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It’s called Design Thinking: time to deal with it

Walking through the design thinking posts at I am reminded yet again of the problem of the too strong association of these ideas with the work of IDEO. The time has come for us all to pick a lane: either design thinking is what IDEO says & does (and others who follow) OR design thinking is a broader set of ideas, troche methods and practices that are emerging as an alternative to dominant conventions in business.

I’m OK with either of these, mind since I don’t find the pair of words “design thinking” so completely perfect in their combination that I can’t imagine other, better ones for the job. But I want to make a case for digging in our collective heels and adopting design thinking not because its perfect and so clearly above reproach, but because, like it or not, it is the conversation we are all already having.

Reading through the posts to a Wave I started with Chris Finley a while back, I have started to see not only threads and patterns, but the outlines of the “unmet need” of design thinkers.

We need to start making some real progress on the job of what my pal, Erin Liman, describes as “codifying design thinking”.

I do and will have a lot more to say about this, but I wanted to start by offering a small thought to try and tease out what I think is a strong, but largely implicit point of broad agreement. Perhaps we can build out from there.

I offer the following crude definition of design: it is the systematic and purposeful work of making. Design thinking, I’d suggest, is a reflective approach to that practice. There is an important expression of this in the David Kelley/IDEO/ vernacular: to be “mindful of practice”. This suggests that the nature of design thinking is critical: which here means BOTH that it is critical of established and dominant approaches [it is polemical] AND that it is self-critical [or "scientific"].

This much may seem obvious to all. If so great. If not, let me explain why I think it is important that we share this area of agreement. First, I believe that design thinking is implicitly about the limitations of design, it is a critique of design as it is. The positions, methods and practices that have emerged as this critical “language” of design thinking has come from experience, reflection on that experience and a belief in the power design to be a progressive force. Design thinking is founded on a critical awareness that the way that WE operate businesses is broken and unsustainable. It offers us optimism and a pragmatic framework for engagement in the work changing the way we DO business: what we make, how we sell it, to whom and why. It is the leading edge of an ethics of design practice: not a morality of design, but a struggle to make design and designers conscious and responsible for what they do.

NB: this is in NO way intended to diminish or undervalue the important contribution IDEO and many of the smart folks that have and do work for that company have made to design thinking. to the contrary, I think we honor that contribution best by building on it and extending it. I believe and hope that this is their best hope for the work they have offered into the commons.

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