From ARCADE Issue 31.4. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Design & Thinking
2012, US
Production Studio: Muris Media
Director: Mu-Ming Tsai
Producers: YuHsiu Yang, Melissa Huang

Design & Thinking Still

The term “design thinking” is not new; it has been used in the architecture and design professions in various ways since the 1970s. In the past decade, however, the term has become shorthand for the idea that designers approach problem solving and innovation in ways that have relevance beyond the design fields.

The filmmakers from San Francisco who made the 2012 documentary Design & Thinking were able to interview some of the most respected advocates for design thinking today: David Kelley, one of the founders of both the design firm IDEO and the Institute of Design at Stanford (the; the late Bill Moggridge, cofounder of IDEO, then director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; Tim Brown, the current CEO of IDEO; and Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

Brown and Martin have each written a book about design thinking, and Brown offers the film’s most succinct definition of the term: “Applying the methodologies and approaches of design and designers to a broader set of issues and problems in business and society.”

Those design methodologies include using observation, “ethnography” and other kinds of user research to understand human needs, and looking at how various societal systems relate to each other. Design thinking itself, according to Moggridge, is a process of several steps: making creative leaps to solve a problem, representing those leaps with prototypes and then choosing between versions to develop concepts. This approach – learning by doing – allows interdisciplinary teams of designers and non-designers to solve problems together using both explicit thinking and tacit knowledge.

The film tells us that design thinking has the potential to help solve grave problems in the world, but the examples the filmmakers chose don’t adequately convey the breadth or depth of the issues design thinking can be used for.

Another overall problem with Design & Thinking is that it offers no narration to guide viewers other than quotations from the various “talking heads.” As valuable as many of those are, there are limitations to this method of storytelling. The quotes alone often aren’t pointed enough to tell the full story, and several speakers admit on screen that they’ve never heard of design thinking before. (Their remarks are among many things in the film that don’t belong there.)

Speaker after speaker talks about the value of prototyping – testing ideas quickly and cheaply – and failing fast in order to ultimately succeed. Martin describes how liberating it is for business students – who are trained to be analytical and “get the right answer” – to learn these lessons from designers. It would have been instructive for the film to follow even one case study that shows this happening.

Though the film doesn’t say so, the design thinking trend has been understandably attractive to corporate leaders, who are under pressure to spur their companies to innovate or risk becoming irrelevant. Design thinking held the promise of being a predictable process that businesses could adopt to improve their chances of creating innovative products, services and experiences.

For the design professions, having business and other fields embrace design thinking has been mostly positive because it has positioned design as a practice offering substantive knowledge rather than one that mainly makes things pretty. Still, some designers feel that wider acceptance by business and society has come at a price: that the emphasis on business process and strategy has diluted the contribution of the individual designer and the use of interdisciplinary teams has relegated the designer to facilitating group process as much as designing.

The biggest danger of design thinking though, as Martin says in the film, is that people try to reduce it to a formula and in the process lose most of the value of design. Evidently this has happened in many cases, which is one of the reasons that Bruce Nussbaum (formerly at Businessweek, now professor of innovation and design at Parsons, The New School of Design) declared two years ago that design thinking had already delivered all the benefits it had to offer.

Other writers at the time disagreed. Author and anthropologist Grant McCracken, though critical of the quality of ethnography used by designers, argued that design thinking was needed more than ever, and, indeed, two years later design thinking is still with us.

One theme of Design & Thinking is that design thinking can be used by all kinds of people. (The film opens with shots of protestors in the Occupy movement, a populist reference, though hardly the best example of design thinking.) Whether or not large corporations abandon design thinking for the next management trend, there’s no doubt that design thinking, based as it is on a long-tested process, will still offer much of value, particularly in the public and nonprofit realms. There are far more serious issues in the world in need of attention than there are design thinkers to work on them.