After 10 minutes of polite conversation, Maria finally got to the crux of what she was hoping to discuss:
“To be honest, the biggest pushback I’m facing to improve our UX process is coming from the design team!”
Maria paused on the other end of the phone, sighed, and finished her thought…
“I thought, of all groups, the other designers would be more open to design thinking.”
Maria is a senior UX director at a large marketing software company. When she joined 18 months before, she’d intended to initiate a new design-driven philosophy across the company. But in over last several months, she’d become deflated by the organization’s unwillingness to change—the biggest resistance coming from colleagues within design who pre-dated her arrival.
This was hardly the first time I’d spoken with someone who wanted to spark change through design thinking but found themselves stonewalled by an existing design aristocracy.
I’ve similarly had plenty of awkward but otherwise interesting conversations with design laureates—you know, those folks who say things like, “I was doing UX before it was called UX!”
You can also read countless articles that spout venom for design thinking—especially design sprints. I’ve even seen design thinking equated with syphilis, an argument which displays a level of hyperbole that is as humorous as it is absurd.
Seriously, some people HATE design thinking.
I recently read the following quote:
“The rise of IDEO and the popularity of ‘design thinking’ as a business strategy has tended to conflate what used to be a specific craft skill to the level of vague and generalized management theory.”
I disagree with (but understand) just about everything this author expressed. But the article helped me gather my thoughts.
I've noticed that resistance to design thinking—whether experienced by me personally or by others who have shared similar stories—often comes down to good old-fashioned fear. But that fear stems from a misunderstanding about what design thinking is, and who it's really for. Design thinking isn't a doctrine, it's a common language.
Let's take a look at both these points more closely:
1. Fear of design thinking, and
2. Design thinking as a platform for non-designers
Fear of design thinking
A wise man once told me that our actions are driven by 2 fundamental forces: fear and love.
I’ve not met a single designer over the years that doesn’t love design in its purest sense. Likewise, designers have fought exceptionally long and hard to earn their seat at the table. And it’s paying off, as designers now rightfully occupy C-level positions at many of the most progressive companies.
And now here comes along this notion that, through design-thinking-powered design transformation, everyone will be a designer!
If I were a designer, I would take that to mean that everything I’ve worked so hard to build will be distributed to the masses. That my design systems will be changed based on the whims of anyone who knows how to fumble through a journey map. And that I’ll be designing products and services based on design sprint doodles, storyboards, and prototypes.
No wonder there’s been so much foot stomping. 🤬🤬🤬
But here’s the most important lesson I’ve learned about design thinking that I hope designers will consider: Design thinking was actually created for the rest of us.
In other words, it helps to establish the platform that makes it possible for designers to thrive at their craft.
Design thinking gives teams a common language
Design thinking’s most important contribution to design is the common language that it provides for designers and non-designers to communicate and co-create. Design thinking can and should prevent folks from playing a game of product ping pong.
Design thinking is one approach of many that makes it safe for non-designers to understand, appreciate, and contribute to the design process so that designers can put their specific craft skills to use—without getting overwhelming resistance or setbacks from non-designers.
This idea really gelled for me when I listened to Suzanne Pellican talk about designing design at Intuit. She and others worked for years to train everyone else on design principles, so that designers could eventually became empowered to do their core job in a supportive environment.
What design thinking is really about
Design thinking created a platform for me—an engineer by trade—to not only fall in love with design, but also to make use of its mindsets and methods to solve real, important business challenges.
It also allowed me to get over my fear of design imposter syndrome—I’m not claiming to be a designer, I’m just borrowing and remixing tools from the designer’s toolkit.
I’ve spoken with so many non-designers who are trying to break into design thinking, but are worried that their research, engineering, product, etc. (non-design) upbringing will hold them back.
Spoiler: It won’t.
The desire to bring design thinking into an organization has little to do with an interest in to create interfaces in lieu of trained designers.
Instead, design thinking is adopted by people who are interested in taking advantage of its ability to improve trust, teamwork, accountability, performance, and conflict resolution. And sure, along the way you’re going to learn together some truly insightful things about the products and services you should and should not be creating.
At no point should we frame design thinking as a tool to democratize the critical role designers play in the grand scheme of things.
In the end, it’s about developing an environment wherein we communicate and contribute to the products and services we create on equal footing.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared on LinkedIn in November 2018. ]