What could be more passe than to define Design Thinking now — now that it has been over-hyped, described in a million ways, implemented very glamorously and expensively, found to not live up to the hype and finally publicly declared dead?
Nonetheless, Design Thinking ought to be defined, as crisply as possible, because it is a real thing with a precise meaning, and knowing its precise meaning is required to approach it in the right way and get those promised results. Without this precision, Design Thinking is really little more than an appearance of systematic creative activity, a style of carrying on, and unwarranted hopes.
So here’s my definition. Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems that involve hybrid systems composed of both objective and subjective elements. By objective elements I mean entities that exist “out there”, as physical objects, virtual objects, environments, services, and anything else a person can encounter in the world. And by subjective elements I mean ideas, thoughts, emotions, decisions, perceptions — all those things a person experiences “in here”.
In its inclusion of subjective elements in its problem definitions, design distinguishes itself from engineering, which treats only systems composed of objective elements.
The 20th Century was obsessed with the creative possibilities of cleansing problems of subjective elements. And in many areas, especially in the physical sciences and the technologies based on the physical sciences, this was the key to progress. However, this systematic elimination of subjectivity was misunderstood by many to be one of the key principles of scientific method. A scientific approach to anything involving human beings meant treating human beings strictly as objective entities (behaving objects) and removing the messier and more arbitrary elements of human experience — subjectivity.
In fact, the scientific method does not necessitate the objectification of problems except in instances where the phenomenon to be understood is itself purely objective. What scientific method requires is clarification of the problem, inclusion of all relevant factors in exploring the problem. So to understand a social problem scientifically, it is necessary to include not only the objective factors at play but also the subjective ones. This, of course is what the social sciences do in a variety of different ways.
So, another way to grasp what Design Thinking is is to make an analogy between engineering and the physical sciences. To some extent, you can engineer by instinct referring explicitly to theories from physics or drawing on science to test the adequacy of your engineering solution. Or you can harness scientific knowledge, use your instincts to come up with crazy possible approaches to try out, and then test them to make sure they actually work. The exact same thing goes for design, except where engineering uses the physical sciences, design thinking uses the knowledge and methods of the social sciences.
Design thinking is to the social sciences what engineering is to the physical sciences.
Design thinking is to agency “creative” as engineering is to tinkering.