Design Thinking: The Liberal Art of the Technology Age

A question recently posted on LinkedIn by PepsiCo Chief Design Officer Mauro Porcini: "What is your definition of design thinking?" sparked a great deal of response. Design Thinking at this point is—if not always well defined—clearly at the forefront of not only the design community, but of broader business and technology innovation efforts. Definitions are of course important, and there are many competing models in circulation, including IBM Design Thinking, the Stanford d school, and IDEO to name but a few.

The abilities of design thinkers to both envision potential outcomes and to experiment are key

It's useful to look back a little further, before Design Thinking became a buzzword, to consider what's particularly meaningful about it as a practice. 

One of the best characterizations I've heard belongs to Randy Swearingen (Provost of Philadelphia University) from a seminal DMI conference in 2010. He described Design Thinking as: "the liberal art of the 21st century." Increasingly complex systems, he stated, required new approaches. The abilities of design thinkers to both envision potential outcomes and to experiment are key components to this approach. Designers comfortably integrate culture, story, data, and more into both their approaches and solutions. Iteration often takes unexpected directions by revealing unnoticed connections. The multidisciplinary nature of liberal arts knowledge encourages the kind of lateral and intuitive thinking needed to discover new ideas for business, organizations, and systems.

Much as liberal arts once formed the foundation of advanced education, we can consider Design Thinking in a similar context. This not only forms important context to understand the tools and approaches of the practice, it also forms the basis of a common language that design, business, and technology can apply to create breakthrough ideas, prototype and test new models, and iterate towards more valid outcomes.

That should be the definition of success in anyone's book.

Please email me if you'd like to expand on this conversation.