What the Hell Have We Done to Design?
(Really Thinking about Design Thinking)
By Brian Matt, Founder & CEO, Altitude, Inc.
Hey, design-types, picture this… I stroll into the neighborhood party with a swell bottle of wine in one hand and my lovely wife’s arm in the other. Three steps into the house, she peels off to greet her friends and I head for the kitchen to drop off the vino. I am immediately cut off by a doughy-faced but pleasant sort of fellow wearing black pants and a black mock turtleneck in June.
John Public: “Hi. I’ve been waiting for you to arrive. Jill said that you’re a designer.”
Me: “Yes, that’s right. I am a designer.”
John Public: “Were you ever on Project Runway? My wife loves that show.”
Me (resisting the urge to be painfully creative with my bottle): “Sorry, no. That would be fashion. I design products.”
John Public: “Oh, you’re in finance then. My brother-in-law sells financial products too. He designs them to be loaded on the front end.”
Me: “Are you in the mood to fund my son’s iShare 529 Plan?”
And so it goes. If I let the conversation drag on, we might discuss hair, interiors, software, signage, cookies, automobiles, t-shirts, the web, or Design Within Reach. Design is the planning that lays the basis for the making of every object or system. It can be used both as a noun and as a verb. In its broadest sense, no limitations exist and may include anything from clothing to computers, or user interfaces to annual reports. We may design products, processes, events, environments, and services.
At that moment, I was formulating a design theory to modify my party position.
John Public: “Sorry?”
Me: “I own a product innovation firm that conceives of products like illuminated dog leashes and talking power tools. We use creative thinking to solve business problems for clients that manufacture stuff.”
John Public: “Cool. Have you designed anything I have ever heard of?”
Me: “I don’t know. What have you heard of?”
How many of you are nodding your heads in the affirmative, realizing that you too have been misunderstood too many times? Who wants to yell, “Design Thinking solves all?” The word, design, has been abused, misconstrued, and overused. I am not sure the there is even consensus about a true definition among insiders; supposedly those people in-the-know. I am sure that I cannot give an all-encompassing, perfect elevator pitch either. So, if there is no accord on the designation of design, then how do we describe and defend the notion of Design Thinking?
I am always in a quandary when this comes up even though I have been in the design profession for 25 years. If all of us are using a term based on flawed underpinnings of design, then how is anyone to grasp the bigger concept attached to thinking? When we cram them together, as in Design Thinking, do we have a house of cards, a seemingly familiar structure with no clear intent and lots of room for interpretation? Is that all right? Should we be comfortable with this notion? Is there cause to modify the phrase to “Creative Thinking,” ‘Hybrid Thinking,” or “Critical Thinking?” When designers want a seat at the adult table, what do they claim to bring to the corporate purpose?
Corporate leaders need clear rationale backed up by tangible evidence to change behavior. Some may be swayed by the latest business fad, but the really great leaders will only have a meaningful relationship with Design Thinking when they understand it. I propose that they will more readily understand it when either: 1) everyone in the world knows what Design Thinking is because sheer repetition of a long period of time sinks in; or 2), designers can effectively articulate their purpose to the cause and back it up with success.
There! I got that off my chest. I am hoping this sparks some dialogue and a modification in my [design] thinking. I eagerly await the exchange of ideas.
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Email: b_matt [at] altitudeinc.com
This article appeared in the November
2009 edition of the DMI News & Views.
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