Design Thinking isn’t for everyone

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Participants at “Understanding My Ideal Career Path in the Arts” Workshop

Design thinking (DT) has been hot topic for a while, and many people advocate for it arguing that this approach can help solve any problems. While there is a lot written and said about the approach and the methods, and wicked problems, not much has been said about the challenges of working with design thinking. An experience I had few weeks ago when I taught a workshop as part of the Arts and Entrepreneurship Day at Princeton University made evident to me that this approach does not work for everyone.

Design thinking is frequently described as a fun, engaging and an easy way to solving problems. People associate it with music, relaxed environments, collaborative work, organic flow, post-it notes (many post-its!), and fast results. However, DT has different meanings for different people. I have identified three distinct ways of perceiving DT:

“Design thinking is loads of work but helps provide a unique perspective”

People in this category tend to work with a “by the rules” DT approach. They have experience working with each of the relevant (research, creativity, design) methods. They understand when to use each tool and the constraints involved in each step, and are also aware of the time needed to achieve useful results. Motivation and commitment are also part of the equation; they are willing to challenge ideas and start all over if they feel it is the best for the project. Clear examples are designers, anthropologists and other professionals working at companies like IDEO or other large organizations where there is a strong and respected creative culture.

“Design thinking is the answer to all problems”

People in this category tend to venerate DT and see it as a magic process. For them, DT is only working with post-its and whiteboards because they don’t fully understand the complexity of the approach. They aren’t fully familiar with the set of methods involved at each step in the process or how to make the most of them. Some may have been exposed to DT through a workshop, and now have adopted some of the tools as part of meetings. They may use DT as part of their thinking process (if time permits) and have fun working with it, but in their minds, this is just a way to add some “creativity” into the room. Particularly, the creativity mindset doesn’t seem to be taken seriously; while brainstorming sessions may be described as more productive, wild and original ideas are overshadowed by practicality and budget constraints.

“Design thinking is too washy washy”

People in this last category have either worked with DT techniques or been exposed to them, and can’t wait to run to the opposite direction. These are two main reasons for this behavior:

  1. Lack of rigor. DT is not seen as rigorous as the “scientific method” because many of the techniques are not used in a systematic or appropriate way. For example, data is gathered only after having talked with a few people but without recording the conversations or having a clear goal in mind. As a result, gathered data doesn’t help come up with any successful ideas or move the process forward. Consequently, techniques are seeing as lacking rigor. These people tend to associate most DT tools and techniques with a waste of time.
  2. Type of approach. Creative thinking is one of the DT pillars. But creative thinking also implies willingness to challenge self-imposed constraints and conventional views about the world. People in this category are not used to this type of thinking and working with DT approach makes them feel uncomfortable. They describe DT techniques as “pointless” or “childish”, and question the rationale behind them.

Design Thinking is hard work

Not everyone is a designer or has to be a designer. And this is ok. Despite the colors, upbeat energy, loud music and fast learning courses, DT is not an easy or simple approach to work with, and working with it does not guarantee success. In the last decade, DT has generated many feelings: while some people have adopted and started working with DT despite not knowing what it really entails, others have focused on pointing the finger to its flaws. I’m not against or in favor of DT, but I do advocate for understanding first and then deciding whether something (in this case DT) is what we need for the project at hand.

The reality is that working with DT in the “right way” requires the right set of skill, the right mind set, the right toolkit, the right team and loads of work. And sometimes, not even in these cases, you can solve the problem. To maximize chances of success, as with anything else, you must be willing to invest time and energy, be committed and motivated.

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