On Design Thinking,
Business, the Arts, STEM ...
March + April 2010
Jon: In 1996 I took a class called “Introduction to
Design Thinking” at Carnegie Mellon, taught by
Richard Buchanan; he’d been teaching it for years.
I learned a lot, and it’s obviously shaped the way I
consider design, culture, and behavior. Why do you
think it’s only now, some 14 years later, that the
language related to the intellectual and intangible
aspects of design is beginning to catch on?
Richard: Also in 1996, when a definition of design
that has little to do with design thinking reigned
supreme—even more than it does now—graphic
designer turned business designer Clement Mok
published a design-thinking book entitled Designing
Business: Multiple Media, Multiple Disciplines. I suspect it was read mostly by other designers, akin to
the fact that Buchanan’s class was taught in the
School of Design rather than the School of Business.
The world of business has been catching on more
recently, in part because of the urgings of people
considered to be from the business world rather
than outside it, perhaps particularly Roger Martin.
The business media also began to catch on in
recent years. Now design thinkers are increasingly
writing for the business media, just as more are
influencing MBA programs. As you’ll remember, we
published articles in interactions during 2008 about
two of the early MBA-program examples—one
Don Norman started at Northwestern University
and one Nathan Shedroff started at the California
College of the Arts.
An important additional motivator has been the
nasty mess the world is in, which is often pointed to
as powerful evidence of the inadequacies of applying analytical thinking—the dominant thinking in
Jon: So in some respects, it seems like you attri-
bute the historic lack of adoption of these tech-
niques and methods to the audience to which they
were positioned—we were teaching the right things,
but to the wrong people. I agree, but only in part.
Many in business are now celebrating the popularity
of design thinking (some even adopting an acronym,
DT, a sure sign that the movement has come of age).
But it is the same business machine that encour-
aged and supported the single-dimensional view of
design as a styling or decorative activity, and this is
the same corporate infrastructure that jumped on
bandwagons like IT and total cost of ownership, Six
Sigma and quality, supply-chain management, off-
shoring, and any other term du jour. I have very lit-
tle expectation that design and design thinking are
sustainable in a business context without a massive
culture baseline to support them. Let me explain.