Roger Martin | Essays

What is Design Thinking Anyway?

The Design of Business

Design thinking, as a concept, has been slowly evolving and coalescing over the past decade. One popular definition is that design thinking means thinking as a designer would, which is about as circular as a definition can be. More concretely, Tim Brown of IDEO has written that design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” [1] A person or organization instilled with that discipline is constantly seeking a fruitful balance between reliability and validity, between art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation. The design-thinking organization applies the designer’s most crucial tool to the problems of business. That tool is abductive reasoning.

Don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with the term. Formal logic isn’t systematically taught in our North American educational system, except to students of philosophy or the history of science. The vast majority of students are exposed to formal logic only by inference and then only to the two dominant forms of logic — deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. Those two modes, grounded in the scientific tradition, allow the speaker to declare at the end of the reasoning process that a statement is true or false. 

Deductive logic — the logic of what must be — reasons from the general to the specific. If the general rule is that all crows are black, and I see a brown bird, I can declare deductively that this bird is not a crow.

Inductive logic — the logic of what is operative — reasons from the specific to the general. If I study sales per square foot across a thousand stores and find a pattern that suggests stores in small towns generate significantly higher sales per square foot than stores in cities, I can inductively declare that small towns are my more valuable market. 

Deduction and induction are reasoning tools of immense power. As knowledge has advanced, our civilization has accumulated more deductive rules from which to reason. In field after field, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us. And advances in statistical methods have furnished us with ever more powerful tools for reasoning inductively. Thirty years ago, few in a boardroom would have dared to cite the R2 of regression analysis, but now the statistical tools behind this form of induction are relatively common in business settings. So it is no wonder that deduction and induction hold privileged places in the classroom and, inevitably, the boardroom as the preeminent tools for making an argument and proving a case. 

Yet a reasoning toolbox that holds only deduction and induction is incomplete. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey began to explore the limits of formal declarative logic — that is, inductive and deductive reasoning. They were less interested in how one declares a statement true or false than in the process by which we come to know and understand. To them, the acquisition of knowledge was not an abstract, purely conceptual exercise, but one involving interaction with and inquiry into the world around them. Understanding did not entail progress toward an absolute truth but rather an evolving interaction with a context or environment.

James, Dewey, and their circle became known as the American pragmatist philosophers, so called because they argued that one could gain understanding only through one’s own experiences. Among these early pragmatists, perhaps the greatest of them and certainly the most intriguing was Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce (rhymes with “terse”) was fascinated by the origins of new ideas and came to believe that they did not emerge from the conventional forms of declarative logic. In fact, he argued that no new idea could be proved deductively or inductively using past data. Moreover, if new ideas were not the product of the two accepted forms of logic, he reasoned, there must be a third fundamental logical mode. New ideas came into being, Peirce posited, by way of “logical leaps of the mind.” New ideas arose when a thinker observed data (or even a single data point) that didn’t fit with the existing model or models. The thinker sought to make sense of the observation by making what Peirce called an “inference to the best explanation.” The true first step of reasoning, he concluded, was not observation but wondering. Peirce named his form of reasoning abductive logic. It is not declarative reasoning; its goal is not to declare a conclusion to be true or false. It is modal reasoning; its goal is to posit what could possibly be true. (For further information, see “Why You’ve Never Heard of Charles Sanders Peirce.”)

Whether they realize it or not, designers live in Peirce’s world of abduction; they actively look for new data points, challenge accepted explanations, and infer possible new worlds. By doing so, they scare the hell out of a lot of businesspeople. For a middle manager forced to deal with flighty, exuberant “creative types,” who seem to regard prevailing wisdom as a mere trifle and deadlines as an inconvenience, the admonition to “be like a designer” is tantamount to saying “be less productive, less efficient, more subversive, and more flaky” — not an attractive proposition. And it is a fair critique that abduction can lead to poor results; unproved inferences might lead to success in time, but then again, they might not.

Some abductive thinkers fail to heed Brown’s requirement that the design must be matched to what is technologically feasible, launching products that do not yet have supporting technology. Consider the software designers who inferred from the growth of the Internet that consumers would want to do all their shopping online, from pet supplies to toys to groceries. Online security and back-end infrastructure had not yet caught up to their ideas, dooming them to failure.

