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Design Vs. Design Thinking.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on October 09, 2007

We’re having an excellent conversation about design and design thinking and I’d really like it to continue. If you missed Christopher Fahey’s recent comment, please read it here. It’s an important contribution to the discussion.

“Here’s an idea: A young person goes to an art school or a design school to learn design hands-on among designer peers, then they get a job in the real world to learn about business, then if they work hard and pay attention in a few years they flower into what you call a “design thinker”.

Or they go to a business school and then start messing around with Photoshop, HTML and CSS, Visio or CAD, pencil and paper, or whatever design tools they can. They get a job in the real world working closely with designers. They actually practice design more and more — they “pay their dues”. And then, again, after a few years of work and dedication they also blossom into a “design thinker”.

Bruce, I agree with you that design will more and more be the driving force behind business decisions, and I agree that business leaders with a deep understanding of design values and processes will have an edge in the future over their peers who do not. Which makes it all the more perplexing why you consistently advocate creating and cultivating the next generation of design managers through training them in business, not design, skillsets — instead of cultivating business skills among those who already have strong foundation design talents and skills. Is it not obvious to you that these emerging design-conscious business leaders might be most profitably drawn from the ranks of, say, *designers*?

I’m not sure how someone with what is basically a business education and a smattering of hands-on design education is being trained to be a design leader (what’s worse, many d-school programs seem to have no hands-on design whatsoever). As a design leader, I wouldn’t hire anyone to directly manage designers who didn’t actually have expert-level hands-on design skills. I fear that your d-schools are not training people to be hired by the innovative designers who are ascending through corporate America today — they are, perhaps, actually training people to be hired by the MBAs the real design leaders are replacing.

Or maybe the subtext of your platform is that, despite all the hype around the value of design thinking, it’s still just a subset of business thinking. Which might explain why we designers are constantly perplexed and put off by the whole idea.

I’m not trying to throw a Molotov cocktail here, but I’ve always found this “design thinking” thing confusing because you and others never explain what role designers — people who sit down with pencil and paper, mouse and screen, and actually design things — have to play in the design thinking equation. I personally think the role they (we) will have to play is profound and unprecedented in scope — but what do *you* think? It would be great to hear your thoughts about design thinking as it pertains to someone who might not be an MBA — e.g., for a *designer*.”

Basically, Fahey asks what is the role of the designer in the new field of design thinking. In my back-and-forths with Pentagram’s Michael Beirut at the Design Observer and other design folks, this is a major issue. In our discussion over the One Laptop Per Child, it developed as a key issue. And it’s a critical issue in design education as well.

My own current thinking is that designers must play a critical role in the creation of this new field of design thinking. The whole core culture of design is essential to design thinking. In fact, I would argue that the rise of Web 2.0 and social networking reinforces the traditional design focus on empathy and integration—human factors, the user interface, culture. Web 2.0 technology is behind the boost to design in the corner office as businesses delve more deeply into the lives of their customers—who are demanding to be part of the process of creating and designing stuff. Social media reinforce their desire to participate.

But design thinking is such a new field that it’s not clear whether design schools or business schools will develop the formal concepts and methodologies that turn it into a broad, deep and powerful tool of organizational change.

The fact is that design thinking (or whatever we wind up calling this new field) is being created at the borders of design, business, engineering and even marketing. And I don’t know which institutions will take the lead in promoting it. We have the Stanford D-School, the IIT Institute of Design. and the Rotman School of Management in Toronto taking early leads in developing design thinking. The California College of the Arts is offering an MBA in Design Strategy.

But, as the list of 60 schools and programs shows, there are many more institutions in Europe and Asia working in the fields and many, many partnerships across the boundaries of design, engineering and business. No one really know how or where design thinking will take shape—only that it is.

Nick Leon director of Design London, the new program that links the Royal College of Art, the Tanaka Business School and Imperial College of London, thinks the term “design thinking” is ridiculous. Business people roll their eyes at “thinking.” He wants more rigor and prefers the term “design method.” OK by me.

