15 October 2010

Design thinking and the king's new clothes

'Design thinkers over-simplify by presenting design to business as a clear and codified process of methods, tools, and steps that can be learned by nondesigners. While explaining design as an algorithm goes down well with managers, this pitch skips over the pivotal importance of talent and craft.'

From one of two recent articles by Kevin McCullagh dissecting some of the hype around design thinking. The methods designers use can be a revelation, and very productive, when introduced to organisations accustomed to linear, top-down processes. When used collaboratively with expert teams (who have deep understanding of their own organisation), they can produce great solutions. They're also useful life tools for people to learn, redressing the balance in an education that can be over-focused on analytic and reductive approaches. But they're not 'the solution' in themselves. And, actually, there not always simple to carry out. Reflecting on my earlier posting on Axel Unger's presentation of IDEO's user-centred design methods (which I think avoided over-hyping the process) I neglected to mention the effort that is required to visualise and prototype ideas in order to get feedback and refine them. Even relatively rough prototypes can be difficult (and, potentially, expensive) to prepare, and so can be challenging for non-designers and their organisations. Certainly the level of prototyping shown in Unger's case studies was not trivial. 

In his second article, McCullagh tackles the myth of the T-shaped designer (i.e. that the designer has specific, inspirational skills in thinking about the broad context of design work, as well as skills in the detail of proposing, developing and specifying design solutions). McCullagh points out how the myth can result in a naive overconfidence about designers' capacity to solve complex social problems (and that there is a history of failure when designers over-extend themselves). Timely. I still wince to recall a TV interview where a designer claimed, with no apparent foundation, that while designers were T-shaped, architects were not. The truth is, if you like T-shaped as a metaphor, that within any profession there will be people who are better able than others to think across boundaries, or to work with others to do so, and to bring that expertise to their own deep understanding of their core domain, to develop ideas creatively. 

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