Design Thinking as a Language

As a classically trained designer, I have a complicated relationship with Design Thinking. Made popular by Stanford University, Design Thinking offers a vocabulary for a process that designers have been using for years. If you look at the literature that they’ve developed (a lot of it free and online), you will find that they’ve done a great job at this.

But for some reason, Design Thinking gets confused with the third step* of the process: Ideation. So if I tell someone, “I practice design thinking” it could be interpreted cynically as, “I come up with great ideas and don’t know how to implement them.”

I don’t know why Design Thinking gets confused with ideation when, in fact, it includes so many other complex processes such as customer observation, customer interviews, data interpretation, problem definition, and prototyping and testing. I suspect Design Thinking gets conflated with ideation because ideation is the fun part. The other parts–searching around in the dark for customer insights–that’s the work (see previous post). That’s when your reality bumps up against other people’s reality. It’s messy and gritty and unresolved and painfully real. But you can’t get people to show up to a Design Thinking workshop with that kind of ad copy, can you? Ha, if only!

So maybe it’s not Design Thinking that is the problem but Design Thinking workshops. You take a 4-day workshop on something and you walk away with the confidence of an expert rather than with the humility of someone who just got a hands-on introduction to a deep and complex topic. Maybe workshop facilitators need to do a better job managing expectations. After four days, a workshop participant isn’t positioned to lead as a designer, but they are much better positioned to work with and understand the designers on their team. Maybe the answer is to frame Design Thinking workshops less as skills courses and more as a language courses.


*An Iterative Design Thinking process includes and repeats the following steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s