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In 1969, in his work The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert A. Simon, 1975 Turing Award and 1978 Nobel Prize for Economics, pleaded for an era of design sciences. Because these sciences are at the origin of all artefacts, i.e. anything designed by humans to meet their needs, this mode of thinking needs to be understood, he argued. For a long time, this message fell on deaf ears, which he deplored in articles. He originated the concept of design thinking, popularised at the start of the 2000s under the aegis of Tim Brown, current president of Ideo, one of the leading design agencies, created in the United States in 1991. The goal of this method of thinking and acting straight from the design universe is simple: generate innovative concepts that meet three basic concepts which are desirability (for the user or the market), technical feasibility and economic viability. As Tim Brown underlined, this approach does not aim to enhance the desirability of an object faster than the competition, but to create a user experience.
To do so, the subjective and affective dimensions of the user need to be taken into consideration. Proponents of this approach place the human being at the centre of the process of innovation. Furthermore, they propose testing the solution as early as possible, using the principle of fail fast to succeed sooner, in a process where iteration is king. This method combines various disciplines of the human and social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, both as a source of inspiration and to test the imagined concept. Design thinking therefore requires a dual movement: from thinking of design as a secondary function to enhance the product, to design used as a way of meeting the real needs of users; and from top-down innovation, where R&D plays the primary role, to bottom-up innovation, where the idea is centred on the user.
Since the start of the 2010s, design thinking has been thriving in France. While it is regarded as a pillar of innovation culture in the most innovative companies in the world (Apple, Samsung, General Electric, HP, SAP, etc.), it does have its critics. Bruce Nussbaum, professor of innovation and design and a fervent promoter of the approach (1), does not hesitate to speak of a “failed experiment”. He believes the approach was designed to liberate creativity, but its deployment in organisations has reduced it to a closed, linear process, compatible with the “procedural culture” of companies. This led Tim Brown to call for a return to the fundamentals of this approach. For others, as it is based on observations and on the empathetic understanding of the problems that users are faced with, it is only conducive to the gradual emergence of innovations in a stable and non-radical environment.
In addition, while design thinking gets out the big guns for understanding individuals, it leaves in the shadows the issue of the meaning of the society it is trying to create and seems hardly apt to provide answers to major contemporary challenges, which are primarily political issues. Finally, let us point out that it takes the production of ideas for granted and overlooks the issue of rationality. This is forgetting that, while design thinking may facilitate creativity, alone it cannot change our ways of thinking (see La Recherche no. 529). As Bruce Nussbaum suggests, should we conclude that design thinking is programmed to die? Or will it rise from its ashes?
(1) B. Nussbaum, “The Power of Design”, BusinessWeek, 17 May 2004.
Doctor in Production Economics
Joëlle Forest is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.