Think bigger than design thinking

20 June 12

The title of a June 7th article in the Wall Street Journal tells us to: “Forget B-School, D-School is Hot”.

Which is quite the opposite of what the article actually conveys. The real news in the story, and it’s good news, is that companies are hungry to integrate design (the D) into their business practices (the B) – not to replace one with the other. They are looking for fresh, creative ways to solve their challenges, more participatory than the typical client of outside talent role, more integral than the services agencies traditionally provide. They are choosing to work creatively to envision and realize a new future for themselves. In short, they want to become creative business people.

This is a giant step forward. Business has not always recognized the value of design. For this alone we should be deeply grateful to IDEO, the D School at Stanford, and to Hasso Plattner. Thank you.

But the comparison of D school to B school is a tired one by now. It worked initially to illuminate the option of an alternative; but now it is time to harness the full potential of the integration of business and design  rather than continuing to fuel a competition.

“Design Thinking” seems to have become the tool of choice for “problem solving”. Great beginning, but problem solving is only one dimension of design. Just as making is another dimension of design. To continue isolating these parts of the system of design methodology is to miss the potential for the whole of what design can accomplish. It’s time to think bigger than that.

Most of our understanding of the critical issues we face comes from silos of expertise – from voices deep in complex, nuanced fields that are impenetrable to most people, and that often contradict each other, either by choice or by the ignorance of disconnection. This leads us to define systemic issues narrowly: Poverty is about money, women’s rights are about laws, health care is about access. Design is about thinking. And we wonder why our efforts don’t work.

What is missing is a systemic view – a view that includes but transcends the silos, that makes relationships visible and information accessible, that creates not only the tools to change dynamics but the desire to engage with them.

Design is thinking (duh), strategy, mapping, modeling, creating tools to compare and evaluate, playing, craft, engineering, implementing, aligning communities around a shared vision, making artifacts that become part of people’s daily lives, creating identities for people, companies, cities, countries that help them see themselves in new contexts, and with new possibilities. Design is social. It is public, engaging people in ideas. It works at scales, and with ideas the affect multitudes of people through theater, exhibits, public platforms and programs. Design inspires people, wakes them up, and invites them to discover things about themselves and the world that they might otherwise not have known or seen. And as with any system, it is more than the sum of its parts.

In Creation, E.O. Wilson says that if scientists could focus on the problem to be solved instead of their own prescribed and specialized approach to it, we would be a lot further along in our ability to find answers. Of course they can’t, because it is not the nature of the scientific process.

But it is the nature of design: a process for seeing unconnected things in new relationships to each other, for visualizing a desired end-state that can be shared, for getting from A to B when you are not quite sure what B is. At its best, design is the creative expression of ideas that inspire new thinking and behavior, new ways of participating.

At the School of Visual Arts in New York we have developed a program that integrates design with business, science, nature and enterprise. We do not reduce design to sound bytes, nor separate it from the contexts or purpose where it has the greatest impact. We believe design has the potential to engage all of us in creating a more resilient world, and that it will take all of design to do that.

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