The Problem With Design Thinking: Conversation With Bryan Boyer

“Design Thinking” has overtaken “Sustainability” to become the latest business buzz word; however, there are flaws in the way it is being adapted to corporate settings. In a conversation with Bryan Boyer, Architect and Strategic Design Lead at Sitra & Helsinki Design Lab, I gained a designer’s perspective. Below are three reasons why we need to re-think Design Thinking.

(image credit: The Danish Design Centre)

1) Thinking is important, but the biggest challenge is the actual “doing”

Design Thinking can create holistic, innovative, out-of-the-box solutions; however, if a brilliant solution is followed by an inflexible execution plan to roll it out, we miss the whole point of thinking like a designer. Bryan points out that one of the key parts of being a designer is to steward something from the first sketches to the final implementation because “there is a big gap in the plans that you draw and what actually gets built”. Making a solution work requires tweaking and changes as-you-go to account for the unexpected and unpredictable realities of everyday life.

2) Design Thinking is inherently short term

The current literature and conversation around Design Thinking focuses on the short-term. For example, when we look at standard consulting projects by the big players (for ex. BCG, Bain or McKinsey), their mandate generally includes 1) analysis, 2) recommendations, and 3) a report outlining the implementation plan. In other words, sticking around longer term to smooth out the kinks and make sure it all works and is implemented correctly is seldom part of the contract. Why not?  There are a lot of reasons. Some point to the financial incentives (the low-cost/high-yield nature of focusing on the planning phase) or the desire to associate with success (implementation is often blamed for failed projects). On the other hand, sometimes it’s not possible to stay on a project long-term due to confidentiality or security conflicts (for ex. with certain public sector projects). At any rate, Design Thinking is only the beginning and must move past the short-term to reach its full potential.

3) Design Thinking is over-hyped and ignores the complexity of the design process.

“If design is seen as a magical seed that you can drop into the board room and after a couple of days of workshop expect the executive suite to be transformed into a design facility, that pretty significantly under values what designers bring“ – Bryan Boyer

Understanding and respecting the design process is necessary before we can attempt to gain from its insights.

So what does this all mean? Design Thinking is a powerful and useful tool but it is only one part of the equation. Ideas are a dime a dozen, it is what you do with them. Plans are important but the real legwork is in the re-jigging and adjusting of ideas/solutions to make them fit with the real world.

Bryan is working to help the public sector create it’s own design capacity and advocates for placing designers within teams inside the ministries and municipalities, which his team is bringing to life via Sitra’s Design Exchange initiative. Other initiatives Bryan started with Sitra include Brickstarter (see what WIRED had to say about it) and Open Kitchen (hear Finnish celebrity chef Antto Melasiemi explain the concept in this video). One of the main questions his team at Sitra and Helsinki Design Lab attempts to answer is: how do we help the public sector cope with the challenges it faces more effectively? To learn more about what Bryan is working on these days, visit his personal blog and the HDL blog.

To hear from Bryan in person, don’t miss his upcoming talks at MaRS Discovery District (Toronto – Tuesday, Nov 13, 2012) and UBC Sauder’s ISIS Research Centre (Vancouver – Thursday, Nov 15, 2012). Note: while the event room in Toronto is sold out, we will be live-streaming his presentation in an adjoining room. Tickets for the overflow room are free.

[This post first appeared on on January 29, 2012 and on April 2, 2012.]

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Satsuko VanAntwerp About Satsuko VanAntwerp

Satsuko is a business thinker who loves figuring out what makes people tick. She is a Partner and Business Ethnographer at InWithForward, a social enterprise that works with people, professionals, and policy-makers to turn social safety nets into trampolines. Prior to joining InWithForward, she was a manager at Social Innovation Generation, where she led the Lab program. She holds an International Masters of Business Administration from Schulich School of Business, with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship from Copenhagen Business School.


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