Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

Steven Kroeter | Essays

Design Thinking, Muddled Thinking

One of the most agonizing experiences of my professional career was the annual marketing plans process at the large consumer package goods company where I started in brand management. Each year the brand managers wrote (exhaustingly, excruciatingly long) planning documents and then presented them to ever-higher levels in the corporate hierarchy. The joke among my colleagues was that the higher the level of management you were presenting to, the more certain you were of getting caught in a feedback onslaught of muddled thinking.

I was reminded of the concept of "muddled thinking" while reading a recent copy of Business Week. In its October 15th issue, I came across a headline that read: "The Top Design Schools." Great, I thought. Let's take a look. Art Center College of Design: no surprise there. Further down: California College of the Arts. No surprise there either. But then sandwiched between Georgia Institute of Technology and Hongik University College of Design appeared the Harvard Business School — which was a surprise, especially since Harvard's Graduate School of Design was conspicuously absent from the list.

Intrigued, I promptly went to the HBS website to see how this climb to the upper echelons of the design school world had been accomplished. Oddly, the school's website had nothing to reveal about this. No mention of a design-related curriculum. So I called the school. At first the very helpful person I spoke with seemed a little perplexed at the nature of my inquiry. But after I mentioned that Business Week in its notes about the HBS had included this reference — "Professor Stefan Thomke teaches courses on operations management that fold in innovation, product development, and design thinking" — the person on the phone said yes, indeed, Professor Thomke did teach that particular course and that probably accounted for the Business Week listing.

"Any other courses?" I asked. After all, the listing was for the top "design schools" not "design courses." Harvard is good, I know. But surely a single course (and an operations management course at that) would not qualify the HBS for a top design school ranking. "No, no other courses at this time," I was told.

Looking back at the article, I noticed additional text that described the list as presenting "the best design programs around the world." My days as chair of an academic department at Parsons taught me that a "program" is substantially different from a "school." Parsons is a great school (it also made the Business Week list), but that didn't mean that all of its individual programs were equally great. Business Week apparently was using the terms "school," "program," and (even) "course," basically as synonyms. So the somewhat startling conclusion was that the HBS had made the "top design schools" list primarily (or exclusively?) because of a single course (or perhaps because of two courses, if you counted something the HBS person I spoke to never mentioned: the summer, non-degree seminar in design management the school runs in collaboration with AIGA, an offering that is mentioned nowhere on the HBS website).

What was to be made of that? On the one hand, it is easy to cheerlead anything that furthers the intersection of design and business. Business Week has certainly been at the forefront of this movement and deserves substantial kudos for its advocacy role. But on the other hand it occurred to me, here it is again: muddled thinking. While one course (or two) might be worth noting, it doesn't follow at all that that level of commitment would legitimately warrant comparison to the entirety of RISD, for example.

This then got me thinking about other examples of muddled thinking (as opposed to — look out! — "design thinking") that crop up in the business and design worlds these days (see "MBA Students Have Designs on Innovation" on page 13 of the October 8, 2007 Financial Times). For example: The use of the word "creativity." Creativity is not a synonym for design. The business community, and some times the design community, too, is quick to imply that design equals creativity. Look it up. It's not so. Also, the use of the word "innovation." Same as with creativity; innovation is not a synonym for "design." Innovation can take place in...accounting or agriculture or...zoology. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with design.

Perhaps most annoying: use of the term "design thinking." When the word "critical" is attached to the word "thinking," the result, "critical thinking," is a term that has clear, well defined, and well-understood meaning — certainly in the academic community, if not generally. As a counter example, the same cannot, for instance, be said about the term "art thinking." This is not a term that can be used in any precise or meaningful way. Why? Because it could mean painting or sculpture; it could mean figurative or abstract; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. Because it embodies so many contradictory notions, it is imprecise to the point of being meaningless — and therefore, completely understandably, it is not much used, if at all.

"Design thinking" is as problematic a term as "art thinking." Design thinking could refer to architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, or product design; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. It's imprecise at best and meaningless at worst. More muddled thinking.

