The difference between design thinking and innovation

An article making identifying 8 points using reasoning, experience and a little design thinking into the bargain…

The world is based on aligning ‘takes’ in the interest of developing understanding for action. This brief article is not researched, compared, linked to articles or any opinion. It is my ‘take’. (Header image: Design Council double diamond model, UK)

I write this on the fly and may come back to it, to polish it of you like. Maybe not. That’s not the point. The point is to use design thinking to write an article so show the differences between design thinking and innovation, as understanding to be shared so others can reflect upon their own understanding.

A new Forum report by The World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs, looks at the employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future. The report asked chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers what the current shifts mean, specifically for employment, skills and recruitment across industries and geographies. The Top 10 skills for 2020:

1 Complex problem solving

2 Critical Thinking

3 Creativity

4 People management

5 Coordinating with others

6 Emotional Intelligence

7 Judgement and Decision Making

8 Service Orientation

9 Negotiation

10 Cognitive Flexibility

This article is made to address design thinking and innovation in general as one way we can tackle the closing of the gap between required skills and current skills – by looking at some simple yet fundamental differences between design thinking and innovation.

Out of the top 10, I estimate 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, well, all of them in fact, are of utmost relevance to design thinking and innovation, and inversely, design thinking and innovation are of utmost relevance to the top 10 skills outlined by the WEF for 2020.

Let’s start with design thinking: What is it?

For some if us, it’s been around ages. It came about from Design Methods — how to design as a formalised process, and a dose of Systems Analysis — looking at alternatives before taking decisions. Together, Design methods and systems analysis captures the process of:

How to arrive at better descriptions of desired futures before we go about making it happen

Improving product, by understanding and tweaking process in advance.

For others, it’s a new buzz word. For yet more, it’s something waiting to be discovered. All exciting stuff.

Point 1: There is no one right definition of design thinking.

Ah. You can Wiki-it, but basically there are more than one takes on design thinking. Let’s start with something we can understand. For those new to design thinking, design thinking is this:

For Non-designers

Design Thinking is an exercise in branding and process-development for anyone to learn to act and think as a designer as an exercise in collaborative solution creation.

For Designers

Design Thinking can be a plug-in for designers seeking a more objective basis for design or who want to collaborate with anyone equally following a design thinking method.

For Seasoned Designers

Seasoned Designers can learn a lot from design thinking for the same reasons outlined above.

However, for seasoned process-oriented designers, design thinking may be of little value, since it is a reduction of design methods professional designers know through experience. I don’t believe any non-professional designer can navigate complexity or synthesise solutions as quickly, intuitively and focussed as seasoned designers used to working with complex problems.

What about Innovation?

Innovation is based on people generating ideas using creative thinking and doing to develop insights. Insights are acted on, used to try things out that allow us to assess if those ideas are the right ones, or if we can improve upon them and make them better ideas that when acted on, produce a benefit.

So we just open up the possibilities, by forming something. We put together some explanations. Putting together in greek is synthesis.

So what is the difference?

Point 2: It takes more than design and thinking about design to make an innovation.

It requires tools that allow us to shape our ideas as we act upon them on something tangible we can identify with, hold external to ourselves and show other people to hear what they think about it.

Point 3: To do that we need frameworks — mindsets and methods as well as tools that let us see where our action fits into a pattern of actions common to systematic creative processes producing genuinely ingenious innovations.

Both design thinking and innovation both use the same methods — both use mindsets, methods and tools. In innovation, we usually call this customer-centric. In design-thinking, we call it user-centric. So by taking them apart, we can see how they relate. By doing so, we have done something unusual.

We have increased understanding, putting it together as such, by pulling the object of inquiry apart. So we’ve narrowed it in — we have converged. We are now converging on an understanding. We have analysed what we have produced in advanced – a priori –to converge on an understanding

The difference between design and innovation lies in focus on people. Let’s test that. It’s about a user, or a customer. Ah, convergence. We’ve reached a point where we have a fit between understanding, and explaining after we’ve reflected on it.

However, it’s really not as clear cut as that, since when we talk about social innovation — when we develop ingenious solutions to the way we understand and develop our towns for example, are we users, or are we customers?

