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Design Thinking: it's what designers do

Design Thinking (DT) is a pretty big ‘buzzphrase’ these days, it’s true. Big in business education, business innovation writing and even (shockingly) in the design world. What has always struck me is that purely by definition, design thinking is exactly what designers have been (or at least SHOULD have been) doing for decades.

I first read about DT in Roger Martin’s book ‘The Design of Business’ - and it is a great book. But I came away thinking that it was all very familiar, yet somehow the design industry seems to have forgotten that we are supposed to be doing this all the time. We think about design problems in far too narrow a way - how to market, how to brand, how to represent that brand on the web. But what we know about problem solving is far more valuable when we apply it at a higher level.

We know about visual heirarchy, emotional connection, visual language, color, composition and typography - all in the service of organizing information, delivering a message, building loyalty, influencing behavior. But take that knowledge, that skill - and apply it to the whole organization: how employees connect and work together, how customers interact from end to end, how the public perceives the organization and how that organization participates in the community around it. The possibilities for increased connection, community, social good, efficiency, productivity and yes, even (and especially) profit are astronomical. Currently the trend in this conversation is centered around the business world: MBAprograms and centers of entrepreneurship and the like. But teaching DT in an MBA program is starting from the ground floor, whereas the design industry already knows the techniques; we simply need to start applying them in a broader context. While it’s still debatable whether the industry as a whole has embraced web and mobile technology enough (I personally think not - by a long shot), the principles are still there to take our thinking as designers to a higher level.

I recently attended DrupalCon in Chicago - the big Drupal design & development conference in North America this year. The design and user experience content has blossomed, and one of the panel discussions was about DT and how the panelists used it during their day-to-day work. The panel was moderated by Steve Fisher ( @hellofisher), a very talented designer from Alberta, British Columbia, and he was joined by Jared Ponchot ( @jponch ) from Lullabot, Samantha Warren ( @samanthatoy ) from Phase II Technology and Jen Simmons ( @jensimmons ) from Palantir.net. Samantha and Jared focus more on user experience and design, while Jen Simmons focuses more on front-end development, so perspectives were varied and the level of talent represented phenomenal. While I’m thrilled that the topic was included, especially at a Drupal conference (where development tends to have a stronger focus) - it felt like it only got part of the way there in terms of really tackling what DT is all about and how big a role it SHOULD play in web projects.

The big reason it fell short for me was that it focused more on DT in the design process but didn’t really touch on DT as driving what should be designed in the first place. That’s where my ‘pet topic’ of web strategy comes in. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about web strategy as the nexus between design, technology and the client organization, enabling innovation on a broader and deeper scale than when we as web professionals only respond to the brief. I think we need to look deeper than the request in order to really innovate for our clients and organizations. This is an embodiment of DT, but not the whole story.
Take it a step further and DT is about the whole organization. Not everything is web related - but chances are that much will be web-connected, so that domain knowledge is important. Brand is embodied in logo and identity, but represented to the world as much by how employees answer the phone and speak with each other as by any business card or sign. Profit is derived far more from employee motivation and engagement than by incremental efficiency gains on a production line. Innovation too is fostered by collaboration and culture more than by material incentives. While culture itself cannot be designed - it is certainly encouraged and embodied in and by materials that are.

Our traditional notion of what designers do is part of many (almost all) of these things, but more critically, our design thinking process can (and should) be applied to all. That will ensure the sum will be greater than the parts. Our knack at finding the obscure or oblique connections - when applied to organization- or systems-level challenges - makes those who embrace that creative process on a daily basis perfect candidates to apply DT in ways designers have rarely thought to act - but are perfectly suited to do so.

Graphic design as a profession is at a crossroads - with many agencies, studios and schools still looking backwards at a landscape fast disappearing. Web design is only somewhat better off - looking forward but still struggling to retain and reframe skills, practices and concepts common to more traditional graphic design. To truly succeed and evolve we must start thinking again as designers, but embrace the challenge of being Design Thinkers, tackling not just brand but culture, not just marketing but customer relationship and it’s entire lifecycle, not just web trends but web and mobile application and information infrastructures that through technology and design transform organizations and allow them to work and function in ways they themselves could never imagine. It’s not a small challenge - and some will always prefer to focus on on area or another - but leadership in our industry must reach higher and farther. That’s the only way for us to move forward as an industry - and the best way for us to move up within the larger leadership heirarchy of our own organizations and our clients’ in order to help them succeed as well.

Originally published on my old blog at thinkinginpencil.com

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