Literature review: Brown, T. (2008) Design thinking

This article is the introduction of the concept of design thinking that suggests a more crucial role of designers than just managing the appearance products. The target reader of the introduction is mainly the senior managers and the management researchers.

His argument is based on the practice at IDEO, where he himself is CEO. Through the cases in the agency, he describes key aspects of design thinking such as human-centredness, collaboration and prototyping.

[zotpressInText item=”{9N7V2I6Z}” format=”%a% (%d%, %p%)” and=”and”] had also published a book about the practice of IDEO in 2001. In the book, most of the examples were about new product development. On the other hand, the main example in this article is a project of redesigning the procedure of nurses in a hospital. This suggests design is no longer only about designing physical objects but designing the whole context surrounding products and services.

Brown argues that, for this more holistic design, designers use design thinking and he calls those designers design thinkers. The design thinkers in his argument are not necessarily designers. He mentions Thomas Edison and Kingdom Brunel as the examples of design thinkers.

Some researchers on design management criticise that the argument by IDEO, or even the entire discourse of design thinking ignores the previous context of the design management research [zotpressInText item=”{NNJBZTPB}”]. Actually, for example, [zotpressInText item=”{TBTD8XTP}” format=”%a% (%d%, %p%)”] already used the term, human-centred design, and argued the expansion of the domain of design from products to projects, but there is no reference to his research in their arguments.

However, describing the designer’s approach through the examples of their actual design projects was seemingly successful to disseminate the concept, and more or less their terminology was effective to understand the key aspects of their approach as part of their practice. For instance, prototyping, which is an important concept in this research, is also one of the key terms of their argument. Through this term, they represent some of the key issues in managing innovation that need many academic concepts to describe such as wicked problems, reflection-in-action and boundary objects. This also makes it easier to imagine how actually designers behave and respond, which is in this case prototyping.

This obviously causes another theoretical problem. Because Brown heavily uses the examples of their own projects as CEO of IDEO, it arises a question whether their concepts really represent the practice of designers in general or not. Even part of the discourse of design thinking can be seen as an argument only about their practice [zotpressInText item=”{8X83DS2X}” and=”and”].

These theoretical issues could cast doubt on their claims, but it is clear that they attracted the attention to the competitive advantage of design practice from the outside of the design community and especially from the management community.

Acknowledging this theoretical background for the validity of their argument, there are still some important conceptual elements for this research. One is how Brown describes their design process. While he divides the process into three phases, inspiration, ideation and implementation, he makes the boundaries blur by using the concept of spaces to describe the process. This concept can be relevant to the concept of minimum viable product (MVP) in the study of business model development [zotpressInText item=”{C7N37VUV}”]. A key point of MVP is to implement a product for gaining feedback even if the product has been developed only to be minimally viable. In a sense, this is an attempt to remove the boundaries among inspiration, ideation and implementation, and take advantage of the learning from implementation for the earlier phases. The tactics using MVP might more intentionally try to make the iterative learning happen than the model of the design process proposed by Brown, but their concepts seem to resonate each other.

Another point is the holistic view of design thinking to see a problem and the solution.  In his concept, design thinking concerns three elements: technological viability, financial feasibility and emotional desirability. This is partly a criticism against more approach-specific strategies for innovation such as technology-centric approach. Instead of focusing on only one dimension of the possible solutions, he claims that design approach can take a balance among the three to optimise the result.

This holistic perspective is similar to what the business model approach tries to provide. [zotpressInText item=”{KE75M8ZH}” format=”%a% (%d%, %p%)” and=”and”] produces a tool of analysing business models called business model canvas, and the key advantage of the tool is to quickly see the snapshot of a business. This can help you to see the problems and assumptions in the business in a more neutral way from a holistic view. This approach assumes that there are opportunities for innovation might be in blind spots of the business.

These things in common suggests the familiarity between design thinking approach and business model approach to manage innovation. Although the origins of the two approaches are seems to be different; design thinking is from a practice of design, and business model is from a managerial background. However, both of them seek a way of identifying and solving problems from a more holistic approach. Connecting the two can develop a more comprehensive understanding and framework for managing innovation.

Bibliographic information

Brown, T. (2008) Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86 (6), pp.84–92.


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