Design Thinking, from Rhetoric to Action

British Design Process, by Stuart Bannocks -

British Design Process, by Stuart Bannocks –

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Each member of the MAIM Class of 2014 shares their individual experiences of innovation in the lead up to our Degree Show Exploiting Chaos: Innovation in the Making. Here, Rita Fernandez shares her thoughts on bridging different insights, expertise and approaches towards organisational strategy across design and business.

Over the past 20 years design has gained steady traction outside it’s own community, as organisations of all shapes and sizes have begun to understand its potential and importance. From the design of our products, our experiences and our services, companies and even governments are using design as a tool to better understand those they are designing for, and in the process have found that they are saving not only money but time in getting it right faster.


On the design trend’s tail has come ‘design thinking’, an approach used by designers when tackling a question or challenge. Although the term has its roots in design theory, with mentions of some of its elements appearing in the 80’s and the use of the term itself published in the early 90’s, it saw its literary hay day in 2009 and 2010, when several books were published in succession by proponents from the design and business arenas – consultants, practitioners and educators alike – looking to introduce the topic to the more mainstream business world.


Although the adoption of design has been seen not only in theory but in practice, as ‘traditional’ management consultancies have acquired and built capabilities in service and digital design, and business taking more notice of design schools and degrees, this convergence of design and business via design thinking has also seen a backlash from members of the design+business arena.


With so much ‘hype’ surrounding design thinking, and in reaction to its possible dismissal or replacement, I investigated the principal discourses at play in the area with the objective of projecting its possible future. The number of practitioners and design thinking evangelists is growing, and by working alongside a consultancy that champions design thinking, supporting a start-up that was looking to actively implement the approach and by also attending events on the topic, I was able to compare what is being said with what is actually being done in professional practice.


The investigation of the tension that comes about from the bringing together of these two very different worlds resulted in a deeper understanding of the difference between ‘design’ and ‘design thinking’. Finding that the terms are often confused, used in conjunction or as synonyms, they are in fact different things that require different elements and capabilities from both the organisation and the individual practitioner. Not every designer may effectively practice design thinking for traditional businesses, and not everyone is capable of practicing the approach.

  ‘Regular design’ is giving sense to objects; ‘strategic design’ is giving sense to decisions.” Marco Steinberg, Helsinki Design Lab

As design thinking moves away from its initial offer as a panacea, a solution for all ills, organisations looking to implement it will find that it provides a valuable focus on things all too often overlooked such as foresight, user empathy, visualisation, iterative testing and prototyping, for example. The work for the organisation, and the adept Innovation Manager, will be in identifying and assembling teams that possess the qualities and capabilities to think in both abstract and practical terms, and are given the space and opportunity to work collaboratively and creatively.


Lockwood, T. (2010) Design thinking. New York, NY: Allworth Press.


To learn more about design thinking and Rita’s research please join us at the upcoming MA Innovation Management Degree Show Exploiting Chaos: Innovation in the Making from 18-22 June.