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Design thinking: A useful myth?

I recently came across a blog post by Don Norman (Design thinking: A Useful Myth) where he argues that “design thinking” has become more of a marketing term than a magical and somewhat mystical discipline.

From a professional perspective, I tend to resist using the term “design thinking” in go-to-market messaging for Capital D Design, yet there is certainly a large element of design thinking in the mix in terms of what CapD aims to offer in terms of value. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, as long as the value is there.

I think that Normal is really describing his aversion and exhaustion around the hype and marketing of design-thinking in his circles. His profession and proximity to this “design” space obviously exposes him to a higher-than-average occurrence of the hype and excess surrounding this newish trend. I, too, squirm when I begin hearing people rattle off the latest strategy term in business — as if the mere knowledge of the term somehow indoctrinates one into a new level of value.

From my perspective, design thinking still has a long way to go in terms of its utilization in helping solve the most challenging problems we face as people, leaders and community members. In fact, I’d argue that linear, market-tested problem-solving has been driving American business culture (and indeed, our society) for decades. Powered by the popularity and almost religious belief in “MBA training,” this mega-trend re-enforces the value of measurement and management well above the ingenuitive, innovative and creative aspects of value creation. With this backdrop, I would welcome an over-exposure to design thinking as an alternative to the MBA-style thinking that has so dominated business and organizational dynamics for the past generation.

Design thinking is not something novel in and of itself — it’s simply an approach to thinking that involves stepping back, asking the right questions at the right time, playing the devil’s advocate at the most basic level of assumption, and applying both creativity and analysis to almost every aspect of the problem-solving process. This approach can transform “problem-solving” into innovation, client loyalty, better brand experiences, and can enable significantly improved alignment between communications and identity.

You can call it design thinking (as many do), you can call it idealized design (as Russel Ackoff did), or you can just call it really good problem-solving skills. The broader point is, if this approach is not commodity and relies at least in part on individual abilities, then it has distinct value through both scarcity and quality of results.

Norman is right, though, when he says that anyone can be a design thinker. But by the same token, anyone could be a composer, too. However, only a select few composers have made significant, strategic impact on the domain of music. Were Beethoven and Lennon myths or legends? Either way, they both had legendary creative impact on the field of music composition.

The same applies to design thinkers — many are mediocre, most are average and some are remarkable.

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