I don’t think design thinking is a subtext of management science or the traditional stuff they teach in B-Schools. But many business schools are moving to integrate design and innovation into their curricula and teaching. Where the best research on all this develops, I don’t know. Right now I read the great stuff from the Design Management Institute, Rotman Magazine, the Harvard Business Review and the Innovation & Design channel—and a growing number of well-informed blogs. Here are just a handful. Experientia. Metacool. Logic + Emotion.

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Reader Comments

Christopher Fahey

October 9, 2007 11:37 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Bruce.

Others have also noted to me that there are healthy number of "real" design schools in the BW list of 60, but the bias still seems to be weighted heavily towards "teaching design to businesspeople" and not so much about "teaching business to designers". As you suggest above, it should be both.

Yet you wrote: "But design thinking is such a new field that it's not clear whether design schools or business schools will develop the formal concepts and methodologies that turn it into a broad, deep and powerful tool of organizational change."

I hate to see it as a contest, but the B-Schools *are* winning this one, judging by the leading players and the topics in the "design thinking" conversation. My concern is that almost none of the most prominent design thinking conversations even bother to address what young *designers* are learning in school or what practicing professional designers do at their jobs. It's all about what business students and business leaders are doing and learning. In fact it often denigrates design (I'm going to kill someone the next time I hear "Design is too important to be left to designers". Can we put an end to that rhetoric, please?). What's worse, designers are often all too happy to nod their heads and agree that "designers suck" and that we don't understand business -- even as businesses increasingly emulate our methodologies and processes!

I'd like to see more of a two-way genuinely cross-disciplinary bridge. Right now it feels more one-way, even parasitic: business disciplines extracting what is useful from the design disciplines (sketching! abductive reasoning!) without offering anything to us in return.

I'd like to see a mentorship model to permit designers (real sketchbook-carrying, pixel pushing designers) to increasingly and steadily understand business and management over the long term of their careers. Perhaps this is something that should be the responsibility of people like me, management-level designers who have direct influence on the careers of younger designers, but it would be great to also get some overt and designer-centric support from folks like you.

This goes especially for schools: I teach a bit about business processes when I teach interaction design (in art school), in the hopes that some art student will eventually manage a design-savvy business (as I do). I've long thought this movement (from designing to managing and business strategizing) was an emerging trend anyway, but the d-schools seem to be nipping that trend in the bud. (I could be wrong here -- are there any examples of design schools incorporating/co-opting business courses into their curricula in a kind of "business thinking" mirror image of the "design thinking" pedagogy?)

Despite being told that they suck, however, more and more designers are learning about business on their own and they are moving up the ranks in business and management. My friend Jess McMullin even goes so far as proposing that Jonathan Ive should be Steve Jobs's successor at Apple [1]. Historically, it's not uncommon at all for the CEO of a corporation to come from the ranks of the grunts who produce the actual product, so in an ecosystem where the product is design- or user-experience-based above all else, isn't it natural to look to designers to lead those companies? It is already happening. Will we support and cultivate such a trend, or not? That's the question. It could be fun!


Bruce Nussbaum

October 9, 2007 11:58 PM

Thanks for continuing the conversation. I actually do believe that more designers will become CEOs and top managers as we move forward. Why--now this will really get me in trouble--right now (and this may change) it may be easier for creative folks who "get" design to learn business management than it is for business folks to really learn the core precepts of design. But they must want to and it's not clear just how many designers--and design schools-- really want to move into the management space, or design thinking for that matter. After all, designing beautiful, useful objects is a wondrous thing. I see CCA is now offering an MBA and the MFA is already being talked about as the new MBA so...let's see where this all takes us.
As for "designers suck," they don't and never have and all the work at Business Week done with design proves that. I used the term just to provoke a conversation in a speech to a group of design students and it worked--we have a great talk about green design and other things.

Design Crux

October 10, 2007 01:52 AM

Interesting. This is about where I was on the topic ...five years ago.

Since then I've put together a 'unified field theory' response to just about everything you talk about here, including what's next.

