Graphic designers often cite the advent of desktop publishing as the point at which our profession was forever cheapened, becoming overnight a job that could be done by anyone with a PC. We now come home fuming from a day spent trying to justify the cost of developing a custom font when Minion Pro will work just fine, gazing wistfully at the carefully arranged volumes of the design library we started in college, yearning to go back to the days of Paul Rand and Alexey Brodovitch when type was painstakingly set by a single pair of skilled hands and designers tossed around mysterious and exciting terms like "paste ups" and "seps."
While there are certainly downsides to making what was once a highly specialized skill set suddenly accessible to millions of people, our collective ire was misdirected. The problem with desktop publishing wasn't that everyone was suddenly a designer. The problem was that it redefined design as a product of desktop publishing. And we as designers were so busy having hurt feelings and worrying that we'd have to enroll in truck driving school that we simply allowed it to happen. Designers looked in vain for ways to differentiate ourselves from non-designers, and to restore perceived value to our wounded profession. We spoke out against spec work and student competitions, discussed (albeit briefly) requiring some sort of certification requirement for "real" designers, and lambasted online services that provided for-hire logos and pre-designed templates. In fact, in response to the desktop publishing revolution, we did the exact opposite of what designers are inherently good at: making things better.
The problem with desktop publishing wasn't that everyone was suddenly a designer. The problem was that it redefined design as a product of desktop publishing.
"Design" can't be taped to a wall. You don't send a client a PDF of a "design." You send a layout or a comp. Design is, and always has been, the method of questioning, brainstorming, testing, learning, creating, and understanding that comes before. It's the thinking, not the thing. Since the 1990s, we've been on a Sisyphean quest to restore the design profession to its former glory, when creative directors and CEOs formed partnerships that lasted decades, each understanding that the success of one meant the success of the other. Now it seems we've come full circle and have, arguably, entered into another golden age of design. Companies understand that design is a fundamental part of doing business, not a deliverable. Audiences are more discerning than ever, and expect products and services to fit their lives in a personal, tailored way. Design is being integrated seamlessly into all aspects of business strategy, and that's a very good thing. So why do we call it "design thinking?"
Design thinking refers to an iterative method of solution-based problem solving that is focused on reaching a goal, rather than solving a particular problem, allowing for many alternate possible solutions to be explored and tested simultaneously. In the preface to his seminal 1970 book Design Methods, John Chris Jones offers a prescient vision of the future of design as "the process of devising not individual products but whole systems or environments such as airports, transportation, hypermarkets, educational curricula, broadcasting schedules, welfare schemes, banking systems, computer networks; as participation, the involvement of the public in the decision-making process; as creativity, which is supposed to be potentially present in everyone; as an educational discipline that unites arts and science and perhaps can go further than either; and now the idea of designing Without a Product, as a process or way of living in itself." He defines design as creativity itself, which both transcends and is present in all people and disciplines. By this definition, everyone is a designer.
Why, then, do we need to lay claim to this type of thinking if it is in fact present in everyone? As with desktop publishing, the idea that anyone can think and solve problems like us sounds vaguely threatening. But to claim ownership of this type of thinking is missing the point, and to redefine design as the process of design thinking is a mistake. Businesses and universities who tout their "design thinking" programs often start to look strikingly similar, with whiteboards full of neon post-it notes and carefully researched personas, and this is what we as designers should be wary of. We should celebrate the marriage of design, business, education, and human behavior as a victory, leverage this new legitimacy we've earned, and look for the next challenge. Our objective shouldn't be to neatly package a niche skill set and then place it gingerly on a high shelf, away from others save for a select few CDOs; as designers we need to use and share our skills in every waking moment and in every possible situation, always questioning, never again becoming complacent.
Our job is not just to solve the problems of the present, but to see the opportunities of the future, and to involve as many people and disciplines as possible in achieving them. Otherwise we will find ourselves left behind in a profession redefined by post-it notes.