Apr 26, 2009
Thinking about ‘Design Thinking’
An article by Dan Saffer at Adaptive Path got me thinking about design thinking, which led to a series of posts on the subject. This post was first published on March 7, 2007.
I subscribe to the feed from Adaptive Path’s blog because, as they say here in Boston, the people who work there are “wicked smaht.” As a result, and thanks to the magic of RSS feedings, I spotted this impassioned plea from one of the Adaptive Pathers, Dan Saffer, for design schools to start teaching design again.
Saffer’s main complaint is that design schools have moved towards a curriculum centered around “design thinking” and away from a well-rounded, practical education focused on “thinking and making and doing.” In his view, the real work of design consists in the process of moving from concept to realization; stopping at the idea stage means you’ve only done the easy part. He writes, “Some notes on a whiteboard and a pretty concept movie or storyboard pales in comparison to the messy world of prototyping, development, and manufacturing,” and then puts a finer point on it by adding, “It’s harder to execute an idea than to have one…”
Having encountered this lament in one form or another many times – “No one understands good typography anymore;” “People try to design when they can’t even draw,” “They think the computer’s going to do it all for them,” etc. – that aspect of his argument wasn’t new. Rather, what drew my attention was the phrase “design thinking” and his characterization of it as “just thinking.”
Since I was pretty sure that it meant more than that, I did a little research and found a Business Week article from last October called, “The Talent Hunt,” which describes Mozilla turning to the folks at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka, the “D-School”) in search of a strategy for expanding the adoption of Firefox. In light of Saffer’s comments, I was struck by the following sentences: “Business school students would have developed a single new product to sell. The D-schoolers aimed at creating a prototype with possible features that might appeal to consumers.” Likewise, in a lecture at MIT entitled “Innovation Through Design Thinking,” IDEO’s Tim Brown talks about the process they follow often involving “a hundred prototypes created quickly, both to test the design and to create stakeholders in the process.”
As I understand it, the “thought leaders” behind “design thinking” (you can find a good overview of them and their thoughts here on Luke Wroblewski’s site) advocate the application of design methods to problems of business strategy precisely because it places a heavy emphasis on prototyping and real-world pragmatics. If Saffer is correct that “design thinking” as taught in design schools is primarily about thinking, and not about making things and seeing if they work, then I would say the real problem is that they are not actually teaching “design thinking.”
But then again, I never attended design school. If you have, do you think that Saffer’s criticism rings true?
Image Courtesy of dsevilla.