Other abductive thinkers fail to address Brown’s second requirement: that the innovation must make business sense. Looking back on the dot-com crash, Michael Dell, founder of Dell, argues that little has changed. “Still today in our industry, if you go to a trade show, you walk around and you will find a lot of technology for which there is no problem that exists,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, look at this, we’ve got a great solution and there is no problem to solve here.’ ” [2] Think of the Apple Newton, the world’s first portable data assistant. Launched in 1993, it utterly flopped. According RIM’s Lazaridis, it was a failure of abduction. “It had no future,” he argues. “What problem did it solve? What value did it create? It was a research project. What could you do with it that you couldn’t do with a laptop? Nothing. And everything you could do with it, you could do better with a laptop.” Apple Computer (as it was known then) wasn’t wrong when it inferred that customers would value a small, portable, digital assistant, but it didn’t ultimately deliver a solution that matched the insight.

So the prescription is not to embrace abduction to the exclusion of deduction and induction, nor is it to bet the farm on loose abductive inferences. Rather, it is to strive for balance. Proponents of design thinking in business recognize that abduction is almost entirely marginalized in the modern corporation and take it upon themselves to make their companies hospitable to it. They choose to embrace a form of logic that doesn’t generate proof and operates in the realm of what might be — a realm beyond the reach of data from the past. 

That’s a risk many leaders won’t take. Making Peirce’s logical leaps is not consistent or reliable; nor does it faithfully adhere to predetermined budgets. But the far greater risk is to maintain an environment hostile to abductive reasoning, the proverbial lifeblood of design thinkers and the design of business. Without the logic of what might be, a corporation can only refine its current heuristic or algorithm, leaving it at the mercy of competitors that look upstream to find a more powerful route out of the mystery or a clever new way to drive the prevailing heuristic to algorithm. Embracing abduction as the coequal of deduction and induction is in the interest of every corporation that wants to prosper from design thinking, and every person who wants to be a design thinker.

"What is Design Thinking" is an excerpt from Roger Martin's new book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Press, 2009).


1 Tim Brown, "Design Thinking. " Harvard Business Review, June 2008. p. 86.
Michael Dell, in conversation with the author as part of the Rotman School of Management's Integrative Thinking Experts Speaker Series, September 21, 2004.

Posted in: Business

Comments [35]

We simply can't trust the "design thinking" philosophy and
its proponents. They, non-designers, have somehow come
up with a great way of telling us designers how to work.

The "design thinkers" spend no time thinking about actual good
design and put their esoteric business strategy first.

That would be fine if they came out of the closet and called
themselves "business thinkers" or even "creative thinkers". But using
the word design is simply misleading, and appears as an attempt
to piggyback the world of business management onto design.

According to Steven Kroeter's superior article here on Design Observer, The confusion has gone so far that the Harvard Business School was listed as a "top design school" by Business Week.
link: http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=6187

These "design thinkers" like Tim Brown are the Tony Robbins
figures of the business world. They tell others how to do things, but
what do they actually do themselves? It's like saying "I am not
a basketball player, I am a basketball thinker".


Where cultures are increasingly complex and complicated, there are more patterns that emerge from existing models. Naturally, that supports abductive thinking. It is also reasonable to include the infrastructure that supports readiness and viability in this thinking alongside ideas/designs/solutions that are meant to be applied in these contexts. I mean that, because abductive thinking is by nature divergent, it is possible to cast the net of inquiry over entire frameworks. That’s what your examples of failure lacked. I think design thinking is meant for whole systems and not just for individual concepts. But deductive logic is reductivist in approach and, as it is also nominal in nature, reduces possibilities down to the least number of nouns. This logic can cause misunderstanding of the complexities that are emerging and missed opportunities for innovation.
Julietta Cheung

2005 called: it wants it article back.


CORY: Tim Brown just built the most important design empire ever. So that's what these "design thinkers" do. Hopefully graphic designers think, as well as make. Get with the times, genius.
Emily Craig

@Emily: What makes it the most important? Successful strategy?