In contrast, an example of simple, straightforward, "unmuddled" thinking is Thomas Watson's dictum "Good design is good business." It's as true now as when it was first uttered in the 1950s. The real power, though, behind the way of thinking proposed by Watson has to do with business people being able to distinguish "good design" from that which isn't. In spite of efforts by a few dedicated souls (like the late Walter Hoving; see The Art of Design Management), this is an area of business education that still languishes. One wishes that the Harvard Business School would take that challenge on — with even a course, let alone a program or the whole school.

Posted in: Business, Education

Comments [16]

"Good design is good business" is simple, straightforward, and "unmuddled" thinking? Maybe I'm not simple, straightforward or unmuddled enough to understand what it means.
Gunnar Swanson

I also found the descriptions of the programs/schools and the number of students enrolled very inconsistent and inaccurate. For instance, some colleges offer a post-graduate certificate but they're listed as graduate programs with an unrealistic amount of students (700 in a design graduate program? Really?)

Interesting about the HBS — the Business Week article seems to lose credibility at each closer look.

Interesting. I agree that "design thinking" is a buzz term that is often misused. But you suggest that "critical thinking" might be a more suitable replacement in these contexts, given its "clear, well defined, and well understood meaning." I find differently, in that it is most often yet another buzz term to substitute for something substantive.

I wonder, Steven, would you define "critical thinking" here for use in these contexts to demonstrate the term's superior suitability? Thanks.
Andy Rutledge

Yes, we need a better buzzword here.
Design Thinking = Muddled Thinking

In a Harvard Business Review Article, Innovating Through Design, Roberto Verganti calls the R&D process "design-driven innovation."

Innovation + Design = InDesign = ID

Great post Steve! Thank you.
Carl W. Smith

I'm so confused...or should I be muddled?
Derrick Schultz

Another classification post. First it was the reason to use a typeface, then it's decoration vs. ornament, and now it's the classification of the way we think.

I think classification is only useful for the outsider, the other people, when they don't understand and try to figure out who "we" are, so that we will be less scary to them.

The "we" I'm talking about here can be anything from gay, women, artist, any form of minorities, and of course, designers. It is never useful for us when we use limited classification, using words, to try to understand and differentiate ourselves.

When that happens, it usually mean we have too much free time on our hands.
The Cooler

I sometimes long for the days of being a "commercial artist". At least then it was assumed I was a craftsman of some sort. someone who thought with his hands and eyes instead of with words
Gary R Boodhoo

Every artist wants to make money with their art, but many artists don't want to admit they are selling anything.
02:17 always. It seems that nonsense is the new sensible, chaos the new order and as the prophetic Yogi so aptly put it, "nobody goes there's too busy"
Michael Max

Design thinking could refer to architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, or product design

I suppose it could, but clearly the intent is to evoke a certain manner or pattern of thinking that transcends the parochial concerns of any single design field and is applicable to problems beyond the creation of a particular sort of artifact.

"Critical thinking" might apply to a vast range of critical and analytical frameworks. Why do you think it is such a clear and well-understood phrase? Are you meaning to imply that it is a replacement for the phrase "design thinking" or are you just using that as an example?

And what does "Good design is good business" actually mean?

Gunnar Swanson



Some years ago ID Magazine put out a survey of U.S. Design and Art Schools.
Unfortunately, I cannot lay hands on it.

I've been meaning to ask Julie Lasky for the Publication Date.

Steve for your own personal edification you may want to ask Julie Lasky. Don't think she was with ID at the time. The article was written in the early to late 90's

Most important, the survey named each American Design School and applied it a category based on its program.

The Survey categorized Design Schools as:

1. Conceptual Problem Solvers, e.g. Yale, Harvard, Cranbrook, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, (others)

2. Vocational, e.g. Art Center, Cooper Union, RISD, SVA, PRATT, Parsons, (others)

3. Art Institutions, condensed vocational education.

4. State or University, Some Good, many bad due to budgetary constraints interim politics.

1.a Essentially the article stated that the Conceptual Problem Solving Programs produced Industry Leaders. Students that entered these programs were more than likely to become Head of Corporate Design Programs, Consultancy's, and

Firms. Or they would become valued Partners in First Tier Consultancy's.