Now we’re starting to diverge again.

We can be both of course, but let us assume no financial transaction occurs, as when passing through a town, and that any passer’s-through are as viable as those who live there and pay their taxes.

Social innovation is about users. So we can’t say the user or the customer angle is what distinguishes design thinking from innovation. What we have instead is the degree of focus and this focus is in responding to a given situation, as in design thinking: To improve it, or in wanting to re-invent something that may not even have existed in the first place, as in innovation.

Difference in approach

Point 4: What we have instead are different approaches.

Let’s pull it apart again and compare to see how they fit based on what’s been written so far:

Innovation works with measuring, design thinking with identification with issues. Issues are those things that may be problems if we don’t act on them. Ask a project manager all about issues and they will know they need to raise them to managers, to know if they have the mandate to act on them or get a decision from the director at the top. In design thinking, we deal with lots of different issues we often call problems when really, they are not. We set problems based on our collaborative understanding of issues that is relevant to the context being studied.

So what is the difference compared to innovation?

Point 5: Innovation is about measuring benefit.

Ah. Is design thinking about measuring benefit?

No. As defined above, Design thinking is about acting as a designer — for anyone, even designers — using the methods of design, developed as objective reasoning leaving the designer’s subjective — or ‘I like this so I’ll do that’ for ‘what is happening I can respond to?’.

Point 6: Design Thinking is an objective method for thinking and acting that is not tied up to the end result.

Now we’re converging again.

So design thinking can be a plug-in to innovation, working with issues and turning them around: The benefit does not need to be measurable, as long as we are design thinking.

Let’s look at innovation then. Innovation, the process. Innovation the product. We often hear of disruption. Innovation is a reaction to, and a cause of, disruption. Call this a catch 22 if you like.

The first Apple i-phone was a genuine disruptive product of innovation. It is an innovation making it a product. It was born of innovation, being the process producing the innovation.

So now it’s starting to get confusing again.

Let’s turn back to design for a moment. You see, we need to go around in circles to try out the angles, each time we gain a little more insight or we have an angle we need to try out. This is design thinking. I haven’t produced anything yet, yet I’m still using the process of design thinking to get to grips. So design thinking is getting to grips, innovation is, well, we’ll get to that…

Lets look at design, not design thinking, but design — the creating and making of a desired future — as Herbert Simon called it, transforming existing conditions into more desirable ones.

Design is essentially the same as innovation, except it does not have to have benefit — a design can be another take on something existing, without really improving on it. Think of alloy wheels. Each one is a design but it can’t be said that one is offering more benefit than another – they both hold a tire and turn on an axle. The benefits are in the eye of the beholder as such. Design a process, I am designing. And it is the product. Here is my design.

What about design thinking again?

This is the major difference:

Point 7: Design Thinking is never a product.

It is pure process based on developing and applying insight to understanding that is used to develop – an approach as much as a product. Design Thinking involves gathering data, observations, sharing points of view, all of which that do not involve the designers darling syndrome, since design thinking is a mindset of discovering reality we do not yet know. To get to the know, we need some ways of understanding how to progress through time and show them as diagrams that tell us how to proceed — we call these processes. So Design thinking is a way of thinking aligned to a method.

What about Innovation?

Point 8: There is no mindset involved in innovation, since the process and product of innovating is what happens afterwards.

You can use a design thinking mindset to engaging in a process of innovation, but unless the process is successful and measurable — even by opinion, it cannot be said to be innovation. Call it ‘wanna-be innovation.’ Just as ‘wanna-be innovation’ there is also ‘wanna-be design thinking.’

Point 9: A process cannot be innovative unless it has resulted in benefit.

Unless we make a break-through that can be measured as some benefit, then innovation cannot said to have taken place either as a process or a product.

So it’s not really so complicated after-all.

All we need is a little insight. Both design thinking and innovation work with insights.

Design thinking can be a plug-in to innovation processes, but not necessarily so. Innovation can never be a part of design thinking, since design thinking is process only, and innovation is by the logic developed in this article, a yin and yang of process and product just as design is.

That was nine points. The world is never clear cut 🙂