Earlier this year, an episode of the sitcom 30 Rock made great work of parodying Six Sigma, the business-management system developed by Motorola. With its penchant for pseudoscientific jargon and karate-inspired hierarchies, it makes for a ripe target, but it’s hardly a unique phenomenon. Every few years, the business world latches onto some new management paradigm that promises to reinvigorate corporate America and—perhaps more critically—maintain liquidity in the highly lucrative business-consultancy sector.
The latest panacea offered by the management-industrial complex, as you may have noted, is “design thinking.” A whole raft of books on this subject has hit stores over the past year. There’s Warren Berger’s Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World, a Gladwellian self-help primer drawn from the platitudinous mind of design guru Bruce Mau. There’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, a manual for the MBA set penned by Ideo’s Tim Brown. There’s Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value, by Thomas Lockwood, president of the Design Management Institute, whatever that is. These are just a few of your options, and if they don’t suffice, you can enroll in Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where you can earn a graduate degree in, yes, Design Thinking.
For the practicing architect, this new trend (fad?) must be received, on some basic level, as a kind of long-sought validation. To the extent that “design thinking” correlates to a systematic emphasis on research, collaboration, modeling, and critical evaluation—that is to say, an idealized vision of the design process—one can only applaud its broader adaptation by the business world. Presumably, a greater respect for the thinking characteristic of design professionals will lead to a greater respect for design professionals themselves. (And higher fees? Well, let’s not get carried away.) Indeed, we can probably trace this newfound appreciation for design methodology to the higher status of architecture and design in the public realm over the past couple of decades. It is a field born of Frank Gehry and Steve Jobs.
It is more than a bit ironic, then, that architects, the standard-bearers of professional design, are virtually nonexistent in discussions about design thinking. At Stanford, for instance, you can study design thinking with a dancer, a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, or a mechanical engineer, but not an architect. Architecture, the profession that ever casts itself as befitting a place at the table where decisions of import are made, has been relegated—as usual—to the children’s dining area, if even there.
Perhaps there’s some justification in this affront. If architecture is an insecure profession, it is also an egotistical one, its practitioners frequently harboring the belief that they are somehow uniquely possessed of an ordering vision to which the world should simply conform. Too many architects don’t just want a seat at the table, but the seat at the very head of the table, from which they can pontificate ad nauseam. This is not the kind of design thinking that the design thinking folks want to promote.
Still, the absence of the architecture profession from this conversation is somewhat alarming, as it suggests a certain willful disinterest as to the lessons that might be drawn from its history. It also implies a somewhat fixed conception of the design process. The systematic practice that characterizes design thinking is no magical elixir to any challenge, architectural or otherwise. And, of course, many design thinkers aren’t particularly systematic at all. Put 100 accomplished architects in a room and you’ll find 100 different design methodologies, all of them legitimate, so long as the end product is a success.
Collaboration, a hallmark of design thinking, may be vital for large projects, but at some point at the beginning of any endeavor, someone has to sit down in front of a blank page and make a mark. That creative act requires a combination of disciplined training, historical knowledge, personal experience, and natural ability that no system can provide. And this illustrates a truth about systems: They are only as good as the material they process. Although “design thinking” suggests a kind of progressive altruism, it’s not necessarily benign. One could argue that the most comprehensive application of design thinking in history was the orchestration of the Nazi war machine by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. Educating businesspeople in the ways of design practice, if nothing else, can only improve the lot of future architects when these professionals become clients. As clothier Sy Syms, a design thinker in his own way, always told us, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Whatever its value, it’s worth noting that design thinking did not quite emerge organically as an academic field of study. Though its currency is undeniable, it has had a deep-pocketed sponsor in Hasso Plattner, a German technology magnate who has funded several design-thinking initiatives, including the Stanford institute (to which he gave more than $35 million) that bears his name. The good news, of course, is that with that kind of money, you can do a lot of design thinking about design thinking.