Book review: Design Thinking - Thomas Lockwood

Mar 10
2010

This book leaves me with mixed feelings. The background: recently industry designers have been trying to break out of their confinement which held them captive to the whims of fickle marketeers. They’ve moved on from styling consumer products to more strategic briefings: designing experiences, services and even business models. The ambitions reach beyond the corporate sphere, leading designers to confront the systemic, “wicked problems” of our age: climate change, rapid urbanisation, obesity ... The basic logic underpinning this strategic upframing is “Design Thinking”. According to Thomas Lockwood, President of the Design Management Institute and editor of this volume, this “is essentially a human-centered innovation process that emphasizes observation, collaboration, fast learning, visualization of ideas, rapid concept prototyping, and concurrent business analysis, which ultimately influences innovation and business strategy.” So, design thinking is a new way of thinking that builds on careful mapping of consumer needs, collaborative visualization of alternative solutions and rapid prototyping of emerging concepts, with the ultimate aim to generate more compelling customer experiences and toncontribute to businesses’ top line growth. And the approach seems to work even when dealing with the big societal problems, which “don’t need necessarily big solutions” (says Lockwood) but just a complete “reframing”. Sounds good. However, I feel that this book overstretches in its ambition to sell the concept of design thinking.

First, although it starts with a grandiloquent dedication to the design thinkers of today who contribute to the need for social, economic and environmental improvement “with a spirit of goodness”, there is precious little evidence in this volume of designers’ ability to tackle the big issues and the associated dilemmas. The book consists of 23 short essays, grouped in four sections. The first section is devoted to more general issues of design culture and design management. Paradoxically, despite the grand ambitions designers have been under increasing pressure to justify the value they bring to the business. Hence the need for creating a culture that is sympathetic to design and to develop tools to manage a design organisation and to visualise its value-added. This is for me the most interesting part of the book, with valuable contributions from key people in the design community (Brigitte Borja de Mozota, Rachel Cooper and Heather Fraser). The latter part of the book focuses on “Building Brands”, “Service Design” and “Customer Experiences” respectively. Most of the stuff discussed here by design and brand consultants squarely belongs to the remit of traditional, commercially-driven design. For those wanting a compendium of contemporary design practices in these realms, the book may offer a few interesting nuggets. But in my opinion reading about how the re-introduction of the colour yellow in Coke’s visual identity re-energised the brand is a disappointing contrast with the lofty ambition to reframe some of the big issues of our time.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that design thinking by definition translates in the ability to fundamentally reframe strategic challenges. The toolbox is rich in observational and visualisation tools but rather light on the more conceptual side of the practice. Designers are only just coming to grips with sophisticated instruments such as future scenarios and systems analysis. These are tools that talented strategists have been using for decades (for example, Richard Normann’s “Reframing Business” and Ramirez and Normann’s “Designing Interactive Strategy” ought to be part of each design thinker’s curriculum). If design wants to steer away from the anecdotal and really wants to come to grips with the systemic, it will have to build on systems thinking and strategy development as rich and venerable disciplines in their own right.

Finally, it seems to me the scope of design thinking ought to be fundamentally critical. When design simply parrots the brainless hyperbole that is so distinctive of much of the management literature it becomes bland and superfluous. When it succumbs to capitalist orthodoxy it becomes just another clever way of social engineering. The stakes introduced by design thinking are of an altogether different order. In Bruce Mau’s seminal “Life Style”, Sanford Kwinter argued that design’s mission was “to free life of routine, to place it into syncopation so that it can find new, entirely unexpected patterns of unfolding.” Hence, “what is most beautiful about it, in fact, might well be its potential to magnify risk”. This is as antithetical to controlling, risk-averse corporate logic as you can get. For me, design thinking is an ethos rather than “a process”. It is basically about adopting a voluntaristic, pragmatically utopian stance. Design thinking is the desire to flee fatalism, “analysis by paralysis”, the straightjacket of the bottom-line and “death by committee” by taking on an almost Nietzschean, heroically-affirmative position. To authentically defend that position from within a discipline that is to a large extent legitimised by the corporate world and provides global capitalism with its “lingua franca” (products, images) comes with interesting paradoxes and dilemmas. Bruce Mau, in his “Life Style”, wrestled openly with those issues. However, Lockwood’s “Design Thinking” does not, which is why ultimately the argument is much less compelling than it could have been. 3 stars.

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