Designers have great contributions to make, from systems-thinking, to contextual design. Unfortunately most can't even begin to articulate how you brand through design rather than slapping a logo onto a finished design.

David Armano

October 10, 2007 02:46 AM

Bruce (and Chris) :-)

This is a terrific conversation, and Bruce—I'm glad you picked up on Chris' comment as he raises excellent points.

I referenced this topic in a recent thread on my blog citing Steve Jobs' "stay hungry, stay foolish" mantra. I believe design thinking whether it comes from the business or design side is critical. Actually, I don't give a crap which side it comes from, as long as it continues gaining momentum. Heck, I don't even care what we call it—as you've said before, let's call it a banana.

But please. Please don't limit this conversation to B-schools, D-schools or school in general. Please also acknowledge that the future of this "movement" depends on passion and evangelism that goes beyond the halls of academia as well as the halls of corporations.

Bruce, you mostly know of me from my writings and visuals, but when we meet up in early November—I'm bringing my Laptop with some real world examples/prototypes. Design thinking meets doing.

Look forward to discussing this more.


October 10, 2007 12:47 PM

Bruce and Christopher,

Why all this discussion about 'designers VS. business people'? The point is that the world requires more people who stand (and operate) exactly in the middle. Forget 'designers who turn business people' and vice versa. The marbles will go to people who are exactly inbetween.

Nobody is 'winning' anything. The fact that B-schools are making such a stampede these days just means they have more work to do.

The real testing ground is not the corporate context but life itself (and, for that matter, not just life in Anglo countries). If we are to start assessing design thinking along dimensions like the creation of social value, let's really start evaluating in THESE areas whether or not things are advancing.

Bruce Nussbaum

October 10, 2007 01:32 PM

I totally agree with you that the discussion over design and design thinking should include a wider space than D-Schools and B-Schools. In the recent Talent Hunt package, one of the examples we highlighted was the graduate advertising program, Adcenter at the Virginia Commonwealth University. This is a big issue with important implications for economy and society in general.

Hermes Hernandez

October 10, 2007 02:26 PM

Most"design thinker"Like one of my friends SAY...They and up Knowing Nothing about REAL DESIGN.
Hermes Hernandez Artist Painting New York


October 10, 2007 05:33 PM

Maybe it would help to reframe a bit. Instead of thinking about branding and logo slapping, consider the discipline involved in brand architecture; the tight, paintakingly drafted constraints of brand experience. Too much time is spent thinking about and discussing the end product, the label on the product or the package. More, much more, relies on all the design thinking and architecting that goes into disciplined delivery of brand benefits at every point of contact, from initial product concepting to storytelling to delivery to customer service/problem-solving. Even recycling. Few in business are trained to see the big picture form a schematic point of view. Designers, on other hand, live and breath it.

At least that's my experience.

Mark Schraad

October 10, 2007 06:04 PM

While the collection of methods, strategies and attitudes that constitute design thinking may be innate to design, they are not exclusive. As an engineer friend once said to me, "you don't own these", and he was right.

Designers who want to spend their careers designing things will likely continue to do so. Designers who want something else, will likely go on to apply design thinking to another field – maybe business. Why on earth should they not be encouraged to do so? Similarly, why shouldn't MBA's, engineers and others be encouraged to explore, learn and use these design thinking tools? Of course I wish designers were leading this charge and not the business schools, but so many design schools are head-in-the-sand, don’t make me learn new stuff stuck in craft.

The incorporation of teachings from design schools will not likely inspire future MBA's to start designing any more than they already do. The added familiarity and acceptance of these tools will benefit designers. With some newfound respect for our methods and strategies, designers will likely be better off.

I think it is silly to think we can hide the recipes.

Fred Collopy

October 10, 2007 07:46 PM

It would be sad to see this cast this as a design school vs. MBA contest. The problems the world faces today are, as Otto's post suggests, big enough that we need to draw on all available capabilities.

