A look at Design Thinking – and how it’s not a milk cow

Vitruvian ManThe phrase “Design Thinking” is getting bounced around a lot, and for a while I found it a bit puzzling. I didn’t understand how it differed from regular thinking. Then today I read Rick Wise’s succinct (if perhaps oversimplified) definition in the FastCompany blog and realized the reason the phrase puzzled me was because is regular thinking. At least for me.

“At heart … it is about fusing the creative and open-ended with the analytical and operational, combining very different ways of thinking and acting. This is, of course, easier in theory than in practice. How do you get children’s book authors and chemical engineers to click into something greater than the sum of the parts–rather than devolve into warring camps?”

Like Rick Wise says, “Everyone’s a bit of everything.” Few people are all creative or all analytical. But I have been lucky enough to build my skills in both realms to a point where they are balanced and integrated.

Mostly from being in the right place at the right time, I’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities for education. My first degree was in visual art, a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington , D.C. It was a marvelous experience that I still treasure years later. But after that first degree, I was too curious to call it quits on tertiary education. Next up I studied philosophy and linguistics at the University of Auckland, and received rigorous training in analytical reasoning. It was sometimes difficult and dry, but I knew I needed the skills. Then after that experience, I went back to art, and did an MFA at Portland State University.

Now, as a business-owner and strategist/designer, the combination of inspired+creative  and rational+analytical is an enormous asset. I am able to help clients strategize their brand and website to fit their organization’s goals, I’m able to meticulously plan timelines and budgets, and I’m able to maintain big-picture perspective during a project. In this analytical realm, decisions get made based on looking at premises, and following them to their conclusion. This is what we have now. Over there is the outcome we want. This is what will happen if we change what we have by doing X. Will that give us the outcome we want? No? Return to the premises and start over. Maybe? Tweak the variables until an acceptable level of probability is achieved.

But during the project, I will switch gears and be the designer. It’s a new set of decisions to make, but they mostly happen on the visceral level. Color palette? Hmmm. Uh. Er. Oooh…. Ah!

Choosing photos? Too gloomy. Too cute. Too green. Almost, but too wide. Will it crop well? No. But this one will…nice.

Creative decisions are made split-second fast, and it’s later that I go back and find reasons for them — which I need to do when presenting design decisions to clients.

Client: Of the three color palettes you’ve shown us, which do you think is the best for our organization, and why?

Me: Option three is the best. The intensity of the palette visually supports the vibrancy of your organization. You fund organizations that educate children in energy-intensive ways. However, your website audience is adults, not children, so while the colors are bright, it’s a sophisticated adult palette, not a play-school or candy-bright palette.

Client: “I see what you mean, yeah…” 

The FastCompany post focuses on how Design Thinking is done at a particular firm, Lippincott, which is much larger than Blue Mouse Monkey, with eight offices worldwide. Design Thinking impacts not just client strategy, but how their whole company is structured and how staff are coached, and how they are paid. I can only say as a creative and as a business-owner, am inspired by Lippincott’s priorities and strategies.

However, Design Thinking has its critics. When taken as not simply a vague label to describe the ability to blend “left-brain” and “right-brain” problem-solving (over-simplified terms in themselves) and is used instead to mean a specific methodology or process to “get more value” from staff, then it can become a mere trick, applied externally to people situations to provoke them to be different from how they are. A type of provocation that can easily fail. Bruce Nussbaum, also in a FastCompany blog post, outlines his criticisms of Design Thinking, and calls for a new conceptual framework he calls the “Creative Quotient.” His recent book is Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire.

I have not read the book so can’t comment. But all this talk of finding the right way to “harness” creativity makes me a just a tiny bit queasy.

As Thomas Frank says in his article, TED talks are lying to you, “The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives?”

He goes on: “Those who urge us to “think different” … almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.”

Creative minds, says Frank, are treated like they can be “harnessed” and then are supposed to “do their nonlinear thing” and out of that flows “epiphanies and solutions” that make corporations rich.

Thing is, creativity doesn’t work that way.

Not to say that corporations haven’t gotten rich from epiphanies and solutions arrived at by creative people. As Frank says, “Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature.”

But it can’t happen by applying a formula. What the writers on creativity fail to mention is the role of intuition. And that intuition can’t be forced. Sure, it can be encouraged and developed, but it can’t be imposed. It simply doesn’t work that way.

The corporations that get rich from some creative insight are lucky. They had the right people at the right time. Other corporations might have the right people at the right time, or they might not. When it works, it’s not because of the application of a formula, it’s because of a serendipitous set of circumstances. As much as corporations want to control variables, and “harness” intangibles, there is no way to reduce the creative process to a repeatable formula. You might invent the Swiffer, or you might not.

Keep trying, sure. Don’t give up. But don’t expect to corral the ethereal, evanescent, weightless nature of creative inspiration like you might a cow that you expect to give milk at will.