Why design thinking is so hard for designers

You can’t make somebody understand something if their salary depends upon them not understanding it.

In our exploration of design thinking some people assume that it is the kind of thinking that designers do, but unfortunately this isn’t usually the case. For several reasons designers are predisposed against integrative ways of thinking.

To explain I’ll cite the example of the internal effort to fix the horrendous user interfaces of SAP’s software. A Wall St Journal article ($) this week quoted people at the company admitting to the poor design quality and describing their in-house effort to educate SAP’s engineers to be more sensitive to users’ needs. This is the designer’s goal: to design better products. A design thinker on the other hand might look at the whole system, observe that SAP has been so bad at designing UIs for so long that a massive culture change would need to take place before managers allocated the kind of resources needed to achieve significantly better designs. While this would be great, the design thinker would explore the option that UI design is not a capability that SAP should develop. One would ask if partners and customers are better equipped to design the UIs, and if SAP should simply build APIs into all the products. Would a director of design at SAP come to this conclusion? Maybe, but designers aren’t looking in this direction; doing so jeapardizes their ability to create interesting artifacts as well as the security of their jobs.

Another example is the revived discusion about working on spec, which rarely gets beyond a binary judgement of for or against. If one looks at the entire system, we see that clients have many options these days regardless of how designers like to structure engagements, presenting market forces that could ‘creatively destroy’ old transaction models. The design thinker would recognize this new reality, generate new approaches, and start experimenting. In the BusinessWeek case the job was relatively simple. Why not, for example, split the budget into three parts and commission three designs from three different firms? Each firm would have to invent a process that was profitable but is assured of being compensated, and the client still has a number of artifacts to choose from. This approach doesn’t heap glory and profit upon any one design firm so they probably wouldn’t suggest it, even if it could be better for the system overall.


  1. This makes no sense to me. All design requires design thinking, otherwise you are simply doing production, not design. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: separating design thinking from design is separating oxygen from air.

    Your examples seem to say that designers aren’t broader or more strategic thinkers, which isn’t the same as “design thinking” as I understand the term. I agree designers need to expand their work into the planning and strategy, which might involve “design thinking.” Then again, it might not.

  2. RE>”separating design thinking from design is separating oxygen from air.”

    I agree, but I think you — a well-trained designer — and I are probably defining design in this case in terms of design thinking and not product-making or style-making. By that definition many designers don’t do design, they produce products or style. We expect designers to be creative, but we don’t also expect them to be — and find they often lack the qualities of being — collaborative, personal, or integrative.

    A meta-problem with these discussions is the fuzziness in the meaning of the term “design”.

    I disagree that designers need to expand their work into planning and strategy. The world still appreciates people who will make a better mousetrap or a prettier wallpaper pattern (in fact it’s hard for any individual to stretch their skills to include both great product-making and great strategic thinking, which is why collaboration is so important). The design thinking can be done by others. Just as not all designers will be good design thinkers, not all design thinkers will be (product or style) designers.

  3. I agree with Victor that a great majority of designers out there are not really capable of integrating into a development team to make “design thinking” contributions.

    I think this is primarily due to the kind of educational model for designers that has always been “tangible object” obsessed, perhaps becuase of the visual nature of the profession-one needed to produce something, at the end. That juxtaposed to the fact that business world has not always fully understood the role of design (although beginning to change now),our only scope was limited to talking about the final product, but devorced from its OVERALL, bigger contextual backdrop. Ofcourse, we would only go as far as issues of useability, cultural and semantic enterface, etc., but such arev only logical since they of immediate impact to the way we can evaluate and justify our final “product”. However, we often lack more reliable insights to link our final “objects” to issues of corporate strategy that are much bigger than the actual act of design as we have traditional understood it. We have blindly dealt with this alignment as if design is an end in itself.

    I should also agree that there will always be room for traditional, talent based designers, but with design quickly being embraced as an undisputed commercial imperative, designers need to transform more into catalysts for innovation and cultural change. This means sometimes dealing with issues that are intangible but have to be creatively resolved to make way for successful design. Such situation demands new set of skills that compliment the tradional ones posessed by designers. This is particularly true when designing services. You find that for instance, the beautiful business environments for a bank do no good if the actual products being offered leave a lot to be desired in terms of appreciating customer requirements. How beautiful your sales materials are serve a very marginal if not peripheral role if the development team failed to articulate the actual interplay between the service offer and the target customer. This is an intangible designer demand but is an area that needs designers from an initial stage but you either find that the designers will only enjoy and prefer doing the hands on aspects of such project becuase they lack a strategic mental vocabulary to eloquently access discussions and make meaningful decisions at that level of engagement.

    In a nutshell as design becomes a critical competitive weapon, I think designers need to upgrade their tools and become aware of their role within a wider contextual frame work.

    Back to education, there are schools that are now doing a fine job when it comes to producing graduates that can tackle the best of both worlds. Institute of Design at Illinoise Institute of Technology, as well as Brunel University in London, UK. They produce designers that can also be “design thinkers” and I think that’s excellent.

    As to what extent such hybrid thinkers can be good in each component, is something that cannot be established consistently without sytematic investigation. I think some people will always be good at certain aspects of their profession and not others. I do not agree that even if you find someone who is good at “design thinking” and not so excellent at “talent design” can be loosely deduced to mean that the two are incompatible.

    Personaly, I have background in Industrial Design but I also did my graduate studies in Design & Branding Strategy in London. However, I consider myself excellent in both. So its possible to have a genuine hybrid thinker and I strongly feel that i the direction design should be taking if designers are to be taken seriously.

  4. I’m with Dan on this one. If “design thinkers” don’t have to have any hands-on experience with the practice of design, and if design thinking doesn’t always have to serve the goal of leading practicing designers, and if practicing designers do not by definition practice design thinking, then why use the word “design” at all to describe the “design thinking” concept? Does the word have no meaning any more? Has it been completely divorced from the traditional definition of design?

    It seems like the “design thinking” you (and many others) are talking about is at best metaphorically similar to design, but has no actual relationship to design — not as a conceptual parent, child, or even as a peer. Is that the case?

    Lately it seems that champions of “design thinking” are more and more going out of their way to put as much distance between “design thinking” and design as possible. The concept seems to have evolved:

    Design Thinking, Stage 1: Business strategists look at designers for inspiration on how to make decisions. Inspired by Apple’s success and by Steve Jobs’s turtleneck, they gravitate towards design thinking as a business methodology.

    Design Thinking, Stage 2: Business strategists realize that designers aren’t saviors — that designers do not all practice “business thinking” — and they decide they don’t actually want to get too close to them after all, much less follow their leadership. They appreciate what they perceive to be design thinking, but not design itself.

    Design Thinking, Stage 3: Design thinkers co-opt the word “design”, label their new improved business methodology “design thinking”, and then denigrate practicing designers in order to keep the pecking order intact.

  5. Chris — I actually agree with your conclusion, though maybe for different reasons.

    For many of us, Herbert Simon’s discussion of design changed the way we conceive and define design, specifically a much broader view. Having read that, it’s difficult to go back to the traditional definition.

    But of course language is sculpted through common use, and Simon’s is not the common definition, and this is why I agree that using that term usually places a conceptual hurdle between the design thinking evangelist and those who want to sing along.

    It’s probably not coincidence that the authors of the excellent Artful Making avoid using the design.

    But even more importantly, these conversations are not particularly productive. I’d rather debate our experience of our practice than our terminology.

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