Design Thinking

“Of course I know what Design Thinking is…”

I thought I knew what Design Thinking was.

I did, sort of. But in researching another topic it suddenly dawned on me that I had, without even realizing it, partially merged (“conflated” as someone more polished would say) the concepts of Design Thinking and Software Design.

Software Design is a highly satisfying intellectual exercise, a game that anyone from an Excel maven to a Kubernetes expert can engage in. Is it fundamentally different from Design Thinking? They both have the word “design” in them after all. I thought I should look at what “design” means.

According to Oxford Languages, “design” means
1. a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made.
“he has just unveiled his design for the new museum”
2. an arrangement of lines or shapes created to form a pattern or decoration.
“pottery with a lovely blue and white design”
verb
1. decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.
“a number of architectural students were designing a factory”

Software Design seems to be definition number 1 as a noun, and number 1 as a verb as well (“I designed some software.”). It interested me to note that when I talk about Software Design, I’m using the same definition of “design” as someone talking about interior design, floral design, or course design. This was both sensible and at the same time vaguely humbling. It was also a revealing. All these disciplines design things. Each has principles and techniques.

Was this the same with “Design Thinking?”

It certainly has lots of practices, lots of techniques and principles. But in this case, they seemed to apply to designing basically anything.

All of this may seem trivial, but I was trying to peel apart and really clarify my understanding of this Design Thinking thing as compared with other design activities.

I arrived at the obvious, but with greater clarity on it: Design Thinking is a way of thinking about design. The practices of Design Thinking are about helping you perceive possibilities and new viewpoints; to help you truly observe, no matter what domain you’re involved in.

This clarifying simplicity hadn’t been apparent to me because of my own underlying and unexamined assumptions about Design itself. Amazingly, it has changed my viewpoint considerably. I can now see that despite my own best intentions, I have sometimes still been too eager to impose a solution early. I can see it in equally well-intended colleagues as well. We have “known” about Design Thinking, but to some degree have viewed it as “another technique,” albeit an impressive one; not one to create inspection of our viewpoints on solving problems. This is the same behavior we sometimes criticize in others who ritualize Scrum and other practices but don’t internalize the mindset of Agile. I’m now another degree less urgent about “being right” and another degree more curious.

As modern technology stretches the horizon on what is possible and as the use of low- and no-code application development grows, Design Thinking is becoming central to conceiving and evolving solutions. The rate at which big corporations are acquiring Design firms is one indicator of this fact (Big Companies are Acquiring Design Firms in Droves). It has a key role in keeping attention focused on the customer and outcomes. Any company is wise to begin incorporating Design Thinking-based problem solving across all aspects of its organization and its approach to clients if it hasn’t started doing so already.

So having concluded I didn’t understand Design Thinking as well as I had thought, I took another hard look and emerged the better for it. As luck would have it, in the process I stumbled on what might be the best summary of Design Thinking I’ve encountered to date, one from the Interaction Design Institute.

To all Design Thinkers, I applaud you. To those of you still kicking the tires, I highly recommend the trip.

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