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From Design Thinking to Design Process

Since writing this post focusing on Bruce Nussbaum’s essay about design thinking as a failed experiment I have come across other posts and articles referencing the essay and commenting one way or another on the state of design thinking. One in particular titled “The Short Happy Life of Design Thinking” authored by Damien Newman was published in the August 2011 issue of Print magazine (sorry but this article is not online), and though it’s a rather short piece I thought it did a good job of capturing the essence of the main critique of design thinking: design thinking doesn’t actually get the desired results. Newman writes:

And here lies the difficulty with the term “design thinking”: It didn’t offer an actual, repeatable process but rather defined how a designer should think, a kind of mind-set that would set in motion the process of design. Design thinking alone didn’t have the results that the simple process of design did…Organizations that bought into the concept of design thinking were not getting what they wanted, which was to produce better, more innovative results.

Newman then goes on to share the story of a new social change project called Common, described as a community for the rapid prototyping of social ventures. One of their ventures is Common Cycles. Newman’s point is that Common is an example of a post-design thinking organization that brings together experience, intuition, creativity and collaboration. Newman believes this is a good example of the transition from design thinking to design process. As I read Newman’s piece I was puzzled between the difference between design thinking and the design process; they seem quite similar in the components that define them. Then I had an experience with the design approach – which is similar to what Newman describes as the design process – and I now think I see how the design approach is similar to design thinking and perhaps is even based on the same principles – but which gives a more practical process for putting it to work on designing solutions.

Here’s what happened. About two weeks after writing the post about Nussbaum’s article I had a great experience in which I participated in a two-day design process workshop at Temple University. This is a development about which I’m quite excited. It is part of a larger effort to integrate more design approach-based education into our B-school curriculum. Most of the activity is coming out of our Center for Design and Innovationwhich is led by Youngjin Yoo, who was previously at the Weatherhead School of Mangement at Case Western University. I previously wrote a post about the book Managing as Designing, a book that evolved from a conference on design in business held at Weatherhead – and which contains a chapter authored by Youngjin Yoo (which I subsequently realized after writing the post). I’ve since had several conversations with faculty leading the effort at the CDI, and we recently collaborated by having our incoming MBA students conduct a design project (about wayfinding) here at the library. Back on June 16 and 17 I attended the Center’s Business is Design workshop, facilitated by Yoo and James Moustafellos, an architect, designer and entrepreneur (and also faculty at the B-school). I thought I knew a good amount about design thinking, which was discussed in the workshop, but I really learned even more about it, primarily the hands-on aspects of the design process.

Here are a few highlights of the workshop:

* Develop a design attitude as a process for innovation – the process should be an iterative one in which we should be asking ourselves “can we make this better?” and being deliberate about taking action to try to make it better. (an exercise using pieces of paper to simulate a design process and express the attitude)

* Technology is not always the path to innovation. Listening, observing and working in teams is another means to achieve innovation. Constraints such as time or resources move the process forward as they force us to be deliberate in our thinking. (a small group activity involving intense listening and shared observations)

* We use design to deliberately shape the behavior of the user (anecdotes about urinal design with the goal of keeping these areas cleaner). Great design can achieve far better results than text-based signs.

* Empower the organization to get everyone thinking and sharing ideas. Move from the old mainframe/dumb terminal paradigm to the personal computing paradigm where everyone is empowered (of course there is the struggle between innovation and control).

* Systemic experiences emerge from the design inquiry process – composed of five questions:
* What are the problems?
* Who are the stakeholders?
* Why are these needs/issues important?
* What are the solutions?
* What are the resources?

* Use the design approach to move from things to action. Move from nouns to verbs. A library is a thing. Transforming people is an action.

To reinforce many of these ideas the workshop challenged us with many design approach activities. I’m not going to provide those details for two reasons. First, this is already a long post that would become even longer, and second, I am hesitant to divulge too many details that would take away any of the surprise elements for those who may take this workshop in the future. I will say that the second day of the workshop revolves a major project that requires the participants to go through the design inquiry process in a very hands-on way. In a combination of field study – getting out to observe, listen, ask questions, record data, etc. – and team-based workshop exercises (e.g., creating personas, experience mapping, etc) the participants gained a great understanding of what it means to go through the design inquiry process.

When I registered for the workshop I thought it would simply reinforce what I already knew about design thinking. It did much more than that. It moved me from just seeing design as a way of thoughtfully developing solutions to a process in which we have to engage ourselves in a mental and physical way. This is why Damien Newman’s article resonated with me, which it may not have without the design workshop experience. Now I understand what he means when advocating for moving from “thinking” to “process”. I believe there is value in understanding design thinking as the way in which designers approach their work, but it is more powerful when we acknowledge that we also must engage in the design inquiry process when we want to produce the “better, more innovative results” that Newman describes. I plan to continue my involvement with the Center for Design and Innovation at Temple University because I believe there is much more yet to be learned about the design process. I would encourage you to seek out similar opportunities – and encourage your colleagues to join you.

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