Prominent Design Thinker Moves On

Nearly everyone was surprised to read Bruce Nussbaum’s latest essay about design thinking titled “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment: So What’s Next”. I first shared a link to Nussbaum with DBL readers back in 2007, and recommended his blog as a good source of information about design thinking and user experience. Since then Nussbaum has been a leading proponent of design thinking as a way to improve organizations and increase creativity and innovation. In his regular columns about design thinking for BusinessWeek Nussbaum would share great insights into how organizations were using design thinking to achieve better results. How is it that someone so connected with design thinking would write “The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on.”

The gist of Nussbaum’s farewell to design thinking is that the business community has failed to apply design thinking as it was intended – or as it is applied in the design community. The failure is not so much about what design thinking is as the way that business has turned it into a process for achieving creativity. He writes:

Design Thinking originally offered the world of big business–which is defined by a culture of process efficiency–a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity. By packaging creativity within a process format, designers were able to expand their engagement, impact, and sales inside the corporate world. Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process…There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation.

It seems to me that Nussbaum is saying that business has warped the intent of design thinking by trying to turn it into a totally rational, analytical process for achieving creativity – in other words – trying to turn it into every other business fad such as TQM or Sigma Six. If you apply the process and follow the process it will provide the desired results. Only, according to Nussbaum, it didn’t. Nussbaum appears to have lost his optimism about design thinking’s capacity to serve as a process to help business become more creative and ultimately better organizations with improved products and services. In his post, Nussbaum still has some great things to say about design thinking’s impact has on improving some areas of society, but it ultimately hasn’t delivered on creativity. That’s where Nussbaum is headed. He writes:

In my experience, when you say the word “design” to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think “fashion.” Say “design thinking,” and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say “creativity” and people light up and lean in toward you… I believe the concept of Creative Intelligence expands that social engagement even further… I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions.

Hmm. Does Creative Intelligence sound somewhat like design thinking? Isn’t the goal of design thinkers to creatively identify problems and develop thoughtful solutions – the way that designers do? There are over 80 comments to Nussbaum’s post and many of them take up this point. At least one blogger agreed with Nussbaum, and provided a good discussion on the connection between creativity and innovation (saying that business saw design thinking as the path to innovation).

That Nussbaum says he is moving on to something new should be of little concern to those of us who find value in design thinking. His concerns seem more focused on the way business used design thinking – and the fact that there were more failures than successes – than the process of design thinking itself. But there’s a useful lesson here (and in the video interview with Tim Brown he provides in his post – see the 16-25 minute area) that if you just look at design thinking as a rote series of steps that you can apply to any problem, it’s bound to fail. The focus needs to be on the generation of creativity in developing solutions – on the outcomes. I will be interested in Nussbaum’s book on Creative Intelligence that comes out next year. I wonder what he will say about design thinking, and what more Creative Intelligence can offer us.

2 thoughts on “Prominent Design Thinker Moves On”

  1. Easy to understand Nussbaum’s assessment of teaching design thinking to business students as a failed experiment. Trying to teach linear thinkers a non-linear process in order to stimulate creativity seems counter productive. Why not instead teach business students to value and make room for creative thinkers in their future companies in order to create stronger teams? The collaboration of both types of thinkers is key to innovation.
    See 23:00 minute area.

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