As business scholars, my colleagues and I have been interested for some time in the fact that great managers design. Like it or not, they must. Indeed, as Herb Simon noted in Sciences of the Artificial "Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." So the question we have put to scores of designers is "what can designers teach managers about how to do this well?" The ideas that show up in design thinking discussions are among the things that we have heard. But there are others.

This is a dialogue that must take place in support of the many other dialogues that are going on around issues of sustainability, political stability, institutional complexity, global wealth management, and more. Never have so many needed to know more about so much.


October 11, 2007 12:47 AM

I examined some of the questions involved in 'design thinking' here:

Managing design vs. managing designers vs. managing business

"If what designers want is more power to decide on some of the fundamental problems their organizations face, they can do that without having to become managers of organizational processes. But first, they have to be invited to the table — the table of strategic decision making."

Christopher Fahey

October 11, 2007 02:27 PM

I also hate to see this as an B vs. D thing, and I apologize if I came across that way. It's more that I think that practicioners and students of design are generally portrayed as the *inspiration* for design thinking, but not as the *customer* for it.

I think Kontra put his finger on it: Many designers feel like they have simply not been "invited to the table". To abuse the metaphor a little bit: It's like we've been invited to the dining room table to amuse and inspire the grownups at dinner, but we've not been invited to the board room table to participate in the real decision making. Design thinking doesn't seem to encourage designers to aim for that objective.

But honestly after thinking more this discussion I think it's not about waiting passively to be invited -- designers need to invite themselves.

Shimon Shmueli

October 11, 2007 04:28 PM

This discussion is really fascinating! While it has implications about what and how e-, d-, or e-schools (engineering) should teach, we should apply some of what is referred to as design approach and start first at the level of the teams that actually make products happen and then derive ideas about which schools should teach what and how. What are these teams? Ideally these teams are integrated, bringing all the relevant disciplines (marketing, design, engineering, manufacturing, supply chain, ethics & sustainability, etc.) to the table from the very early stages of the product development process all the way to its launch, post-launch, end-of-life, and beyond. In this context, design to a large extent is positioned between engineering and marketing, and for that very reason should take a larger responsibility and have a much bigger impact on what the end product is, and of course be equipped with management skills and authority to make the right decisions. The designer on the team is the one that should balance the requirements from marketing against what engineering can and cannot deliver, and design that product experience that is optimized to meet the goals set by management for that product (those goals, hopefully, often essentially, give a lot of weight to the customer, end-user, humanity, etc. etc.). Does this imply that it is a designer that should be the product manager or the one we should send back to school (and possibly he/she should be the one to be groomed to become our next CEO)? Not necessarily. The issue is not who went where to school, but what are his personality, aptitudes, and experience. Whoever he/she is, I would like to send him/her back to school in order to enhance and round up his/her skills. That implies a d-school with a good choice of integrative classes and ability to take some business or engineering classes, or the equivalent in a b-school or e-school. I would also like to see graduate programs that can balance e, b, and d, in an integrative way, call them the p-schools (p for product development). Last, from my experience in teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels as well as working in the industry, I strongly believe it would be a mistake to create a design-business hybrid at the undergraduate level. People without real-life industry and life experience simply don't have the maturity and big-picture view that is necessary to really understand the issues. At the undergraduate level you need to equip them with skills that will give them a good start in the industry and they can then build on that and even change course all together.

Fred Collopy

October 12, 2007 03:41 AM

As I was reading your last post, Christopher, I was chomping to type "who gets invited?" Alas, and happily, you beat me to that particular punch.

At the most recent CHI conference a bunch of designers were bellyaching about how they have been wanting to be part of the CxO suite for the last quarter century. I remember hearing the same sort of talk 25 years ago from information technology people. What sizable company doesn't have a CIO today? That happened, at least in part, because IT re-conceptualized itself in business terms, changing even its name and carreer paths. The CHI community (one designer community) showed then, and shows today, little stomach for such a reconsideration of itself.

