Becoming a Designer takes work

Teaching design in non-design universities and schools is certainly a very different experience from teaching in design education. For the last six years, in addition to my design courses, I have been teaching design thinking to non-designers. All this time something has been making noise in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t articulate what it was. Until last week when it hit me: Designers don’t practice design thinking (The process). What? Let me unpack this thought.

Design and DT are not the same: Design is a discipline, and DT is a process. So far, hopefully this distinction isn’t that revealing. In some cases, DT is described as the conceptualization of ideas, and design as the execution of those ideas. But there is yet another important difference between these two terms: DT is not as intrinsic to the design discipline as people think. Rather, the DT process combines techniques, approaches and methods from other disciplines.

The following analysis of the classic d.School process sheds light on the origin of the techniques that are core to each step:


DT combines techniques and methods from various disciplines. These are just some of them. Interestingly, core techniques and methods do not come from the design discipline.

  1. Empathise: The type of observations and contextual interviews used in DT come from the social sciences. Anthropologists have stressed the need to better understand culture, social groups, their interactions and needs from many years. DT borrows some of their methods and redefines them as “human-centered” techniques.
  2. Define: The goal of this step is to reframe the initial problem based on learnings from the previous step. Many of these techniques come from sensemaking and qualitative analysis to help synthesize field research data. Other techniques come from creative problem solving influenced by Osborn’s work (1939), such as rephrasing problem statements as “How Might We” questions. Parnes’s work (1967) on applied creativity was one of the first ones introducing this concept.
  3. Ideate: The premise of this step is rooted in creative problem solving and the concepts of divergent and convergent thinking to generate quantity of ideas. Nor IDEO, nor Tom Kelley invented brainstorming rules. These also have been introduced much earlier by Osborn in 1942, and later studied by Robert McKim.
  4. Prototype: This step aims to make an idea tangible in any form. The concept of prototyping has been around for a long time and all fields practice this step in some way or another, including engineering, architecture, science. A chef creates a prototype of a recipe when they bake a cake.
  5. Test: This step goes back to the use of social sciences methods to test prototypes. Depending on the type of prototype that needs to be tested, methods from other disciplines such as human computer interaction introduced by Nielsen and Don Norman in the 1970s, are also used here.

What does this analysis indicate?

Many disciplines, but not design: DT does a great job of extracting key techniques from a wide set of disciplines and using them to tackle a variety of problems. But most of these techniques are not coming from the design discipline. While some elements of the DT are practiced by designers such as the concepts of cycles or thinking visually, these are also common to other disciplines such as Art.

The “mystical glow” about DT seems to indicate that just by using the above techniques (but not necessarily using them right or with the required rigour) is enough to achieve a successful outcome. Perhaps, this is why almost everyone who gets familiar with the DT process steps feels that they can teach the process or practice it successfully. To me this is dangerous. It is actually hard to become good at applying the DT process but the abundance of design sprints and workshops on the topic feed the belief that everyone can do it. And can learn it fast. Would you defend someone on trial after attending a 2-day workshop on law? I hope not.

Some techniques are unknown to designers: Many designers actually do not practice DT as part of their daily work. How many of you (designers) really go out, talk to people and take the time to empathise with your audience? If you have attended design school (3 or 4 years of design training), you probably haven’t learned the above steps. Of course, you follow a process which may include some of the steps, but the techniques you use to tackle problems aren’t the same as the ones described above. Creative problem-solving methods are foreign to most designers. Granted, more and more research is becoming a key part of the design curricula, but students don’t graduate with the necessary confidence to go to the field on their own. This needs practice.

Benefits beyond design: The DT process should be recognised for what it is–i.e. a different way of tackling problems–, rather than as a short-cut into the design profession. For example, DT is a great alternative pedagogical framework for traditional deductive reasoning and (right-wrong) dualistic approaches common in education. DT provides students with a different way to think about problems. In this context, learning DT is not related to learning design skills.

Looking at IDEO or other big companies as DT references can provide a misleading picture. The reason why, for example, IDEO has had very successful projects is not only because they work with DT as the main problem solving process, but also because they have a large team with people from diverse backgrounds. Often one of them is a design professional.

Becoming a designer takes work. I’m not questioning the value or effectiveness of the DT process, or whether this process should be taught to non-designers. What I’m strongly arguing for is that being a skilled design thinker does not make you a design professional. You would probably feel more comfortable coming up with ideas and going through iterations, but learning the steps in the DT process does not replace learning the skills and capabilities you will learn in design school. The skill sets are just different.

More and more students, entrepreneurs, CEOs and other professionals seem to want to become designers (or learn the skills). I get it, as a designer, I see the benefits, although I am fully aware of its cons too. For example, as Kolko stresses in his article, designers can spend countless amounts of hours working on a single project. People are unaware of this, as well as how much work is needed to become a professional designer. Just a few weeks of education, 2-day workshops or design sprints are not enough to make a designer. Becoming a designer takes great work; as it takes to become proficient at using the DT process, or to be a successful lawyer or a good mathematician.

It is essential to understand what design is and is not, as well as what is needed to become a design professional. Educators have the responsibility to make this picture clear to students and people interested in choosing a design path. And designers have the responsibility to value their expertise and skills, and speak up. Selling short-cuts or false expectations will perpetuate misconceptions about the design discipline and, eventually, damage the profession and the quality of the work.

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