassingly obvious.

Later that day, when we were talking separately, she also pointed out the confusion, and wondered aloud what was going on. She also made it clear that such opacity and lack of clarity played poorly with her own superiors, who were without exception from the business side of things, and were already suspicious of what they all see as the often arbitrary nature of design.

The success issue is also interesting. I’ve seen the process of Design Thinking laid out very clearly in a number of places, the inference being that if you follow the steps carefully, you’ll have success. There’s a sneaky trick here though, in that even failure is couched as success. So if a product fails in the market, it’s not a failure, it’s learning. (You see this in the tech industry too, where companies don’t fail, they “pivot.”) Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for prototyping, for trying things quickly and, of course, for learning from everything you do. But this, too, seems disingenuous. At a certain point, can’t we just accept that our original great idea simply didn’t work as anticipated? Having to re-frame everything as a secret success, despite its appearance as an abject failure, is plain exhausting.

At a certain point, can’t we just accept that our original great idea simply didn’t work
as anticipated? Having to re-frame everything as a secret success,
despite its appearance as an abject failure, is plain exhausting.

In that vein, and to return to one of your earlier points, it’s interesting that there are so many definitions for Design Thinking. But you also highlight there are as many different definitions for the single term design, depending on who one speaks to. It appears designers feel threatened by offering a thinking process (tied to their profession) to be applied in different areas for purposes other than creating a piece of design—a designed artefact. There is also the ridiculous myth that designers and artists have a monopoly on ‘creativity.’ The reality is that creativity is myriad—and universal. People in business need to be creative; people in medicine need to be creative; people in science need to be creative, people in plumbing need to be creative, and so on. Couldn’t the same be said for design? Design is myriad and universal, it’s a process, and no-one should claim to have a monopoly on it. However, since designers are trained in this area, they are obviously best suited to guide others and continue leading by example through their professional practice of designing. And if collaboration is a critical tool, cited by many as a key to the future, doesn’t Design Thinking fit into this role of collaboration when used properly?

I think you’re absolutely right, that everyone has the right and the ability to be creative, and the sponsorship of creative thinking in every department of an organization, whether it’s deemed part of an ‘innovation’ unit or not, is really critical for long-term success. Google was very clear about this from the beginning… Its leadership was as creative in its thinking about how they filed for IPO as they have been in giving its engineers conditions that are conducive to developing innovative new types of software. And note, you’d hardly call Google a particularly design savvy company.

You’re right, too, that design is ubiquitous, and design affects everyone. Mothers are always trotted out as an example of an “everyday person” to test an idea on, which is trite and a little offensive. Nonetheless, my mother, untrained in design as she is, has just as much right to critique the interface of a bank ATM, a telephone handset or a chair as someone who’s deeply versed in the nuances of UI (User Interface) design, industrial design or furniture design. That isn’t the case with disciplines such as engineering, aerospace or even law, where she’d happily cede the floor to the “experts.” This is part of why good design is so critically important and often why the very best design is the design you barely notice. Remembering to look through the eyes of the layperson user or consumer and to retain a “beginner’s mind” is a key skill of a good designer.

The companies that are held up time and again as being those that truly get or understand design are organizations like Apple or Pixar. Designers there are an integral part of the decision making process—and I think it’s interesting that they’re not the firms that talk about applying principles of Design Thinking in their business. My concern is that Design Thinking has become a way to paste some of design’s techniques on top of an inherently uncreative process, or a neat way to add some of the more superficial practices of design into a culture that actually stifles genuine innovation. None of this will pay off in the long run.

My concern is that Design Thinking has become a way to paste some of design’s techniques
on top of an inherently uncreative process, or a neat way to add some of the more
superficial practices of design into a culture that actually stifles genuine innovation.

