Design Thinking or Design Doing?

The term “Design Thinking” became prominent during the past decade, celebrated at places like the TED conferences, the World Economic Forum and among firms such as IBM and government agencies trying to become more innovative and more creative.

Some people use the term to describe how designers approach solving problems in ways that are human-centred (rather than technology- or organisation-centred) and involve repeated, often collective activities of visualisation and prototyping during a process to design new services, products or policies, coming up with entirely new ideas rather than selecting between available options. For others, contemporary design is already all about these approaches, and calling it a special kind of thinking does not add much.

I don’t use the term Design Thinking but my elective does draw extensively on a long history of studies of how professional designers go about designing in several fields, the opportunities and limitations of applying these approaches within organisational settings, and my own professional experience. It has a strong focus on design for services and social innovation.

The reasons I don’t use the term Design Thinking include

  • it often involves simplistic descriptions of what designers do and make, rather than the social and cultural processes through which this is made possible; and
  • claiming designers’ work as entirely different and special is not supported by academic studies and is confused by the claim that all professional work is a kind of design; and
  • its visibility as an innovation methodology is closely tied to particular consultancies and agendas, with embedded assumptions and worldviews.

Some educators and researchers teaching design on MBA programmes use other terms such as “design inquiries” (Youngjin Yoo) or “design attitude” (Fred Collopy and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University).  Design researcher Guy Julier writes about a “design culture” which shapes how and what designers do when they are doing designing. The details of various bits of terminology probably does not matter greatly to students. What we all share, however, is a deep interest in what goes on in professional designing, how this is translated and changed in different organisational settings, and exploring how that can be a resource for managers and entrepreneurs.

What I aim to achieve in this elective is for students to have a hands-on learning experience that exposes them to the ways designers working in the design school tradition do designing. This is backed up with critical and reflective readings about the design process and designers’ practices, and discussion about how these might be integrated into organisations of different kinds and scales.


Read more about Design Thinking from a list of resources used in this class