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Design thinking workshop – A great misunderstanding!

There is a lot of confusion out there, what design thinking really is. As the recent study of the HPI DT research program has shown, even in companies that have implemented the concept on a larger scale, a broad variety of definitions can be found. Some people say it is a mindset, others call it a process. Some people think it is a workshop format, others don’t even start working with it unless they have a proper long-term project scope. Some proponents declare it to be something completely different from design, others emphasize its origins in product design and design research.

When Miles Davis was asked by a journalist what to call his music at the Isle of Wight festival in the year 1970, Miles replied: “Call it anything!”. The opposite remark could be made about design thinking: “Call it everything!”. There is no right or wrong answer to the question what it is, because the whole concept is very broad. All the things mentioned above can be summarized under the headline of design thinking and the answer depends on who you ask. As Ingo Rauth mentioned recently in an interview by the German design:transfer network its openness and interpretability is one of the key success factors of the concept behind design thinking.

Two interpretations

From my experience there are two different interpretations still worthwhile to discuss a little bit further: The first interpretation sees it as a human-centered and design-led approach to innovation. The second interpretation uses the term design thinking for a visual and playful collaboration toolbox – often applied in the course of a workshop.

1. Design thinking as an approach to innovation

If you understand it as an approach to innovation, design thinking will become a work culture and a mindset rather then a mere process or toolbox. Innovation takes time and so does design. You have to actually implement the core principles into your corporate or at least team culture in order to be able to come up with meaningful new products and services. Some organizations do that by setting up special design (thinking) units, others try to influence the organization as a whole by training as many people as they can. Others again hire or even buy design agencies and try to insert them and their creative approaches into their corporate culture. The question which of these methods does or does not work, can be discussed at another occasion. But what about…

2. Design thinking as a workshop

Design thinking cannot be learned by just reading books. It has to be applied. This is common sense amongst all trainers, coaches and practitioners. Because of this the trainings you can attend will most likely all be very action based and experiential. I believe that this circumstance has led to the misinterpretation of design thinking being a workshop format. Since people (especially in big companies) get trained in 1-, 2- or even 5-day design thinking workshops that are based around the concept of structured time slots, pre-defined exercises and a very strict process, they tend to think that this is the whole thing. Only once they manage to see the complexity in a longer project will they see design thinking for what it originally was: a mindset that influences everything you do.

Advantages of a design thinking workshop

There are many people (especially from the traditional design field) who criticize the concept of design thinking because of this misunderstanding. Nevertheless, they seem to overlook one important thing: Design thinking applied to workshops does work!

Maybe design thinking workshops do not provide the results that designers would like to see – perfect and shiny. Sometimes they might even disguise simple “Post-It pushing” for real design work and this definitely should be criticized. (There cannot be real design [thinking] without design doing.) They also quite often are overrated in terms of time expectations: No, it’s not possible to redesign the entire company strategy in a day. BUT (!): design thinking as a workshop format definitely has many advantages:

  • It enables participants to express their opinions in a creative way.
  • It brings people from different organizations, teams or just corners of the office together (sometimes for the first time).
  • It thereby inspires conversations and learning.
  • It enables people to agree on new concepts and ideas.
  • It forces people to leave their computers for the time of the workshop and work with their hands.
  • It forces the participants to stand up every once in a while and not get lazy on the comfy office chairs.
  • And most importantly: It is a lot of fun!

Call it anything!

From my perspective the critique of design thinking as a workshop format therefore is very important, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I still think design thinking as a method to design collaboration experiences and workshops is very valuable. If you keep the participants and their goals in mind while designing your workshops, design thinking is a powerful tool for you. The concept of thinking with your hands and working with prototypes, the idea of separating ideation from selection and the philosophy of collaborating in multidisciplinary teams are very valuable ingredients for any form of creative collaboration.

If you take a look at many other approaches to creative collaboration, you will find similar basics. So the question only remains, if should be called a design thinking workshop? Maybe the facilitators of the world should hold it a little more with Miles Davis and just call their work “anything”… In the end there workshops – wherever and whenever the take place – are nothing else then Miles’ crazy band of legends, playing together for a very special party on August 29, 1970.

What do you think?

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