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Design Vs. Design Thinking--The Talent Battle Continues.


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March 23, 2007

Design Vs. Design Thinking--The Talent Battle Continues.

Bruce Nussbaum

There is a nasty civil war going on in design education between traditionalists who want to focus on form and a new generation who focus on concept. This generation is into design thinking. It's an important battle for the entire business culture because it touches on the most important changes going on in the global economy--the rise of Asia, the evolution of the US economy, the future of the American/European job market, competitiveness, profits. It's big stuff.

So check out Dan Saffer's post on Adaptive Path for a pure traditionalist point of view. I'm in the design thinking camp so I don't get the bipolar, either-or-point of view expressed by Dan. To me, visualizing ideas for products, services, experiences via prototypes or videos is an important component of design thinking--of any design. So positing the education of form AGAINST the education of design thinking makes no sense. Apple's success is in large point due to its obsession with materials and form making. We made that point in the cover on Jonathon Ive in Inside Innovation.

So if design schools are beginning to just jump the teaching of form making to only deal with concept, Dan has a point. Then again, there are thousands of Chinese designers pouring out of hundreds of schools who know how to do form. There are thousands of Koreans who know how to do form. A career built on form-making will soon be in jeapordy in the US and Europe.

Design thinking merely takes the core components of design--its human factors focus, its empathetic anthropoligical viewpoint, its iteration and speed and other core concepts, abstracts and formalizes them and applies them to a broad array of spaces, including the business process itself. It is a very powerful methodology, a strategic methodology. Why would anyone turn away from using design thinking? Why should design schools deny themselves and their students this power--and opportunity? Why, as David Armano points out, would anyone want to be a purist?

As for Dan's comments about the design of real things being much harder than JUST design thinking, well that's argument by ignorance and attitude. The graduates of Patrick Whitney's Institute of Design in Chicago are heavy hitters doing big things.

This is a civil war not worth fighting.

04:39 PM

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Tracked on March 26, 2007 06:08 PM

Artists (and art schools -- which includes a lot of designers) have been having this debate for at least 50 years -- it's just another name for the concept versus craft debate. Personally, as someone that has studied (at various times) film, anthropology, design and architecture -- I can think the only discipline that has nailed this down is architecture. Which moves from conceptual thinking while studying past forms in the first years of design school toward the more concrete of integrating concept with form. All of design education (and arts education) would do well to follow this model of micro and macro intertwined -- more macro at the beginning with some micro moving toward the opposite.

Posted by: DC1974 at March 23, 2007 06:10 PM

Saffer seems to be creating a polarity for the sake of his argument that I'm not sure exists, I agree. But he seems to be speaking as a design

entrepreneur in need of a certain type of designer. That said; 'who' are we talking about when we say 'designers'. I think that part of the problem is that a discussion about "Design School Pedagogy" is uselessly vague until we look under the hood and see what kind of "D/d"esign is being taught. Who does a "design school" train? Who do they advocate for? ... I see THIS as one of the primary issues for ALL schools to address and in that respect I heartily agree with Nussbaum's point... why provoke internal strife?

But I also agree with what DC1974 seems to suggest... much of what is considered design-thinking training happens in the course of more disciplinary training at a variety of different schools. Now, to include more design-thinking as a focused element in schools of this sort might drain from especially disciplinary activities. As disciplinary boundaries are traversed though (inside tradtional school and out), I think that it is critical that students have MORE so-called "design-thinking" training.

Regarding form making... I'm not sure if this is necessarily disciplinary anymore... under almost every major "designer" is a huge network of fabricators and facilitators with little to no design training or at least different skills than those of the "Designer". Of course there are exceptions like the design-build architect, and perhaps Saffer is one of these "do it all" types.

Posted by: Scott Pobiner at March 23, 2007 08:17 PM

Hmmm... maybe it is a civil war worth fighting...;-)

Bruce, to sum up your last week's posts, aren't you suggesting that designers in the 'traditional' sense aren't 'thinking' enough?

Isn't your point all about re-positioning 'design' UNDER the thumb of high-minded, verbally-focused people?

The notion that culture is evolving only by high-level thinking ('academics') is incorrect and wrong historically. In fact Historians recognize today more than ever the 'little' contributions of craftsmen and artisans of our society. This 'wisdom of the hand' and the discovery by mistake is essential and it is anti-cultural position to dismiss such 'non-thinking' contributions. Think about the Wright brothers- do you think we would have gotten the Airplane if we were waiting for fluid-dynamic science to catch up to the craftsmanship of bike shop? I think not. I guess if you're right, musicians should go to school first and get their MBA's in Rock n' Roll studies before they're eligible to write 'I can't get no satisfaction'... just imagine Keith Richards after 4-years of B-school (or is D-school the ‘it’ word?)… what a wonderful musician he could have been…;-)

Posted by: gadi amit at March 23, 2007 08:39 PM

Bruce, you said:

"pure traditionalist point of view. "

Now, I'm going to disclose a personal preference and I'm not sayng that this view is "right"—but I'm not a huge fan of the purist mentality. Not to say that that's what you were getting at, but some things you say here make me think of something I posted recently, which defines the purist mindset. As a personal preference I think that the most interesting stuff happens at the intersections of life—when we combine our ingredients and influences. Why can't "design thinking" and "design doing" influence each other?

I too also think that there should not be one emphasis over the other. Just as prototyping can be an effective tool to move a design in the right direction—so can narratives, storytelling, visuals, multimedia—whatever. Outside of the Web 2.0 startups, the business world at large is composed primarily of large groups of decision makers. This is not ideal for the design process as "design by comittee" not to be confused with "improvement by community" can sometimes rule the day.

I say that whatever tool designers have—both thinking and doing should be used in concert if it means making what we do better. I mean c'mon... :)

Posted by: David Armano at March 23, 2007 08:50 PM

Amen Armano. David, I totally agree. This is a civil war not worth fighting. Prototyping, story-telling, human factors--all of this falls within the world of "design."

Design "thinking" is the reification and formalization of a process that is the heart and soul of design.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum at March 23, 2007 08:58 PM


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