One of the most agonizing experiences of my professional career was the annual marketing plans process at the large consumer package goods company where I started in brand management. Each year the brand managers wrote (exhaustingly, excruciatingly long) planning documents and then presented them to ever-higher levels in the corporate hierarchy. The joke among my colleagues was that the higher the level of management you were presenting to, the more certain you were of getting caught in a feedback onslaught of muddled thinking.
I was reminded of the concept of "muddled thinking" while reading a recent copy of Business Week. In its October 15th issue, I came across a headline that read: "The Top Design Schools." Great, I thought. Let's take a look. Art Center College of Design: no surprise there. Further down: California College of the Arts. No surprise there either. But then sandwiched between Georgia Institute of Technology and Hongik University College of Design appeared the Harvard Business School — which was a surprise, especially since Harvard's Graduate School of Design was conspicuously absent from the list.
Intrigued, I promptly went to the HBS website to see how this climb to the upper echelons of the design school world had been accomplished. Oddly, the school's website had nothing to reveal about this. No mention of a design-related curriculum. So I called the school. At first the very helpful person I spoke with seemed a little perplexed at the nature of my inquiry. But after I mentioned that Business Week in its notes about the HBS had included this reference — "Professor Stefan Thomke teaches courses on operations management that fold in innovation, product development, and design thinking" — the person on the phone said yes, indeed, Professor Thomke did teach that particular course and that probably accounted for the Business Week listing.
"Any other courses?" I asked. After all, the listing was for the top "design schools" not "design courses." Harvard is good, I know. But surely a single course (and an operations management course at that) would not qualify the HBS for a top design school ranking. "No, no other courses at this time," I was told.
Looking back at the article, I noticed additional text that described the list as presenting "the best design programs around the world." My days as chair of an academic department at Parsons taught me that a "program" is substantially different from a "school." Parsons is a great school (it also made the Business Week list), but that didn't mean that all of its individual programs were equally great. Business Week apparently was using the terms "school," "program," and (even) "course," basically as synonyms. So the somewhat startling conclusion was that the HBS had made the "top design schools" list primarily (or exclusively?) because of a single course (or perhaps because of two courses, if you counted something the HBS person I spoke to never mentioned: the summer, non-degree seminar in design management the school runs in collaboration with AIGA, an offering that is mentioned nowhere on the HBS website).
What was to be made of that? On the one hand, it is easy to cheerlead anything that furthers the intersection of design and business. Business Week has certainly been at the forefront of this movement and deserves substantial kudos for its advocacy role. But on the other hand it occurred to me, here it is again: muddled thinking. While one course (or two) might be worth noting, it doesn't follow at all that that level of commitment would legitimately warrant comparison to the entirety of RISD, for example.
This then got me thinking about other examples of muddled thinking (as opposed to — look out! — "design thinking") that crop up in the business and design worlds these days (see "MBA Students Have Designs on Innovation" on page 13 of the October 8, 2007 Financial Times). For example: The use of the word "creativity." Creativity is not a synonym for design. The business community, and some times the design community, too, is quick to imply that design equals creativity. Look it up. It's not so. Also, the use of the word "innovation." Same as with creativity; innovation is not a synonym for "design." Innovation can take place in...accounting or agriculture or...zoology. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with design.
Perhaps most annoying: use of the term "design thinking." When the word "critical" is attached to the word "thinking," the result, "critical thinking," is a term that has clear, well defined, and well-understood meaning — certainly in the academic community, if not generally. As a counter example, the same cannot, for instance, be said about the term "art thinking." This is not a term that can be used in any precise or meaningful way. Why? Because it could mean painting or sculpture; it could mean figurative or abstract; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. Because it embodies so many contradictory notions, it is imprecise to the point of being meaningless — and therefore, completely understandably, it is not much used, if at all.
"Design thinking" is as problematic a term as "art thinking." Design thinking could refer to architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, or product design; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. It's imprecise at best and meaningless at worst. More muddled thinking.
In contrast, an example of simple, straightforward, "unmuddled" thinking is Thomas Watson's dictum "Good design is good business." It's as true now as when it was first uttered in the 1950s. The real power, though, behind the way of thinking proposed by Watson has to do with business people being able to distinguish "good design" from that which isn't. In spite of efforts by a few dedicated souls (like the late Walter Hoving; see The Art of Design Management), this is an area of business education that still languishes. One wishes that the Harvard Business School would take that challenge on — with even a course, let alone a program or the whole school.