Reason and Rationale, The Conceptual Problem Solving Program is Concept Driven and not Center Focused on Technique. Although technique is stressed it is understood many people from this program will become Design Consultants where the emphasis is on Development not Execution and Craft.

2.a The Vocational Program the article iterated was the Best Program because it provided the Student with a more intense and rigorous well rounded education. The Vocational Program was Center Focused on Problem Solving as well as learning Theory and Technique. The concentration of most Vocational Institutions is to prepare students for the job market. Skill in Production, Craft and Execution of Finished Art is Paramount.

3.a Art Institutes, essentially fill the void of a four year vocational programs offering a very rigorous condense 2 year education in the Rudiments of Design.

4.a State and University Programs, many which are poorly ran with noted few exceptions. Many don't have the budget or interest to promote healthy Design Programs because their interest is in promoting Fine Art. Many pass off Studio Art Programs for Graphic Design and Illustration.

This isn't etched in stone, again there a noted few exceptions. Generally people educated from these programs are ill equipped for the industry. Mostly because lack of budget, qualified personnel, and administrative politics.

Having said that, the ID Publication was the Holy Grail for

Given enough time I could shoot holes in this 2007 list. Not enough time.

It appears the American 2007 list is up to snuff with the USUAL SUSPECTS:

Chicago Bauhaus:

The only Ph.d in Design granting Design School on the list.

Art Center



Curiously absent from this list are:

Cooper Union

School of Visual Arts

The Art Institutes

Portfolio Center

Maryland Institute of Art and Design

I find the Claim to Fame Ridiculously Funny.

Norman Rockwell is associated with Parsons. Many schools can claim Norman Rockwell, to include, The Art Students League.

Pratt Institute:

Claim to Fame, New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

How about Paul Rand, nuff said.

As well, a Plethora of other noted Designers.

University of Cincinnati:

Claim to Fame: Sam Lucente, director of design and brand experience at HP, is an alumnus.

How about two Cincinnati Kids, Michael Bierut and Jerry The King Kuyper.

Michael Bierut the youngest Desiger in the History of Visual Communications
to receive Lifetime Achievement Awards in AIGA, and Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

At the same time, becoming a member of the most Elite Group of Designers Worldwide, The Alliance Graphique Internationale.

Jerry Kuyper, absolutely One of the Top 5 Internationally Recognized and Acclaimed Identity Designers / Consultants / Expert / Evangelist Practicing Corporate Identity today.

Certainly if Business Week checked with the Schools they could've received more accurate 411 in reference to the Claim to Fame. I point this out because much of this 411 is FLAWED to a FAULT.

Within the Cincinnati Alumni Highlights list are Jerry Kuyper, Michael Bierut and Fashion Designer Matthew Batanian as the Pinnacle of Design Achievement. Not sure if the list has been updated to include others.

Virginia Commonwealth University:

Claim to Fame: Professor Richard Boyko is former chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather.

How about Phillip B. Meggs, first Historian to write Chronology of a History of Graphic Design.


Claim to Fame: Producer Robert Abel is an alumnus.

How about, Nancy Von Lauderback Tovar Packaging Designer with SAUL BASS for forty (40) years.

Senior Partner, Designer of Lawry's Packaging amongst other noted responsibility.

Art Center:

Claim to Fame: Yves Béhar of Fuseproject and Chris Bangle of BMW are alumni.

How about, Clement Mok Wonder Kid and one of the Founders and Pioneers of Apple Design / Branding / Marketing / Advertising / Packaging.

Mamoru Shimokochi, another former Wonder Kid. One of the Top 5 Internationally Recognized Corporate Identity and Packaging Designers. His work knows No Boundaries.

The Art Center List include a Who's Who of Industry Leaders in Visual Communication and Industrial Design.


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity.


@The Cooler,

Verbal classification is useful not just for others, but very much so for those in the design disciplines. I think "we" are very much trying to figure out who "we" are, at the moment.

I suspect very few DO readers feel that the term "graphic design" applies directly to their professional role, and by and large the programs discussed in the BW list are there because they address a broader, but less classifiable kind of thinking.