Lets take McDonalds for example. They sell food, and they are a huge success. Their business strategy is second to none, and it was the first of its kind. They innovated by taking the model of a restaurant and applying an assembly line to it. Does this make them the most important food empire ever? I think not.

Have you ever heard of a little organization called the Bauhaus?
No one has been able to touch their level quality, innovation and integration of disciplines.

Ideo by its own definition is a "consultancy".


You should trust "design thinkers", they are not taking over Graphic Design, nor are they telling graphic designers what to do. They are simply providing a service that makes graphic design easier for you and me. They do this by transforming companies vision to be less about focus groups and advertising and more about making the best damn product or service they can. Which, will end up with us getting to design better objects.

Also, to say that Ideo doesn't care about "real design" or that they are not "real-designers" is without merit. Half of the people I met at Ideo on a recent tour were people with degrees in Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and Studio Art. There were also people with MBAs, philosophy degrees, Engineering backgrounds, and other disciplines as well. Just look at the simplicity, elegance, and utility of one of their recent projects for a testament to their design aesthetic: http://www.ideo.com/work/item/kitchen-gadgets.

Also, the point of the article was not that Ideo is the best at Graphic Design. The point was that they are the biggest driving force in businesses recognizing how valuable "creative people" can be within an organization. How many times have graphic designers been frustrated with the fact that sometimes they feel like they are just "polishing turds"? And that no amount of polishing by the designer is going to lead to a great product. But, those are the people paying the bills, so what are we going to do?

Ideo takes that idea and reverses it. It says, get the graphic designer, the sociologist, the engineer, and have them come up with ways that the product or service can be better for everyone, especially the customers, and THEN worry about putting "polish" on it. Usually, by the time they have re-thought the product or service, it needs very little polish because of how innovative it is:

Bauhaus, they are not. But who is?

Much like speaking ill of Paul Rand or Jan Tschichold, designers tend to gloss over their heroes for worry of discovering a flaw, shattering fragile hearts and bruising egos.

I'd like to remind readers that there was a time, not many years ago, that the Bauhaus was viewed as cold and impersonal, representing homogeneous thought and monotony. While the Bauhaus was an impressive force of design, we shouldn't celebrate it blindly. I'll never be able to top Tom Wolfe's critique (From Bauhaus to Our House), but an important point to draw from all this is "perspective."

IDEO is a master at utilizing the perspectives (and expertise) of specialists and non-designers to create human-centered answers to problems; be they graphic, industrial, informational etc. The majority of design problems currently being solved revolve around a singular person or small group of designers. Unless you're strictly designing for yourself or people very similar to yourself it might be a good idea to lift your head up from behind that screen and get some perspective.
Tim Belonax

"they actively look for new data points, challenge accepted explanations, and infer possible new worlds"

How heroic! I think we all know that there are designers who don't do any of these things, at least not more than your average person.

The article seems to me to simply be saying that we should all be original, thinking out of the box, challenging existing paradigms without being bound by notions of certainty - ironically, I don't think that's a particularly original statement that challenges existing paradigms :p

Also, I don't think inductive reasoning allows you to say with certainty whether a statement is true or not, and deductive reasoning only allows you to say that a statement is true, given that the preceding statements are also true (and, of course, given that you haven't made some mistakes in reasoning)

Then again, this is the first I read about Design Thinking, so I've probably overlooked something.
Christer M.L. Bendixen

Good software developers operate in exactly the same way as the "design thinkers" described here, as do entrepreneurs generally.
Haig Evans-Kavaldjian

Peggy Olson: Sex sells.

Don Draper: Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and just stick it in a briefcase completely unaware that their success depends on something more than their shoeshine. YOU are the product. You - FEELING something. That's what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can't do what we do, and they hate us for it.


It is very nice to receive validation of our thinking process in the form of an eggheady term for it. But, having been working side-by-side with management consultants for a couple of years, during which I have been trying to tease apart how they think from how those of us who come from a design background think, and to integrate our ways of thinking to add value to our clients, I believe Roger Martin is not wrong but does not hit the nail on the head.

