Future of Design Thinking?

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of buzz around Design Thinking. Recently, a new discussion has begun in many forums — “Where is Design thinking headed? What does the future hold?” I’ve been a part of quite a few of these discussions now, along with some practical experiences. I felt it was the right time (and medium) to share my opinion on this topic. These are not conclusions or firm beliefs. These are just my flow of thoughts that will evolve, grow, and even change based on more experiences and some feedback. (Isn’t that true about life, in general)?

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I got introduced to design quite recently. For other readers who are just starting off with design, here is a brief on how design(& Design Thinking) evolved in our country .—

The concept of Design in India, began as an art form. It was once just a practice that helped make objects, spaces and experiences more beautiful. Since then, design has evolved over the years — from design as aesthetics to design as a process and now, design as a strategic-innovation-methodology.

Today, Design Thinking (the mindset and approach of Design) is at a stage where we understand its importance across domains. Momentum is building up in support of the ideology that Design Thinking(DT) must be readily available for all. This will ensure maximum positive impact of design in the country. But, there is a flip-side. As part of the next evolutionary process that Design is going through right now, design thinking is being corporatized. In trying to associate everything with a tangible outcome (or cost), we are losing the essence of design and why it exists in the first place.

If we google ‘design thinking’, we get over a billion results. These include a multitude of definitions, thousands of ‘tools’, and a couple of adwords pointing us to some universities and numerous courses. However, any mention of ‘why’ these tools were formed/designed, is a rarity.

Interestingly we might notice that the tools that were created in design thinking can be recreated, reinvented and altered every time as per the situation. DT can be implemented every time a new problem arises. We needn’t force-fit existing tools in all the challenges we face. We can alter them and find new meaning and solution with every new challenge.

Like in mathematics, we start by deriving a theorem first and then apply it to practical examples. If we simply start by knowing the end-point of a theorem to solve mathematical problems, without knowing how and why the theorem was derived, it becomes counter-intuitive in nature. But if we know how the theorem was derived, we build a strong foundation, focused on the basics. Armed with such an understanding of the theorem, there is little chance that we may falter in solving any problem presented. We will always find a way.

So how do we increase the reach of design thinking? Is uniformity the answer? Yes, there is no harm in creating order and well-defined structures to be able to cater to the masses. But in order to make Design Thinking relatable to all, we are trying too hard to structure, define and organise it too much. It will work better with a little less structure. It might be more impactful when it is more dynamic for it to be put in any culture and context.

There is one thing I can be sure of, and many designers will vouch for this- Design Thinking is not quantum physics. There is not a lot of theory or hard core subject matter that needs to be studied extensively. Design and design skills, however, have a technical side to them. But many a time I come across non-designers who are better design thinkers than professional designers themselves.

So why are we complicating the entire process? Can we not keep it simple and bring that design sense back to people? Can we not make it easy for everyone to understand simple concepts once again? Can the future of Design Thinking be the past of Design Thinking?

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Many design companies call themselves ‘design consultancies’ and many freelancers (including yours truly) call themselves ‘design consultants’. We conduct design research for clients and come up with impactful strategies. We proudly present our findings to our clients and plan an implementation schedule. But oddly enough, once we are ready to move forward and execute our plan, (and it has happened with me quite a few times), the ideas don’t translate to executions.

A majority of us, in the design communities, took up design to bring about a change. However, as design consultants, we focus on what’s on our plate — research & strategy. But we don’t actually take part in the implementation of that strategy. Our role, at that moment, ENDS.

But the ‘impact’ is minimal. Because many of these disruptive and innovative solutions don’t reach the implementation cycle. Is that really what design started off as? Research, ideation, and a full stop?

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Some time back, I was invited for a much-needed discussion on the ‘Future of Design Thinking’ by Leftbrain&design — a design consultancy based in Delhi.

Even though I shall be focusing on the context at hand, many interesting points and learnings were discussed as part of this forum. We covered a lot more than just the future of Design Thinking.

Two important questions that came up were:

Are we really solving problems or just creating new ones?

Will it survive?

Well, if Design Thinking continues to stand for what it truly means, only then will it survive this phase of evolution. Unfortunately, because of many factors, be it designers, or the system itself(we are a developing nation after all), Design Thinking-based solutions may not always be applied optimally.

If Implementation is a problem then it is high time we apply Design Thinking to Implementation as well. We need to reinvent the wheel at that stage.

I’m not sure if DT by definition, and with its fixed set of toolkits, could help achieve this. But another form of DT, which has created this mindset of being open, collaborative and human-centric (which is now called the‘Design Culture’) has definitely some power to get us to reinvent, or rethink the implementation cycle.

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So where does the future lie?

{The answer to this question ends with a question. But it definitely is a thought starter that seeks a lot of inputs from all DT practitioners.}

We, as designers, have created a problem in Design itself. It’s time to solve the problems we have created.

Can we:

- get design thinking back to what it was, to what it stood for, originally?

- apply this revived form of design thinking to all stages of solving problems?

For instance:

When we talk of a strategic DT solution, in most cases, the implementation cycle can vary from less than a year to even five or ten years. For a project at a grassroots level, the implementation cycle may be no less than a decade long (if the reach has to be scaled eventually). And at the business innovation level, the cycle mostly varies from one to five years.

But in the existing model of consultation i.e. designing a solution and handing it over to a company (with the hope that the solution will get implemented), can we really make sure design thinking is bringing about a change?

When we talk about design culture what does that really mean? Culture, by definition, refers to something that is sustained. To make ourselves relevant in a modern and evolving India, we need to reinvent design — focus on sustenance. It has to mean a lot more than just handing over an idea to an end client. We need to think of design as a continuous engagement. DT talks about designing services, focusing on long term engagements. It is high time we think of design itself as a Service and a supporting structure.

There could be many models and many modes to do that. Also, one cannot support and sustain a radical idea alone. The overarching belief of redefining design in the country can lead to a lot more collaborations and associations. It can even open up multiple new avenues where design never existed before.

This might be the right time for a rain-check, and reinvent ourselves to be able to really solve a problem.

Design. Innovation. Change