Labels are as much a part of being human as thumbs -- they are essential tools we use to understand the world. And the best way to use labels, in my opinion, is to understand oneself in relation to the world, in order to grow. Self-examination is the best kind of muddled thinking.
jay harlow

As Steve Kroeter suggests, the term "design thinking" does lose meaning if one is looking at fields as small as architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, or product design. Likewise, the term "art thinking" loses meaning if one is looking at sub-fields as small as painting or sculpture. The notion of differentiating between classical or modern or contemporary styles of art or design is already too self-referential if one is seeking to understand something about modes of thinking.

When thinking about thinking, it seems necessary to look beyond related fields of practice. When one looks at a bigger picture that includes ALTERNATE modes of inquiry, the term "design thinking" can indeed be meaningful.

A reading of the book "Design as a Catalyst for Learning" yields the notion that design is mode of inquiry, a way of knowing that is distinct from both science and the humanities. Since the book is out of print, I'll provide an extended passage (Davis et al 1997, pp. 2-3):

START quotation
Nigel Cross, designer and educational researcher in the United Kingdom, states, "The sciences value objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for the 'truth'... {T}he humanities value subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for 'justice'... {The designerly way of knowing} involves a combination of knowledge and skills from both the sciences and the humanities" (Cross 1983, pp.221-222).

A 1976 research report from the Royal College of Art in London for the British Secretary of State for Education and Science, titled "Design in General Education," identifies design as "a third area of education" (Royal College of Art 1976, p. 44). Bruce Archer, former Director of Design Research and the Design Education Unit at the Royal College of Art, cites education in the sciences and in the arts as dominating our social, cultural, and educational systems. In summarizing Archer's report, Cross draws the following conclusions about the nature of design:

-- The central concern of design is "the conception and realization of new things."

-- It encompasses the appreciation of "the material culture" and "the application of the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing."

-- At its core is the language of modeling. It is possible to develop students' aptitudes in this language, equivalent to aptitudes in the language of sciences (numeracy) and the language of the humanities (literacy).

-- Design has its own distinct "things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them."

END quotation

Recently I delivered a presentation about design thinking at The 32nd International Design Management Conference sponsored by the Design Management Institute. My goal was to provide the attendees with an understanding of the concept of design thinking applying Nigel Cross' theory of what is design. I presented that Design Thinking is a term we can use to express operations at work in the domain of design with its "things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them."

When I read comments from members of the design community and from members of the business community, it is clear that there is a rush to invent and define design thinking as something different from design. This is dangerous. I absolutely embrace the relevance and broad application of design thinking (for our businesses, for our government, for our culture and society, for our citizens, and for our planet), but it is essential that we embrace design thinking as part of our understanding of design. If one accepts Cross' assertion that design is the "application of the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing," then design thinking is an inherent aspect of all of these operations.

This year, our design faculty at Herron School of Art and Design (Indiana University) launched a 60-credit hour graduate program focused on Design Thinking and Design leadership. Our graduate students are people who want to learn to lead processes for change and innovation to improve the experiences of businesses, institutions, organizations, communities and individuals. Our graduate community advocates designing as an interdisciplinary collaborative process for identifying root problems and facilitating meaningful solutions to complex issues. We frame our program around issues of design thinking as a strategy for being more intentional in how we engage the operations of design. In doing so, we reject the notion that design or design thinking is reserved for "professional" designers. We embrace the notion that "everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones" (Simon 1969).

Ultimately, I think Herb Simon's idea that "everyone designs" is the reason for the tension that arises when people begin to talk about the concept of design thinking. If one believes that design thinking is a useful conception of design that allows the competencies of design to be made more obvious and more transferable, then professional designers must learn to function and create value beyond the inner sanctums of privileged educational and professional practices.

christopher vice

And what does "Good design is good business" actually mean?

i wish i could answer that, gunnar, but good design has never been my business.

i guess it goes without saying that it's a mixed up muddled up shook up world.
ed mckim

So what do you expect when design has been considered a universal stepchild to help label and describe other more "distinguishable" activities. Design is a highly faceted gem, itself a distinct phenomenon. Most however, would rather "muddle" through it and call it their own ... it makes for good business.
c garant

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