Abduction, from my experience, is more alive and well in business thinking than he posits. It is certainly not used much by those in companies who are focused on operationalizing things to deliver them more efficiently. But abduction is a well-used mode of logic in some other areas of business. Entrepreneurs use it to develop new business and brand ideas. Leaps of logic are made by, for example, finance experts designing new financial products like (sigh) credit default swaps, by scientists seeking breakthroughs in R&D labs, by IT experts designing IT systems and customized software, and by management experts designing organizations and incentive systems. Even business thought leaders like Roger Martin use it to come up with frameworks and theories to help business people think differently. However, though all these people use abductive logic, I don’t believe they practice “design thinking” as most usefully defined. Here are the essential elements of design thinking as I see them:

Designers, often to a fault, empathize with the client’s customer more than with the client. This is a useful counterbalance to management consultants who tend to empathize more with the client than the client’s customer, and to people in businesses who naturally think of their own well-being and each other more than their customers, if for no other reason than they spend most of their time interacting with each other.

Designers think in media beyond words and numbers, including elements like images, form, sequence, color, spatial composition and materials. This has considerable magic to people schooled only in writing and math, and increasing relevance as the design refinement bar is raised across industries in affluent societies where lots of purchasing happens near the top of Maslow’s pyramid.

Designers embrace emotion and use it in their designs and in their design process. As we recognize that none of us are rational actors, and that there is more wisdom in emotion than previously thought, this stance becomes a more valuable complement to one that worries that emotion can cloud judgment, and that sees emotion as just one sometimes relevant input.

And finally, designers more often use culture as a medium for thinking, or at least as place to find ideas, as Philippe Starck did when he inserted the reference to The Knights of the Round Table into his design of the lowly toilet brush. Adding this extra dimension is important in categories in which more straightforward performance attributes have already been satisfied, and in situations in which purchasers make meaning about themselves through what they buy.

It is not part of business thinking to empathize with customers more than with providers, to be accomplished users of thought media beyond words and numbers, to skillfully put emotion into what they make and to extract insight from emotions designs provoke, and to enrich their designs with a cultural dimension. Because these things are missing from and complementary to business thinking they are what are most useful to call the attributes of design thinking.
Peter Laundy

I think Haig and Peter make good points, points that ought not be overlooked, but often are. I recently posted a minor diatribe against "design thinking" fetishism , the main thrust of which is that designers have no lock on what is termed "design thinking", and, in fact, "design thinking", as it is typically defined, is better thought of simply as "multi-disciplinary" thinking. The label "design thinking" is disingenuous, doing little more to serve certain design agencies who want to be seen as the new wave of management consultants.
For what it's worth, Roger Martin, author of this piece, commented on my piece, and had a remarkably cogent response.
Peter Merholz

Link didn't work. Trying again:
Peter Merholz

@Tim Belonax:

Thank you for bringing up Paul Rand, for he is one of the only people I would ever call a "design thinker". He provided us with "Design = Form + Content". And if you think design means sitting at a computer screen, you are the one who needs perspective.

@Matt: From your links, it seems innovation = reinventing the wheel. Their design aesthetic is unfortunately not impressive, save for maybe the Muji CD player... Their graphic design seems default and in some cases simply ornamental.

"Design thinking" is confusing and badly in need of a re-naming because it is not design-related. It is related to generalizations in business, philosophy, logic, market research, product development, possibly even science and mathematics.
These are all things which hinder and water down the power of design. Design by committee is not the answer. Just look at the state of design today: every logo looks like an iPhone widget.

To make generalizations about designers is misleading, too broad, and at worst, damaging. How is it that these consultants and motivational speaker types know so much about us designer types?

All we get from the term "design thinking" is more confusion. Think I'm wrong? Look at the title of the above article. Look how much explanation "design thinking" needs.

Design is not an exact science, and cannot be learned from a seminar, a business strategy book, or a consultant. It is not math or logic, for there is never any one way of thinking that you could apply to any problem, unless it was extremely general and therefore of what use?

Well, gotta go, I have some "work thinking" to do.


