In the last five years, design thinking has gained huge popularity. Different versions of the process are being taught in non-design schools and universities, and increasingly many companies and organisations encourage employees to gain familiarity with it. More recently, initiatives to bring design thinking into high school education have emerged, at least in the US. However, there is still confusion around what design thinking is and how it relates to the design community.
Understanding Design and design thinking
Design and design thinking aren’t the same. While the former is a discipline (with many specialisations), the latter is a human-centred process or methodology to deal with problems that borrows tools from various approaches and sciences such as creative problem solving (divergent and convergent thinking, defer judgment) and the social sciences (ethnographic research). Generally speaking, Design involves both thinking and doing, while design thinking often leaves out the doing. This is why just learning design thinking alone will not give you the necessary skills to be a Design professional.
Often, in a non-design context or school, design thinking is taught from two perspectives:
- As a “short-cut” to become a designer. Students learn the steps of the process and think that that knowledge alone equips them with all the necessary skills to tackle the same type, diversity, and complexity of problems that Designers.
- As a way to become better thinkers and communicators, and develop a deeper appreciation of people. Students learning these tools don’t think of becoming Designers, but they use them as a way to approach problems and life challenges from a different perspective.
As a Design professional, and having taught design thinking for the last six years, it has become clearer that the first approach misleads people and underestimates the value of the design discipline and the work of Design professionals. For example, learning the design thinking process doesn’t provide the tools or skills to actually create solutions or have the same motivation that drives Designers to spend hours just working on perfecting the look of something.
This distinction becomes even more evident when design thinkers have to tackle challenges that directly fall within the remit of a design specialisation, such as information design.
Understanding design thinking and Information design
There is a body of knowledge and expertise needed to effectively tackle each problem of each design specialisation. However, in many cases, people don’t acknowledge this point, and refer to all problems as design thinking problems. Another common belief is that a “design thinker” (whatever this means) can solve any problem. But this is not necessarily the case. Like any other design professionals (e.g. product design, service design, website design), while information designers use many design thinking tools and methods as part of their practice, they have also learnt a set of skills related to the specifics of the job: making sense of, designing and communicating information.
To shed some light on this distinction, the following is a list of key tasks involved in design thinking and in information design:
As information designers we often use some design thinking tools, such as prototyping and testing. But we could improve our way of working by also, more actively and consciously, adopting the other tools coming from creative problem solving. These tools can help reframe and frame ill-defined problems, challenge assumptions, and approach idea generation with a more creative mind.