Shimon, I wonder if the idea that something should be "optimized to meet the goals set by management for that product" doesn't trivialize management's contributions in much the way that Christopher suggests those of designers' are often trivialized. Management is, and has always been iterative and largely heuristic. It is not like managers spend their days setting goals and making decisions. More often they are negotiating uncertainty and complex trade-offs, often by designing new approaches, incentives, relationships, deals, and ideas.

Paula Thornton

October 12, 2007 09:43 PM

Its specifically because of all of this that I've pursued the opportunity to create a structure to facilitate deeper conversations around this topic:

It is a model that we want to liberally share to be repeated in other local environments -- because it's to really rally local resources and challenge one another to find new ways to leverage Design Thinking as a strategic business differentiator.

Shimon Shmueli

October 13, 2007 03:13 AM

Fred, that is not a trivialization, but an attempt at abstraction. Someone, I chose to call it "management", hopefully sets very clear goals, complex goals, and the work and talent behind setting those goals is not or should not be trivial at all. In any case, I agree with you.


October 13, 2007 08:57 AM

"[There is a] common perception that a "sales guy" can sell *anything*, be it cars or jeans or computerware. This view holds that the domain of business is not determinant, the process is. You learn the process (at business school), you're good to go.

As the inadequacy of this approach is exposed we now have another trend: inject the sales guy with some appreciation of the domain, surely now he can do even better. Welcome to 'design thinking,' the finishing school for the Steve Jobs wannabes out there, if you will."

I explore this tension further at:

"The new managerial class: cure for design?"

Paula Thornton

October 14, 2007 03:33 AM

Anyone suggesting "Design Method" would be more appropriate doesn't understand the principles. A "method" and a "philosophy" are two different things (I might have been more easily persuaded had the recommendation of distinction been "Design Philosophy"). Indeed, this sounds like the same person who hi-jacked the Wikipedia description...which caused me to bypass the effort to negotiate changes to the definition, and just write my own:

This is an important conversation to have. Not just for the purpose of a definition but for individuals to work through their own understanding of the possiblities, by exercising through thought and testing what's said against their own experiences.

We're starting conversations:

This is a model we're testing this year and hope to have more specific recommendations for others to repeat in their own local areas.


October 15, 2007 04:41 AM

I explored the currently contentious relationship between business and design in a new article:

Compartmentalized design: Designers emasculated

"For too long designers have been content with receiving from technology and business pre-defined problem spaces within which to operate...

Still, designers remain as enablers, not determiners. While bad design can cause a project to fail, good design is not sufficient enough to save it. This is because the fundamental decisions defining the problem space around a project are almost always made by business. Design, while no longer a mere appendage to technology, remains peripheral to business nevertheless."

RitaSue Siegel

October 15, 2007 09:56 PM

Based on your starting point on this topic, would you think it was fair to say that if you gave some design students a computer and they fooled around with it for a while that they would become writers? (I don't know what the equivalent of a design thinker would be in this context.) But, a design thinker is someone who uses design methodology to solve problems or uncover opportunities... human-centered research, concepts, iterations, testing, refinement, implementation and performance evaluation. It is no big deal any longer.

Sean McGrath

October 16, 2007 01:22 AM

There is no question that the design industry needs to embrace "business thinking" as much as the business industry is now embracing "design thinking". To that point, I'm sure business schools are leading the charge because the financial stakes are much higher for them, and for their graduates. Apple® lovers aside, would anyone really suggest that the design industry has as great an influence and impact from an economic standpoint in our world as does the "business industry"?

I would venture to guess that businesses might be more willing to hiring business graduates with design-savviness, versus the other way around, for the same reason one might choose an MD with knowledge of homeopathic remedies over a homeopathic expert with knowledge of internal medicine for their primary care. While either might be able to provide a the necessary guidance and expertise, having a familiar standard from which to judge and evaluate provides a certain level of comfort and familiarity. After all, business and design still have yet to speak the same language, and until then, each will most likely prefer the company of a "native-speaker".

At the end of the day, though, "design thinking" might be as much about marketing hype ("innovation", anyone?) as it is the long overdue and valid effort that too few people realize.

