Photo: Lori Tingey via Flickr
Lately the “what is design” debate has flared up again. Or maybe it never went away and I just stopped paying attention. In any case, after reading Helen Walters’ thoughtful (but slightly misinformed and confusing) piece a few days ago and following some of the links she includes, it appears to me that there is still a LOT of confusion.It’s really not that difficult. Design is both science and art. It involves building toward a defined set of goals and requirements following a process, and it involves inspiration and judgment. Some people have a talent for it, others less so.
This is no different than, say, investment banking, in which a lot of things can be measured and processed, but success often depends on insight, inspiration and the skills needed to build relationships.
Of course, a lot of people think that design is the practice of making things beautiful. Something that you can choose to do, or not. Like in “design furniture.” Some Designers, on the other hand, claim that they are special, and that you have to be some kind of genius to do it well. And they claim they are not appreciated enough in the business world.
Both of them are missing the point. Of course, a big part of design has to do with aesthetics. And for good reason, because aesthetics are an important part of life. But design in its essence deals with how something works and how it’s built much more than the aesthetics that follow from it.
Design is fundamentally an integrative approach. You can’t not design a couch. You can do it badly, though. And, as mentioned before design is largely something you can learn, though it takes something else to be as good as Yves Behar. The very reason design is supposedly under-appreciated happens when designers act like geniuses, who will not compromise or listen to the rational side of things. Design is, after all, a business enterprise.
Don Norman writes that the way Amazon and Google etc. test the best design for their sites is bad design. Not design.
Not so. Item placement according to statistics and data is good business sense. The process that led to a website that is still usable and agreeable to look at, even though a computer controls what goes where, is design.
Enter “design thinking.” This is the silly name people gave to applying design processes and ‘way of working’ to other problems. It means that you can also design something that is not a product, a magazine, or a website. You can design things for which aesthetics are not even part of the problem. A service, or an entire business model. Design thinking is, obviously, the new black. But, to quote Peter Merholz:
The supposed dichotomy between “business thinking” and “design thinking” is foolish. It’s like the line from The Blues Brothers, in response to the question “What kind of music do you usually have here?” The woman responds, “We got both kinds. We got country and western.” Instead, what we must understand is that in this savagely complex world, we need to bring as broad a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives to bear on whatever challenges we have in front of us. While it’s wise to question the supremacy of “business thinking,” shifting the focus only to “design thinking” will mean you’re missing out on countless possibilities.
This is where it gets interesting. The world has become more complex. Problems are more hairy than they used to be. The competition has increased, as has the number of competitors. The amount of things you have to consider and do right is way bigger. Increasingly, “business” cannot exist without “design.” But the reverse is equally true.
I don’t think there any question to the value of design, nor of the value of the associated skill set. In fact, I think that design is about to become more and more of a broadly available skill. More and more people are, like myself, trained in both business and design.
The problem is in how and where these people apply their skills.
And so I have to concur with Mrs. Walters, that it’s time for the design world to step up, and start creating businesses, built following the methods of design thinking. I’ve been saying this for quite a while now: designers need to stop being consultants and start being business people.
I’m not sure what to call someone who’s both a businessman and a designer, but I’m convinced that businesses built on the principles of “design thinking,” that thus have a fundamental quality to create and run well considered, integrated experiences for their customers, will be the ones that are best geared to compete in an ever faster, more complex and more interconnected future.
Maybe we should just call it “innovation”? ;-)
- Helen Walters – The 7 biggest challenges in merging design and business
- Kevin McCullagh – Stepping Up
- Peter Merholz -Why design thinking won’t save you
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