Design Thinking – Just A Myth

Perhaps owing to its growing popularity or media attention, there is always some degree of designer community backlash over design thinking. Some would say it’s merely a business fad that’s not much different than total quality management or one-minute managing. But the attempt to do a “emperor’s new clothes” assessment of design thinking rises to a new level with an essay by Don Norman, a much respected figure in the design community. In essence, says Norman, there really is nothing new about design thinking and that we’d be better off to improve our knowledge of systems thinking. Norman says:

A powerful myth has arisen upon the land, a myth that permeates business, academia, and government. It is pervasive and persuasive. But although it is relatively harmless, it is false. The myth? That designers possess some mystical, creative thought process that places them above all others in their skills at creative, groundbreaking thought. This myth is nonsense, but like all myths, it has a certain ring of plausibility although lacking any evidence.

So why exactly is Norman trying to expose design thinking as little more than a manufactured effort to make the designer’s thinking process something unique and mystical? I suppose that on one level the hype surrounding design thinking annoys him because it does garner quite a large amount of attention. But I think he is more concerned that many of us are buying into a concept that, in his opinion, is really nothing new. To his way of thinking, designers have always been creative types. To suggest that they suddenly have some mystical power that allows them to “think” differently than everyone else, is rather silly, claims Norman. He points out that lots of professions require and demonstrate the work of highly creative people – none of whom we would technically identify as designers. Design thinkers and the firms they work for hold no monopoly on creative work. Does Norman think we should stop using the term design thinking? No – not yet. Although he thinks it is a myth, he says it is a useful one because “It will help spread the word that designers can add value to almost any problem, from healthcare to pollution, business strategy and company organization. When this transformation takes place, the term can be put away to die a natural death.”

While I see Norman’s point about design thinking, I thought he was overlooking the ways in which it is informative and inspirational to those of us in non-design professions. Norman claims there’s nothing of great substance in design thinking, but I would argue that’s not the case for me. I find the literature valuable for helping me to think differently about many things. I wanted to share this perspective and did so in the comments section. Here is what I wrote:

Thanks for your thoughtful essay on design thinking. As a non-designer and a proponent of the value of design thinking, I think there is value in challenging the ideas and forcing us to think about this thing we call design thinking. I first discovered the core ideas of design – and the ways in which it is applicable to all types of design fields, as the library director at Philadelphia University. At that institution about 50% of the curriculum focuses on design fields. I never did hear any of the faculty (many practitioners) use the term “design thinking”. I came to it more though my own studies in our instructional design program. Myth or not, I find that design thinking, and what I would refer to as the IDEO method, does provide my colleagues – who rarely think about design – and are so embedded in their daily routines that they are as inside as an insider can be -with some great ideas for how to think differently. Sharing the IDEO method provides a helpful framework for giving them a set of tools for breaking out of the insider role. So for those who are non-designers, design thinking is useful.

The many comments are worth taking a look at. I like the one that said something along the lines of “Who cares if design thinking is a myth. If helps me to achieve my goals and helps others to do so that’s what matters most.” I would agree.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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