Daniel Miller

There's No Magic in Design Thinking

Shh! Don’t Tell Them There’s No Magic In Design Thinking

when I asked them what they thought [design thinking] meant, their answer puzzled me. They told me it was a new approach to design, focusing on problem solving with multidisciplinary teams, producing competitive end-to-end solutions that delight customers, users, and employees.

Problem solving? Multidisciplinary teams? End-to-end solutions? Delighting users? I’d been researching and writing about integrating these elements for decades. What’s new here?

I’ve had the same problem. While I’m excited about the way design thinking has been injected into a lot of different domains, in my own domain of web product development I still considered this just design.

For decades, I’ve needed to do what every seasoned design professional has found themselves doing: explaining why design is more than just making something pretty. When I’ve worked with other designers, they get it.

But once someone who isn’t a designer — someone who is a layperson — is introduced into the mix, I’ve found I need to convince them that design isn’t only about making the thing pretty. That’s it’s about solving problems. That’s it’s about end-to-end solutions.

Some of the make-it-pretty meme comes from the way design is framed inside our society. TV shows, like Project Runway or This Old House, talk about design as the end stage, where the colors and decorations are added in. Go into a Home Depot or a Lowe’s and you’ll find a section of the store called the Design Center, where they sell paint and decorative knickknacks to complete your rooms. There’s no discussion of problem solving or end-to-end solutions in that world of design.

It’s important to bring design into a project early, before the team settles on a solution, so they can truly explore the needs of the users. Yet, when we would propose this, we’d get these funny looks. Why should we care about the design that early? We haven’t even figured out what we’re doing yet? They’d always push back and tell us to come back later, when it was time for design to clean things up.

That’s been the fight for decades. We’ve spent so much time trying to get the laypeople to try to think about design in a bigger definition. Yet, they always come back to the notion that design is only about making it pretty.

Design Thinking is a Reframing of Design

The phrase design thinking changed all that. To a layperson, it was completely new. While it was made up of words they thought they knew, the combination was novel. “Design thinking? What’s that?”

Adding the word ‘thinking’ to ‘design’ was a brilliant move. David Kelley and Tim Brown, the founders of IDEO who popularized the term, were smart to take advantage of the unfamiliarity of the phrase.

To those of us who’ve been doing this for a long time, design thinking doesn’t mean anything new. But it also doesn’t mean ‘make it pretty.’ And that’s why it works.

…go read the whole thing. I preserve so much of it here only because I don’t trust Medium to…

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