I was interviewed by BrandWeek the other day for a story on the recent hype around “Design Thinking” in marketing. They were looking for a skeptic and found me. First of all, it is worth noting that the term “design thinking” is of course a clever marketing buzzword. It’s ironic that marketers themselves embrace it as the next big thing as it doesn’t create a new marketing paradigm so much as it proves that marketers are prone to being persuaded by their very own tricks. “Design Thinking” has become a brand, and brands are all the more powerful when they present themselves as memes.
But what does “design thinking” actually mean? Let’s rely on the wisdom of crowds and see how Wikipedia defines it: “Design thinking is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result.” Wow. Isn’t that what every single task in business is about? Or, for that matter, every single action in life? The rest of the paragraph adds some more specifics: “Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas. There are no judgments in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in this process since this can often lead to creative solutions.” Hmm…ok.
Some Design Thinkers herald Design Thinking as the ultimate problem solver for business, social, and political challenges. The current financial meltdown? A lack of design thinking. Our health care sytem? Design Thinking can fix it. The HIV crisis in Africa? Make sure to apply Design Thinking. Granted, design is a fundamental responsibility for organizations in all sectors of our society, and it is absolutely critical in addressing problems of all kinds. But the quest that everybody should think like a designer is not the non plus ultra formula. Or, as Raymond Loewy, the famous industrial designer, pointed out wryly: “Design is too important to be left to designers.”
Today’s marketers need to be experts in what Design Thinkers may define as “a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas.” But the trend towards more participatory product development, consumer engagement, crowdsourcing, etc. goes far beyond just a trendy label – it marks a significant shift in consumer culture and in the way we do business. Good marketers know that and are masters in outside-the-box thinking by definition. In this respect, marketing was design thinking long before Design Thinking was even thought of. As a marketer, you need an in-depth understanding of your audiences, their needs, habits, and desires; you need to develop a storyline and a conversation that engages them; and then you need to establish the channels of interaction. Ultimately, it’s all about desiging interactions between brands and consumers. It has become much more complicated in a highly fragmented, digitized, and fast-paced world of social media, but that’s what it’s still about. Yes, as a marketer you benefit from a holistic, cross-disciplinary view. And you better be creative. The big idea is still big, no matter what.
For marketing is an art, not a science. It is a multi-dimensional, dialogic (or even multi-logic), multi-lateral activity that, at its best, encompasses all touch points with external audiences across all business functions. Marketing is the big integrator, a diplomat within the organiziation but the partisan friend of customers. Marketing needs to innovate or it is just manufacturing. It needs to put customers front and center and give them a say. They hold the truth about your brand so let them design it. You might call this Design Thinking. I call it Marketing 101.