Design Thinking Combat Zone: Undermining Decades of Industry Progress

img_5489Recently the design community has developed a giant central rift over the concept of Design Thinking. There are those who absolutely love Design Thinking, what it stands for, and practical applications they’ve been able to employ in their workplaces.

There are others who are blowing the whistle on Design Thinking and are trying to explain the reasons why, “It doesn’t exist.”

Here’s the thing. For decades, designers have been silo-ed away in dark rooms and viewed as tortured artists. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an artist, in fact, many designers are incredible artists, but their skillsets also extend far beyond. Designers are problem solvers, business leaders, execs, founders, innovators driving the future of technology, the list goes on.

Design Thinking really took off because for the first time in decades, designers had a way to explain and then clearly demonstrate why they should be permitted to exit the dark room and contribute to the high level conversations. Instead of being given instructions on what to create, they were given the opportunity to actually design solutions to the problems companies and clients were facing.

Design Thinking gave designers the vehicle they needed to have conversations with C-level staffers around why they needed a (I hate this phrase so much but I’m going to use it here for dramatic effect… wait for it…) seat at the table. (Blech. But You get the idea.)

Prior to Design Thinking taking off, it was EXTREMELY difficult for designers to break out of the design room into a space where they could help guide business decisions.

And the companies that embraced design leadership and let them join the conversation? They have been making it rain when quarterly earnings reports come around.

Not going to lie, you hear the occasional horror story about how a company embraced a really terrible design leader and wrote off the entire industry as a result. But those stories are few and far between these days given the high bar put forth by the industry.

Talented design leaders are absolutely crushing it right now in senior staffer positions.

So what’s the big deal about this whole Design Thinking fight? Who cares right? It’s conceptual.

Except it’s not folks. Design Thinking is the crowbar that opened the door to enterprise companies letting designers in to help guide business decisions in addition to product design decisions. People who are discounting it now, aren’t discounting it in a designer only vacuum.

Enterprise companies and C-level leaders are now paying more attention to the design industry than ever before. This argument that previously may have gone unnoticed beyond our immediate design community is being seen by C-level staffers and they’re starting to question their investments in design leadership in general. They aren’t paying attention to the nuances of the language being used, they’re just seeing a headline that says Design Thinking is dead. Then they’re giving their design leaders the side eye in board meetings. We’re undermining our own industry, and we need to knock that ish off before we sink ourselves back into the dark silo-ed off hole from whence we came.

If we want to fight about nomenclature, and specifics, and concepts surrounding methodology and what is and isn’t design, it’s fine. If we want to redefine Design Thinking, and create new terms and descriptors it’s cool. But loudly and proudly shouting that Design Thinking is BS, is… well it’s BS. It needs to stop before any more damage is done to designers on the threshold of pushing through to having the opportunity to make their products better from the top down.

And seriously, there are still enormous enterprise companies that don’t even HAVE product designers. At all. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

So designers, let’s not distract ourselves so much with internal arguments that we lose our footing in the corporate world. We can evolve our thinking, adjust our methods and keep moving forward without cutting each other down. Let’s just do our best to keep kicking ass in the board room and keep our sights on our mission as an industry: Improving the world around us for the next generation, one project at a time.

“Why do you love design?”

20979-1kcz3nstckx3uygpfkz9eyaTonight I was chatting with a friend, and he asked a question that comes up with my friends and family on a fairly regular basis: “Why do you love being a designer so much?”

Normally I ramble off a long list of detailed reasons, most of which include design jargon and acronyms. This time I decided to break it down into 8 easy to digest one liners. They went something like this:

Being a designer is amazing because…

  • Creating something that didn’t previously exist is intoxicating
    It’s kind of like having kids. First there’s an idea. Then over time it turns into this amazing thing that exists, and you are its creator.
  • Designing products and features is completely addictive
    Once you been bitten by the design bug, you’re a lifer.
  • Solving people’s problems is incredibly rewarding
    When you’re starting a new feature or product, you’re trying to solve a problem for a specific audience. You research, you interview, you do kick off meetings, all of these things are to make sure that you’re solving the right problem. Once you’ve nailed it down, you start brainstorming all of the zillion ways you could go about solving that problem, until you find the magic one: the square peg to fill the square hole.
  • There is always something exciting to look forward to
    No matter how much you love a design, you’re proud and excited for about 30 seconds when it’s done. Then you hit 31 seconds and you’re consumed by thinking of all of the enhancements/changes you want to make in the next iteration, which is just as exciting.
  • You will never, ever know everything
    As a designer you learn new tips and tricks and find new tools every single day. Trends change, new tech is created, new languages are written, tools are enhanced, tools disappear, you have to enjoy being a life long learner to survive in this profession.
  • Design inspiration is EVERYWHERE
    Everywhere you look, you’re taking in detail and drawing inspiration. There are the expected places, like design blogs, sites like Dribbble, beautiful collections of inspiring design on sites like Muz.li, etc. But the main source of design inspiration comes from EVERYTHING — the shade of the orange on your countertop, the shape of a lamp post, the design on a comforter, the shading created by a shadow on the sidewalk, the vibrance of flower petals — there is a never ending stream of inspiration everywhere you look.
  • You see the world around you differently than other humans, and want to fix all of the things
    As a designer, in addition to seeing inspiration everywhere you look, you see things that need to be fixed. Poorly designed doors are your nemesis. Oddly arranged grocery store layouts give you a twitch. Menu’s with terrible font choices are cringeworthy. Kerning in school holiday performance programs can be painful to look at. And it’s not negativity driving these observations, it’s a deeply rooted need to fix these things that makes them stand out. You constantly imagine ways to improve the world around you. And when you get to act on those thoughts? It’s a great day.
  • You’re always surrounded by a deeply passionate, supportive community of like minded people
    Being a designer means you’re part of something big. Designers understand each other because we process the world around us in similarly different ways. It makes us close knit in a way that other professions don’t seem to understand. The design community is a family that celebrates thinking outside the box, and imagining that the impossible is possible. We embrace this line of thinking because all of the most innovative creations have come from designers making impossible things exist.

After I rattled off my quick list, my friend seemed to really get it.

His response was, “I’m pretty jealous that you found a career that you love so much. Most people never get to experience that feeling.”

He’s absolutely right. Having the opportunity to design for a living is a magnificent gift.