Design Thinking Needs No Single Definition

This research indicates that no consensus emerged among a group of experts asked to define design thinking. Here’s how this helps us to better understand what design thinking is and how to explain it to novices.

I just wrapped up my second year teaching a course on design thinking for the San Jose State University iSchool.

Years after promoting the idea that LIS education programs should pay more attention to design thinking – and even going so far to suggest that our profession would benefit from a Masters of Library Design – it has been an incredible experience to develop this course from the ground up and to have the privilege to share what I’ve learned about design thinking with our next generation of librarians.

One of the challenges in preparing for the second year was making a decision about how to define and present the design thinking process. Knowing that my students would be encountering a number of different definitions and presentations of the process, I thought it might be best to decide on one definition and make that the standard for the duration of the course.

Perhaps a bit controlling but at least it provides a consistent approach to learning design thinking, as well as a standard platform for conversation. I also let the students know that they should use the course to either define design thinking on their own terms or identify a definition that most resonates them. What definition, graphics or examples, I asked them, would best enable them to explain design thinking to their colleagues? So while I maintained a somewhat strict approach to defining design thinking for the course, I made it clear that after the course, students were free to develop their own way of defining and describing it.

I suppose that’s why this article resonated with me. Even when a group of experts were asked, there was no exact agreement or consensus on the definition of design thinking. While some might take that as a sign that design thinking shouldn’t be taken seriously if it can’t be consistently defined, I tend to see it differently. The author says as much in writing:

One of the greatest strengths but also weaknesses of design thinking is that there is no single, widely used definition for it. This flexibility in meaning is beneficial because it encourages challenge, exploration, and inquiry, and allows people to morph the concept to their needs.

In the post “What is Design Thinking, Really? (What Practitioners Say)” by Sarah Gibbons, she describes research involving interviews with industry experts. They were asked a series of questions, such as “What do you think of when you hear the phrase “design thinking” and “How would you define design thinking?”. I tend to see lack of a single definition more strength than weakness precisely because if offers the opportunity to bring some individuality to it – though there are clearly some constraints to which any definition would need to conform.

The responses reflect the lack of consensus among these experts in their description and definition of design thinking. But the responses do reflect the core process and activities involved in design thinking. There is a breakdown of the terms and phrases used by experts to define design thinking. Some, such as “problem-solving”, “process” and “human-centered design” are totally expected. They are organized into multiple thematic categories such as “uses” and “specific steps”.

While the experts had no shared definition, their responses point to three shared ideas that come closest to a common understand of what constitutes a design thinking approach:

*It is a process for problem solving (though I prefer to emphasize it’s about problem finding).

*It is a change in the way you think, a mindset shift, about how you do your work.

*It is a toolkit, a set of strategies and approaches for solving a problem.

Gibbons suggests that there is also a scaffolding effect that shapes how we define design thinking. It starts with defining it as a process, then evolves into a mindset and then becomes the toolkit used for applying design thinking in practice. That strikes me as a good way to define design thinking when I explain to someone coming to is as a blank slate.

You should make of it what you will to rethink or refine your own way of defining design thinking. I will point my future students to this article as a way of demonstrating why they need to ultimately shape their own definition while being true to the value of design thinking and the process they will make their own.

I’m glad to have discovered this article because I plan to adopt the (six) process steps it identifies – and make that the new standard for my course. It’s quite close to what I already use, but I think it will be an easier set of terms for students to remember – and it has a solid diagram to illustrate the process. This article is a solid addition to the core literature of design thinking.

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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