And is it really necessary to decontextualize and trivialize another of C.S. Peirce's conceptions and terms for consultants and designers to pep up, or add traces of credibility to, otherwise trivial messages? Though in relation to sign theory rather than logic, the above-mentioned John Dewey closed an article about Charles Morris' take on Peirce with words that have not lost any relevance: "'Users' of Peirce's writings should either stick to his basic pattern or leave him alone."
(Journal of Philosophy, XLIII/4, February 14, 1946, p.95. Don't miss Morris' and Dewey's letters to the editor in XLIII/7, p.196, and XLIII/10, p.280.)

Lazaridis' argument on the Newton smacks of rationalisation after the fact and 20/20 hindsight, but ultimately rubbish "What could you do with it that you couldn’t do with a laptop? Nothing. And everything you could do with it, you could do better with a laptop." is so wrong it's beyond laughable.

RIM being a competitor of Apple's doesn't help with the credibility of his statements either.

Of course we now know that the small size and low weight of successor PDAs (mainly the Pilot) won over handwriting recognition and versatility. But they don't always. If they did, mobile phones the size of the Nokias of the late 90s would be the yardstick today, not the big and heavy but more feature-rich smartphones.
Tom Voirol

From my, albeit limited, understanding of this subject, the only thing new about 'design thinking' is that its a new term for 'innovative thinking'.

I'm actually a strategy consultant working for one of the large management consultancies, so designers, please excuse my ignorance - but according to Roger Martin's definition, anything that lacks a precedent or anything that cannot be logically concluded from past data / experience can be classified as a product of 'design thinking.' How then, does this differ from innovation? And is "innovation is the new competitive advantage" really a book-worthy insight?

I agree that Mr. Martin has done a superb job of delineating the different types of logical reasoning and categorizing innovation under abductive reasoning is logically sound itself. However, espousing that an effective and sustainable business strategy is one that predicates on insight, innovation and intuition as well as logical reasoning, applicable data analysis and quantitative modeling, is not a revolutionary view. Business has always been the intersection of those two camps. A successful business strategy uses creativity and ingenuity to predict what's next and then gathers and analyzes any relevant data to determine 'how to win' in those uncharted waters. No successful business has ever achieved its heights without the abductive, inductive, deductive triology - although these terms are new, the ideas aren't.

oh, where to begin...?

Yet more pap to promote "design thinking" as though it's some quantifiable entity that can be distilled and served up raw like mere condiment. I suppose that works best in B-school: learning by case study method, where no real act of creation is required. When business schools start requiring their students to actually engage in the act of creation, the "mysterious moment" when one discovers that one has made something original, and not merely the result of focus groups, case-study copies, and forecast business plans, then maybe they will start to trust the knowledge, experience and yes, education, that graphic designers have to offer.

Cory has it right. But his criticism is only half complete. Graphic design professors are equally guilty of ascribing significance solely based on what can be designed based on deductive reasoning: the vast majority of profs tell students they must have a "concept" first before making anything, rather than allowing the creative act to play out and then teasing out or narrowing focus to the desired intent after the act of making, i.e. via inductive reasoning. It is much harder (and scarier) for educators to allow their charges to work in a play of creativity to work toward a solution. To do so requires that the instructor must be able to guide with destroying the students' intent. It requires that the instructor have a vast storehouse of knowledge and references at their intellectual fingertips, ready to inform the student and his or her work, beyond the immediate requirements of the brief. Until the day we start emphasizing the necessity of our students to take classes in philosophy, art history, literature, film studies, comp lit, cultural studies, women's studies, etc. we graphic designers will always be caught between poles of hyper rationalization (deductive reason), and its' other (inductive reasoning).
David Cabianca

@David Cabianca:

Yes, play is an important part of design, as is looking outside of graphic design for research and inspiration.

But to say that there can be a solution without an initial problem
makes little sense. How can one have an "intent" without
a concept to resolve? Design IS problem solving. Unless you are only talking about formal exercises for students, you are not talking about design. You can't take away the content.

As Paul Rand said: "When form predominates, meaning is blunted. And when content predominates, interest lags. The real genius is when form and content are indistinguishable".

In other words, you can't have one without the other.

And if students are meant to have as much freedom as you describe, then why are they in school?

