The Design Thinking Party Is Over

By Harold Hambrose


It's time to get to work (and deliver value).

25 years ago, designers would get together and we'd moan that no one was listening. From a drafty loft studio in NYC's SOHO, in our black mock turtlenecks and black jeans we would toil over just the right leading on a block of type on the side of box. We'd hop on the F train to visit our clients' Midtown offices – a place as foreign to us as the suits that our clients were wearing. "Why doesn't industry understand how important design is? Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if designers had a seat at the table? Ahh, the things we could do if design was a meaningful part of these companies." Be careful what you wish for. Having survived the dizzying design thinking trend of the past few years, design now seems to be everywhere – sitting at every table.But is it still design? And is everyone now a designer?

10 or so years ago, someone or something threw a bright light onto design. Maybe it was the perfect storm of Steve Jobs' iPod, David Kelley's IDEO, and the Design Within Reach catalog full of the beautiful work of mid-century designers. Heck, maybe it was the Kardashians and their flogging the latest designer fashions. Suddenly industry was keen to have design and designers, and all the success they had brought Apple, Eames and Chanel. Design sure sounded like it could be the silver bullet of innovation that is industry's Holy Grail. And designers were more than happy to hop on board the trend.

What does design look like now? With so many practitioners and titles, so many applications, tools and techniques, should we be thinking of design the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward described pornography: "…I know it when I see it?" Design is a verb, a noun, an outcome, a means to an end. It is confusing. Perhaps it is time to go back to the design educators, design experts, card-carrying designers who remember design before there was a computer involved and to remind ourselves that despite all the noise and excitement around design today, its oldest definition may be the most relevant today.

Who is a designer anyway? It may not be a popular thing to say, but today's popular Design Thinking workshops do not a designer make. There has been plenty written about the egalitarian notion that if you are human being, and you have any capacity for problem solving, then you are a designer. I am sorry, this just isn't true. All problems and problem solvers are not created equal. And earning a design degree is no easy thing to do. Designers come in a variety of skill sets. Have mastery of specific techniques. They rarely work alone. And they don't work exclusively with other designers.

Where's the value? Designers have never been very good at quantifying the value of their work. Qualitatively, yes. But putting hard numbers to our effect has never been a big focus (or much of an ability) for most designers. Unless designers make measuring and reporting quantitative effect a natural part of their design process, the music may stop playing and our recently won seat at the corporate table will be no more.

There's disappointment out there in the unfulfilled promises of design thinking. This is a continuation of the confusion that has always surrounded design and designers. Only this time, it was designers that created the confusion. The design thinking party is over.