Design thinking: superpower or design theatre?

Reflections from the Brainstorm Design 2019 conference and their relevance through 2020.

As the planet’s lone professor of Business Design and Innovation (at least for now), I was invited to attend the Singapore-based Brainstorm 2019 event hosted by the editors of Fortune and Wallpaper magazines. Brainstorm Design is a new conference exploring design’s role in business through the lens of FORTUNE 500’s most powerful executives and the world’s most talented designers.

Brainstorm Design 2019: Redesigning with Design (photo by Fortune.com)

A curated crowd of designers and design thinkers gathered at the March 2019 event to explore the themes of design’s vision, value and scale. I eagerly accepted with the idea of leading an autoethnographic study, all about observing and translating the conversations of the 100 designers and senior business leaders at the event. Field book in hand, I did my best to capture and examine the shared and dissonant meanings of design’s value in business.

Here are some of my reflections.

Musings on design’s ascendance

Design is experiencing a renaissance. From its first introduction in the late 14th century, design was a noun that described a specific type of making and marking. Over the next 400 years, it evolved into a verb describing a process of “making with intention”. And by the end of the 20th century it was embraced as a highly-valued trade or craft associated with “planning and executing with fashion and artistic skill”. It was firmly established as both noun and verb.

The third decade of the 21st century brings us something new and powerful: design’s transition from purposeful craft to economic advantage.

With the economy’s new focus on experience, design is a major player. From our favourite smartphone apps, to personalized coffee drinking services and just-in-time home delivery, design is everywhere and is viewed as critical to success.

Design pays off for early adopters

Business leaders who followed hunches on design’s desirability are reaping the rewards in profits, investments and buzz. The ranks of these early adopters include former IDEO CEO Tim Brown, Amazon’s VP of Echo and Alexa devices Miriam Daniel, IBM design VP Doug Powell, and Dyson CEO Jim Rowan. Their positions, and their companies’ growth, are concrete evidence of design as a superpower. It’s the intermediary between the human and the material, and is playing a critical role in three key dialogues: human to human, human to machine, and machine to machine.

The perils of ‘design theatre’

Chief design officers are popping up everywhere, as are the likes of senior design officers, imagination officers, and various others with showy titles designed to signal their creativity. But design’s principles remain unevenly distributed, and more importantly, poorly understood by business executives. With attraction comes flirtation. Many organizations engage in ‘design theatre’, exchanging trinkets (aka sticky notes and markers) that amuse, rather than making a real and lasting impact.

Image: Stage and Scenic Designer cameronanderson.net

Key themes: design dichotomies and dualities

Design embraces art and science, craft and scale, strategy and marketing, measures and metrics. These can be arenas for great tension, but that’s where design’s true power reigns. It mediates and translates, and acts as a communicator of form, function and fit.

  1. Design and/or design thinking: Designers are established practitioners and disciples of architectural, industrial, visual and interaction design. They have deep expertise in their craft. Then along came design thinkers, a new tribe that uses select techniques from the designers’ toolkit in their business function. At their best, these newcomers are champions of user or customer-centered initiatives, as demonstrated by the likes of IDEO, the Singapore Design Council and Salesforce. At worst, they are online-trained consultants offering a flawed new service to unsuspecting managers. This is a sentiment broadly shared at the conference by leading designers and academics.
  2. Design chasm and/or bridge: With 30-plus years of experience as a designer (communications, product, services, and pedagogy), I embraced the conference delegates’ shared sense that many business leaders have arrived at the lip of a precipice: a “design as curio” chasm. To cross that chasm, leaders require both design literacy and evidence that design works for them. Design is poised as the bridge to profits and impact, with designers and their design-thinking cousins emerging in the role of guide. We are here to educate, nudge and influence design leadership inside organizations.
  3. Money and/or meaning. The Singapore Design Council offered examples of design-driven prosperity for the city-state through job creation and GDP growth. Ditto for several agencies (IDEO, Gehl and Frog), consultancies (McKinsey and IBM) and corporations (Salesforce, Amazon, Facebook and Muji), who all outlined design’s positive return on investment and how it has changed the economic realities involving supply chain and environmental complexities.
Money and impact image: https://impactalpha.com/can-we-put-a-dollar-value-on-impact-reactions-to-the-rise-funds-impact-multi

However, one debate lingered over the three-day conference, reflecting corporate boardroom conversations — the lack of a shared vocabulary, impact measures and articulated value of design across an organization, sector or nation.

The conclusion? Design, through its young cousin design thinking, has earned significant merit and value, as evidenced by McKinsey & Co.’s report The Business Value of Design. Just keep in mind that half-assed strategies and design theatre are kryptonite to its superpowers.

About the author: Dr. Angèle Beausoleil is the Assistant Professor of Business Design and Innovation at the Rotman School of Management. She teaches, researches and consults on human-centred design for business innovation, transformation and leadership.

professor, business designer, innovation agent, strategist, inventor, tech passionista, renaissance woman.