If you are telling me that "design thinking" (sic), in addition to promoting design by committee, also promotes design without
a concept, then I am even more against it.


ref: "It is much harder (and scarier) for educators to allow their charges to work in a play of creativity to work toward a solution. To do so requires that the instructor must be able to guide with destroying the students' intent."
David Cabianca

Seems like there are several movements into this, what I think, very interesting direction of trying not to rely on past ideas/data/whatever but instead creating the future by just doing it. This thinking is nothing new as the article already suggested, and can also be explored in Otto Scharmer's "Theory U". Give the summary a read, it describes those points mentioned here and put them into a nice framework.

i think

simplicity in mind the time of a good observation

a deep breath in my mind while i do it is a good way of find things are there hiding and

design your business again ........................

i like the article
i like the theory

i am thinking now

Mr. Martin is very accurate when describing the complete lack of Logic training or comprehension in modern education. However, I found it interesting that the article attributes great vaule to the works of James and Dewey. It is rather ironic when one considers that it was James, Dewey and Hall (G.Stanley Hall was one of James' pupils), whose humanist philosophies and abhorrent logic produced the very educational system Mr. Martin justifiably condemns. More than just a hunch, Mr. Martin, but when we look at the data, Mr. William James' philosophies represent an abject failure in every ethical (business and legal) logical sense.

Consequently, the miserable life of James' student, Charles Sanders Peirce demonstrated the pratical failure of their logical, moral and philosophical framework.

If the business world has not caught on with abductive reasoning, design thinking, then it only needs to look at design thinking in the world of the most innovative social entrepeneurs.

@David Cabianca:

You still haven't addressed how it is possible to
work towards a solution without a problem to solve.


Kevin, Peirce a student of James? And since when does a "miserable life" "demonstrate[] the practical failure of their [...] philosophical framework"? Speaking of "abhorrent logic" ...

I am totally agree wit this post.Business world always need something new and different looks and design to improve business.

k.l. - Speaking of abhorrent logic... If you knew anything of the practical outworkings of Pierce's life you would see the miserable failure of the logical and philosophical underpinnings of his practical dogma.

I know Brent's CSP biography and the original PhD dissertation, part of the discussion about it, Fisch's articles on Peirce, Lenzen's report in the Transactions Vol 1 No 1 1965, some more favorable views by people closer to Peirce in JoP Vol XIII No 26, Peirce's letters to Lady Welby published in Semiotic & Significs in which he sometimes alludes to their situation, etc. Still, analysis is analysis, and life is life.

I swear sometimes I think this blog should be called "Graphic Design Observer" as much of the (critical) comments I've read seem to focus on why or accuse business-people trying to pass them off as designers or in some way trying to co-opt design for some dubious end. There are even comments list that slam IDEO directly as a company. Ok so are they (IDEO) pushing the term 'design-thinking' as part of some branding scheme to position their firm at the forefront of something? Probably. I'd add though they are not the first company that can be accused of creating language and way of looking at things to better position/differentiate their services, in my world this is called Marketing and it's something I've seen way too many designers utterly fail at. That said, I think what Tim (Brown) & Roger (Martin) are getting at is not some scheme to upend what designers do or to wash business-speak in a fresh coat of design paint (my words). When I think about what the word design means when used in the phrase 'design thinking' I find myself going back to the Fast Company article (http://j.mp/2UbDwR) which references Herbert Simon's definition of "design" as the "transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones" ("Sciences of the Artificial" MIT Press, 1969, p. 55) which I fully concur with. Seen this way, I think design-thinking is more about bringing a specific set of (design) methods & techniques into an environment which sees design as either decoration or a way to realize a concept or form communication once the deeper problems have been already framed (oftentimes incorrectly). This is what we see in most creative briefs, design-thinking lives before that.

As for where designers fall in all of this, the value inherent in design-thinking approach for graphic designers was very stated by @Matt (5th comment from the top) of which I wholeheartedly agree. For anyone else practicing in other design disciplines (industrial/product, interaction, experience, etc.) I think this give us all an opportunity to move a bit higher up on the food chain to actual problem-framing AND solving as opposed to strictly the latter.

