Design Thinking is Dead. Long Live Design Orientation.

The Design Thinking meme has been around for a long time — since around 2007 — but only recently did it pick up some steam due to the global financial crisis (driven largely by an as of yet unacknowledged global, fundamental crisis at the very heart of business and capitalism itself).

As management reached for a cure-all to soothe the bruised egos of CEOs everywhere, it turned to the Design Thinking meme as a replacement of — or augmentation to — the aging Innovation meme.

The conversation started off quite heated in 2007 but simmered down until around March 2009 when Sam Ladner brought up the topic in a post entitled Design Thinking’s Big Problem. Things quickly heated up again on April 30, 2009 when Bruce Nussbaum asked, Is Design Too Important To Be Left Only To Designers? which was addressed — over the coming months — with a paper entitled Design without Designers by Anne Burdick, a blog post entitled Design Is Too Important to Be Left to the Thinkers by Robert Brunner and another blog post entitled Thinking about “Design Thinking” by Fred Collopy. The conversation collectively lead to something of a capitulation by Bruce Nussbaum who posted Design Thinking Battle—Managers Embrace Design Thinking, Designers Reject It. Most recently, even academia has contemplated embracing the Design Thinking bandwagon.

While positioning and branding aren’t cure-alls for every occasion, what we’re dealing with here is primarily a positioning and branding problem that can easily be alleviated with a slight shift in the way this notion of thinking about the value of design beyond the domain of the designer is framed.

The problem with Design Thinking as a meme (when uttered by non-designers) is that it’s too combative and threatening a phrase. It suggests (covertly — whether intentioned or not) that the value-add of designers (the very thinking that goes behind that which designers ultimately produce) is actively sought after — thereby threatening to rob (as the business community is so fondly associated with doing, as perceived by anyone outside of the business community) the design community of its heart (literally), further relegating design making to a lower rung of the corporate ladder than where it stands at the moment (which is actually quite low if you think about it).

Aside from it being a threatening and unconstructively framed phrase, Design Thinking is nonsensical from a design perspective because it assumes too much when uttered by non-designers…it assumes that non-designers (by trade) have the intimate understanding of the design process necessary to properly extract the heart and soul of the process that fuels the very heart of innovation from a design perspective. Given that less than 1% of management would have an intimate understanding of Design Thinking in its true sense, it renders the phrase meaningless (and at best, hype) in the context of business management.

While the terminology may not have been the best choice, it’s the thought that counts, and in this respect, the Design Thinking meme represents a sincere acknowledgement from the business community that design plays a major role in business and that business management should more seriously embrace and position design higher in the overall strategic food chain of the business process.

However, the positioning and branding problem is the sugar coating atop a fundamental business problem which I will address below.

For the past 50 or so years, business has embraced finance orientation for the purpose of shareholder value maximization. The complete and utter failure of this orientation cannot be ignored. Business and capitalism as we know it are in crisis (though we wouldn’t know it since we, collectively, are keeping these failed institutions alive with our future tax dollars). The very notion that the largest banks and corporations are too big to fail yet do so liberally (or are literally saved at taxpayer expense) should bring every big business and finance strategist of the last 50 years to shame. The fact of the matter is that finance orientation and shareholder value maximization have literally gutted not only the corporate coffers, but also the socioeconomic fabric of capitalism — threatening the very root of our social order — for the sake of a few greedy shareholders at the very top.

Indeed, this soul-searching by business — for literally a better soul — has lead to design, but robbing the soul of design (by asserting an assumed control of Design Thinking) will only lead to sugarcoating a fundamentally flawed system that is in serious need of criticism and modification.

I do believe that the new model for business orientation is — in fact — Design Orientation on the road to customer value maximization, leading to repairing the damage done to our socioeconomic fabric and ultimately saving the soul of business.

Design Orientation is the proper language to use when honestly admitting that business needs to orient itself toward a different direction of doing business.

Design Orientation acknowledges the role of design in business and promotes collaboration between management and designers at the highest rungs of the decision making ladder, emoting a shift toward a new social and hierarchical order.

This is a new conversation, and one worth having in the weeks, months and years to come.

This article is followed up by Design Orientation is Not a Buzzword. You may like to follow its progression here.

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    I agree design orientation sounds like a good signpost for a mindset that’s needed within business. Working as a...
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