On the other hand, I do think there’s benefit in introducing the practices of design to an inexpert audience, precisely in order to illustrate and educate as to why professionals are useful and necessary. In this case, perhaps it becomes a question of framing: Those looking to implement Design Thinking practices need to be thoughtful about what they’re promising and delivering. What’s that old business cliche? “Under promise, and over deliver.” We could use a little of that when it comes to Design Thinking.

Having researched this area in depth, what’s your own definition of Design Thinking?

I think as it stands right now it’s evolved into being a process or a lens that can be applied in the innovation practice. It is most often overtly used outside of a traditional design department. But it’s useful in showing executives that design can be a critical element in creating something that’s truly useful and that has a chance of standing out and being successful in the market. And that “something” often isn’t what we have come to think of as the traditional artifacts of design. This is about systems and contexts, rather than products and objects.

Currently, design educational institutes annually churn out armies of graduates, all of whom are looking for similar jobs—which are essentially to create ‘designed artefacts.’ In your opinion, might the Design Thinking discipline provide more opportunities for design programs (and inevitably design graduates) to explore, in order to develop wider roles for designers?

Yes, I think that Design Thinking points to a new movement in design, to move beyond the artifact or the object and apply design to systems, markets and industries. Designers always seem to love to broaden a question they’re charged with trying to answer. In fact, as we all know, the very best designers cast around any space in which they’re working in order to consider the context of the problem.

In the past, they would complain of only being thought of in terms of styling the look and superficial functionality of a final product, by which time it can be too late to ask the most challenging (and important) questions of all: Should this product exist in this way? How else might we think about this challenge? Does this product even need to exist at all? Allan Chochinov is starting a new MFA course at the School of Visual Arts in New York (disclosure: I have the distinct honor of advising students’ thesis projects), which he deliberately christened Products of Design, and not Product Design. Allan is very smart in realizing that the discourse has moved beyond objects, even though creating those objects to be as beautiful and functional (and appropriate) as they possibly can be is still a key skill.

That Design Thinking has formalized this process can, perhaps, be helpful in furthering the argument that designers have a part to play in broader challenges. The redesign of so many of our systems—from government to urban infrastructure—can likely be helped by the application of the talent and thinking that designers can apply. Creativity, intuitive thinking and the skills that designers are trained in, and which they practice over years, will be critical to shaping the world we want to live in. And once again—to be clear—not every designer will want to get involved in Design Thinking type challenges, and that’s totally okay.

Creativity, intuitive thinking and the skills that designers are trained in, and which they
practice over years, will be critical to shaping the world we want to live in.

Beyond all this, with increased interest in design, right across the social, business and government spectrum, do you feel design might be entering a new golden era?

I wish I could be so bullish, and I certainly think that we’re entering a critical era for design. But for Design Thinking to be more than a passing fad, it’s really necessary that those preaching its virtues are able to talk about its benefits in very specific detail. So far, there’s been a lot of talk and a lot of enthusiasm, but a distinct lack of figures and proof of impact to back up the hype. As Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management so rightly points out, the words “prove it” are the kiss of death for most innovation projects.

But businesses go bankrupt if the figures don’t match leaders’ enthusiasm, and the proof is in the pudding. The leadership of the design industry needs to figure out how to train those who can be convincing spokespeople for the value and worth of the discipline in the boardroom. It’s a challenge; generally people get into design to design, not to manage, and that leaves a vacuum at management level, which does the industry no favors at all.

If this doesn’t evolve, designers may find themselves left behind, unable to exploit the opportunity that’s now at their fingertips. But we are seeing an increasing number of programs that are trying to figure out how to teach this stuff (on a global basis) so hopefully a lack of evolution is not how this will play out.



Helen Walters is the editorial director at TED, where she helps to oversee the progress of TED Talks from idea to reality. Previously, she was the editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg Businessweek and before that an editor at Creative Review in her native UK. Based in New York, she has written a number of books, including Ten Types of Innovation, with Larry Keeley, as well as a series of design-related titles. 

Helen Walters: Design Thinking? Prove it!

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