My .02 - Fritz

Fritz Desir

@ Fritz:

For me the real problem with the term "design thinking" is
of semantics and syntactics. In both, it is simply wrong and
thus confusing.

Design IS thinking; it is the manifestation of ideas in visual
or physical form. Putting two words together that have the
same meaning is redundant. We never say "apple fruit"
instead of simply "apple". An apple is already a fruit.

The definition you give of design: "transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones" doesn't work in many situations.
For example: is a doctor also a designer since he heals, and health
is a preferred condition? I would argue not, for the same reason a mechanic is not a designer and neither is a construction worker:
A skilled craft is not the same as design.

I am not against design management or new, more efficent
systems for the business end of design. Many design firms badly
need help in this area. However, overall, we must be semantically and syntactically correct, or we are not good communicators,
which anyone involved with design should and must be.

Graphic Designer Thinking

As we've seen so much poor, or worse, intentionally obfuscatory (form conceals function) design infiltrate business since the advent of the internet, offshoring, and global trade, it's only natural that 'designers' and 'creatives' want a bigger say in what business produces, and why.

The 'design' of the default swaps dipped the entire U.S. housing market into what appeared to be a river of invulnerability, with the hidden intent of making heels out of anyone who didn't take the short position. The 'design' of Wal-Mart torched smalltown American culture as if Norman Rockwell were the enemy, all under the guise of 'lower prices.' The 'design' of Detroit's automakers was so rigid that when the temblors of just-in-time manufacturing shook it, the entire industry crumbled, and along with it the world's unquestioning faith in the quality of American-made products.

Because we are, by nature, storytellers, we gravitate toward dramatic depictions of a noble war. We design Trojan Horses, give them names like Abductive Reasoning, Purple Cow, A Whole New Mind or Creative Class, fill their bellies with armies of Quals, and roll them into Quant strongholds in hopes of reclaiming the Queen of the Quarter (Culture? Social Media? Innovation? Products? Platforms? Systems?)

I'm as big a fan of these Trojan Horse narratives as anyone. Who doesn't love underdog stories? And any victory over Quants is, in my book, one worth savoring. I do not, however, believe that these narratives end up being very practical. 'Driving heuristic to algorithm' and 'every person wants to be a design thinker' are the kinds of statements that come across, eventually, as further declarations of war between the Quants and the Quals.

Instead of these kinds of 'win/lose' outcomes, I think we have to look for narratives that can be shared, and produce win/win outcomes. Let's begin with the notion of chaos as a persistent state and design from there. Wherever there is chaos, there is an explicit need: to make sense of the world. That calls for design.

Example: Small communities across the U.S. are desperately in need of design. Designers need to get in there now, not after a community's sense of itself and its own uniqueness has been Wal-Marted out of existence. This is what designers do, we champion uniqueness. Presenting that uniqueness as a value proposition for business and global markets can be a productive collaboration between the Quants and the Quals.

Thanks for the post, Roger, very provocative!


Thank you very much for this collection of thoughts. I am truly not the type of person who directly run into the other direction and say thanks a lot and now we jump back into the other direction and call design art. But to streamline everything down to business processes could/will bring designers into the same trap as engineers and other professions find themself today. Even if engineers perhaps feel more comfortable in algorythm like processes. But it is true that it kills creativity and one of the main KPIs of designers but alos a KPI of all generative professions as you need to solve problems focused on a target.

like all the other methods e.g. COOPERs Goal directed design method balance between chaos and clean linearity is key to reach the goal at the end with potentials in your hand. Just the the goal or just potentials will not create value.

DesignThinking itself is not bad as it is not so diffenret to already long approved methods + a twist of EMOTION but perhaps in a few years after a path of convergence we find a new name for the good aspects and can deconnect it from design as a tool which than can be used by all professions if worth to use and to create value.

Like some similar approaches are called already Imageneering or “product thinking”. The valueable method does not need to belong to design. The question will be who should be than the owner of the method? Business Economics, Engineers, Ethnographs?

Or do we find a new island for it?

It is a great journey for designers and the others who find themself converging at the moment.
Thanks for sharing informative information.
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