Whit Tice

October 23, 2007 01:05 PM

As I see it the design thinking or design approaches in a business setting could value different backgrounds based on the scenario or situation. I think that having a design school background in a business setting would make it so that one is less bound to the learnings of business and more apt to be creative or 'think out of the box'. On the other hand, having a background in business (MBA or otherwise) could make it so that working with existing frameworks, models, systems, etc would be done more effectively while still coming up with creative and good solutions.

I'm curious to know what kind of background or foundation helps more overall and why that is. Perhaps if the merits of the various backgrounds whether they be from a d, b, e, or other school could be listed and understood finding the best approach or kinds of teachings would be understood. It may be that gaining a solid skill set from various backgrounds can be done at a single point in education from any one of those kinds of schools if the vital parts are taught and understood.


October 27, 2007 10:32 PM

Please forgive me wading in almost a month late (it’s been a busy month)…

One of the reasons why business programs have an edge so far is that there are more business people than designers and they’re in positions of higher influence and authority. I tell my design students that they must learn the language, issues, and techniques of business because business people aren’t going to take the time to learn ours.

But, just like the approach most business schools are taking to sustainability (a course here or there), design thinking, methods, AND perspectives aren’t going to emerge in students through a course thrown into their traditional b-school curriculum (nor will business thinking emerge by throwing a course into d-school programs). Whether d-school or b-school (or somewhere else), the trick is that the curricular themes (innovation, strategy, collaboration, user-centric research, sustainability, etc.) must be integrated throughout. Accounting, for example is a design tool (as my advisory board member Ann Morhauser reminded me). “It’s the tool that allows me to design my business, test it, and see the results,” she described. Design and business intersect at all of the topics in an MBA program, not just product development or preparing PowerPoint presentations.

Business first or design first is a false choice of paradigms. We all come from somewhere and we each probably already have a bias toward one or the other. Instead, leaders (business, design, non-profit, and otherwise), need to understand the best of both (including traditional and new approaches) and gain some experience using them to uncover opportunities and crete new offerings that are meaningful, profitable, and sustainable.

This isn't a question of leading designers vs. design leaders but one of helping anyone be a truly innovative BUSINESS leader (regardless of background or place where they engage). In part, that’s why we developed an MBA program, not a Masters of Design Management program.

Just as the interactive/online industry forced business people in many industries to rethink what they did and how (think about how brand management was focused on logos and packaging before interactive media changed the realization that brand is an experience as a result), business people are having to rethink their processes, priorities, and perspectives about all of business but, especially, innovation. Likewise, new realities in markets, industries, and the world are challenging old approaches to design and development to be more effective and more collaborative. It's not going to be easy for anyone but it sure is going to be interesting.

Jonathan Brill

November 10, 2007 09:30 AM

Hi All,

Great conversation. I was at DMI a few weeks ago and one of the discussions was centered around what to teach our design students. The universal feedback I got from headhunters, from managers and from several cross disciplinary legends was "the basics".

I have taught in industrial design and in architecture programs.

Jonathan Brill

November 10, 2007 10:45 AM

Hi All,

Great conversation.

A few weeks ago at DMI, we got into a discussion about what DESIGN SKILLS to teach students. The universal first response was "the basics".

The only difficulty with "THE BASICS" is that each design specialization has a different definition:
- Recruiters want technical skills.

- Managers want people who understand their role in the machine.

- Architects want people who can solve problems from the top down.

- IDers want people who can solve the problem from the bottom up.

- Ad guys want someone who can burnish products with the patina of meaning.

It's a rare 18 year old who can master all of these skills and a rarer institution with enough faculty who have.

Students are strong at each individual skill because of learning aptitudes. They are also excel because learning disabilities...ideation is easier when for brains that don't hierarchize information.

From what I have been reading, design thinking is less about mastering the technics of visual communication and more about approaching problems from many different viewpoints simultaneously.

Is this skill unique to designers or is it just knowledge lost in the age of specialization?

Are we talking about design education or a classical curriculum with shop, art, economics and ops classes added in? How could we sell this to the Wii generation?

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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