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Design Thinking Is Thinking Differently

Think Different

When Apple exploded onto the scene with their iconic 1984 introduction to the Macintosh, they immediately cemented their reputation as an innovation-oriented firm that breaks from the status quo—disruptive and non-conformist in every way and ready to challenge established thinking head-on. This is not your ordinary company. This is not your ordinary product. This is, in fact, a revolution—a new way of thinking. They later said it more maturely in their 1997 Think Different campaign. One could troll about the bad grammar in comment threads on YouTube, but the message was clear: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who really do.” They think differently, and you can, too.

The Apple story is both a metaphor and real-life example of the nature of so-called design thinking. It gets a lot of lip-service as just a buzzword these days, but recent and past events that I’ve experienced make me want to offer that design thinking truly is a different way of thinking. It is real, and it is still very new and different to many people and organizations who have never thought this way before.

Different Thinking

Apologies to Neil deGrasse Tyson on his recent sobering critique of hemispheric thinking labels, but it very often seems as though some of us are right-brained and some of us are left-brained. While this has been proven to be untrue and we all use both hemispheres of our brains, the way in which each of us thinks and what we are motivated to do are obviously very different. This is why we have artists, designers, and dancers, and also why we have scientists, mathematicians, and technicians.

This brings me to a story from college days that drives home these differences in thinking. While attending University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a friend and I both took a sociology class together. He was a computer science major. I majored in graphic design and theatre. (His parents were much happier than mine, btw.) An Intro to Sociology 101 was a required course for a Liberal Arts degree, but it was also considered by all students as a “crip course”—a class so easy that any human being could easily pass with little effort. But while I sailed through it, my friend struggled greatly and actually faced a failing grade. I puzzled at how my super-smart pal could not grasp the concepts of this seemingly most human of classes. How could a genius possibly fail a “crip course”?

I realized then that it was because my friend and I had very different ways of thinking. As a designer, an actor, and a humanist, I was a student of human nature and psychology. I mastered this course easily, played with it, and reveled in it, even to the point of challenging my professors’ ways of thinking on their dated notions of social norms. As a technician, a mathematician, and a programmer, my friend struggled with it, agonized over it, and nearly failed. To me working with computers was new. To him it was not. Working with the strange and illogical motivations of people was new, and for him it was much more difficult. I began to understand that there was, in fact, a fundamental cognitive difference between us. I knew we would forever see the world in two very different ways. He was a clinical thinker. I was a design thinker.

I recently found more evidence of this in a research study. When faced with arguments from peers that design thinking is not really different than any other type of thinking, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Within the posted definition, I became keenly interested in the experiment conducted by architect and design researcher, Bryan Lawson, author of How Designers Think. He examined how a group of architects and a group of scientists each solved the challenge of arranging colored blocks into a series of specified patterns. What Bryan observed was two entirely different problem-solving methods between the two groups. The scientists were problem-focused in their methods. The architects were solution-focused.

It’s Not Just Thinking

Most of my peers and colleagues in the design industry argue that there is no such thing as design thinking—that it’s all just thinking.

But to me, this assertion presumes we all think alike, and minimizes the value of our diversity of thought and impact. It’s true that design thinking applies designer sensibilities and methods to problem solving. There are different types of designers with different sensibilities. For example, a graphic designer versus an experience strategist. One designs a beautiful window to an experience, while the other applies a systems-thinking approach to design the holistic omnichannel experience. However, they both share the common desire to make people care.

As designers we take this way of thinking for granted, but we must also understand that many will always struggle with it. They will describe your humanist, design-oriented methods as “fuzzy” or “fluffy.” They will ask you for a pre-defined list of activities and deliverables that attempts to quantify your messy, qualitative, solution-based ways of solving problems. They will want the black-and-white solutions, because they are largely blind to the shades of grey that designers understand—until they see it work, and find economic value from design thinking.

Design Thinking Is a Virtue

My most recent opinion is that design thinking is the abstraction of most other design schools of thought that we now know as experience design, service design, and CX/UX design. These schools of thought are inherently humanist in nature, and are driven by virtue. They seek to make the world a better place for people by solving the business and civic problems created by companies and organizations, for the betterment of all. We experience designers think of design as a noble cause. We sleep well, comforted by the fact that we create value for companies, solve the wicked problems facing society, and generally make life better through design. We now find ourselves celebrated in a hyper-connected, always-on world where experiences matter more than ever, and every little moment and touchpoint interaction must be designed.

It still comes as a surprise to me that many companies and organizations are only just now realizing the value of experience design, and design thinking in general. I’ve helped introduce these concepts and practices to many major organizations and brands over the past two decades, and I still get to do so on a regular basis. It has long been proven that companies who focus on design outperform their competitors, and firms like Apple continue to show the market-dominating value of design thinking and human-centered innovation as a fundamental way of doing business.

Design thinking is a different way of thinking and solving problems. It is also a method for creating a better world through innovation. Design thinking allows us to envision what could be, and get there by design. This is creative thinking, thinking outside the box, the art of the possible.

What was true in 1984 and 1997 is true today—“think different” with design thinking and you can change the world. Or at least gain a competitive advantage.

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