Saturday’s New York Times (in the Business section, of course) had an interesting article about “design thinking”. For starters, it included by far the clearest summary of what design thinking is that I’ve ever read, including from all the design thinking leaders:

While definitions vary, design thinking usually involves a period of field research — usually close observation of people — to generate inspiration and a better understanding of what is needed, followed by open, nonjudgmental generation of ideas. After a brief analysis, a number of the more promising ideas are combined and expanded to go into “rapid prototyping,” which can vary from a simple drawing or text description to a three-dimensional mock-up. Feedback on the prototypes helps hone the ideas so that a select few can be used.

The Times article also quotes IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown:

“Design thinking is inherently about creating new choices, about divergence… Most business processes are about making choices from a set of existing alternatives. Clearly, if all your competition is doing the same, then differentiation is tough.”

They hype around design thinking has been a little troublesome to many practicing designers, myself included. As I’ve said before, to me design thinking is intended to steer “business thinkers” in a new direction, opening their minds to new idea generation processes — a way of thinking and working that most designers are already intimately familiar with (so much so that most practicing designers find it almost impossible to understand what the heck “design thinking” means, kind of like explaining “wetness” to a fish).

But the Times article focuses on one aspect of design thinking that I am glad to hear: that the idea of design as merely a marketing tool needs to be retired.

The headline makes this clear: “Design Is More Than Packaging”. It’s conceptually in synch with my recent blog post, “Don’t Design the Box“, in which I argue that a design process that begins with trying to seduce the customer with the product’s superficial packaging — rather than seducing the customer with the actual product and the actual user experience — is increasingly going to be doomed to fail in a Web 2.0, customer-driven, design-centric marketplace.

In fact, this concept was also a key point of my recent “Seduction of the Interface” talks. In the talk I discuss how the traditional business structure (in which product design, development, marketing, and sales are all separate disciplines) needs to break down. For new digitally-distributed products, there is often no difference between the product’s user experience design, the product’s underlying engineering, the product’s marketing and advertising, and the “store” the product is sold from. All of these can, and increasingly should, be wrapped up into a single, holistic user experience.

In this new business model, design plays a key role in every aspect of the process — there are no walls between design, development, marketing, and sales. And even within design itself, there is no wall between product design and packaging design.


4 responses to “Design Thinking Out Of The Box”

  1. To me, the definition of design thinking in this article seems more of a *process description* that is fairly specific to industrial design. Design thinking, to me, is broader than that and is really just a heightened level awareness in the face of a design problem.

  2. Exactly my thinking as I read the article.

    I also don’t know what “design thinking” means, but helping demystify the idea of experience design for those in the organization that affect the experience without realizing it can only produce positive results.


  3. Hi Christopher and thanks for sharing your critical view on this topic! I total I think the discussion what ‘Design Thinking’ actually is could be endless 😉

    However I don’t think that the ‘process’ should be viewed as the ‘domain’ of ‘design’ only. While it might have its origins in the (product) design community (@Anders) I do think that its impact is on a larger scale not only steering business.

    From my experience in collaborating with designers in design management programmes for more than eight years I have found that the ‘fish’ at least needs to know that it’s ‘water’ it is swimming in 😉 From there discovering its properties (wet, cold, warm, mikly, etc.) is an issue that is not only of interest for designers, but also for business!

    A good friend of mine has written a book (in Dutch only; unfortunately!) titled ‘Design for Contractors’ that helps these groups to understand the domain & thinking of designers better. It’s an eye opener for both designers & contractors.

    After all you might want to read my recent takes on the topic on my blog: (in English ;-). Beyond this there is a posting: as well as a chart that explains the various fields:

  4. “Close observation of people… nonjudgmental generation of ideas… analysis, …rapid prototyping,… feedback on the prototypes.” Actually, that definition of Design Thinking sounds like the process of user-centered design, being quite close to Perhaps UCD has become so ubiquitous that today we can hardly imagine another way to think about design. That could explain why some believe UCD can mean anything.

    Designing in aesthetic domains, such as graphic design, may have been traditionally tied closely to marketing, but design in engineering never has.