I have posted before about my ambiguity with the concept of design thinking. In the past few weeks, design thinking has hit mainstream in terms of the Harvard Business Review's recent article by Tim Brown defining of Design Thinking. His opening statement and use of Thomas Edison as the exemplar symbolizes for me all the anxieties and reservations I have about the concept of design thinking:
Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes—and even strategy.
He lists five attributes of a design thinker: empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, and collaboration, but caveats that design thinkers are not only created by design schools. So I wonder what other fields produce such personality profiles? One of which is anthropology, which is why I have such a hard time accepting the concept of design thinking (which implies a both originary, unique, and proprietary ownership of these characteristics by the field of design or as Brown posits of the designer).
Empathy, integrative thinking, experiementalism, and collaboration are hallmarks of cultural anthropology. Ethnography was developed as both the philosophical, tactical, and representational strategy for gaining empathy and demonstrating the difference of another's perspective to understanding human phenomenon. Integrative thinking is call holistic thinking in anthropological circles which drives the desire to understand things across time (thus the historical bent) and space (thus cross-cultural comparison). The field work experience is one of experiementalism where one tries many and different approaches (from observational to participatory, unstructured to structured) to figure out how to solve problems of human understanding. Even in its most colonial form, the anthropological endeavor was collaborative albeit with unequal power relations. The derogatory term "informants" allude to the dependency relationship between the researcher and the subject populations. The only thing that anthropology lacks is a sense of optimism, but that is mostly because you often are so close to people's pain when you live with them. So does that mean that cultural anthropologists are design thinkers or are they cultural anthropologists?
If in the world of branding, you must demonstrate uniqueness and differentiation in the market. If a cultural anthropologist meets the criteria of design thinking (without any interaction with design), then design thinking fails as a brand of design. Design thinking positions itself as the alternative to business thinking. It is a means for designers to enter the strategy game, which is more lucrative and of higher social value. I get it and directly participate in this effort by training my students to do more strategic design.
My problem is that design thinking draws many of its attributes from its encounter with anthropology, yet by calling it "design thinking" the encounter becomes more an act of appropriation without recognition than collaboration. I cannot tell you how many times I go to a conference and someone describes a complex design project, say around service design, and they talk about what the designers did strategically, until they finally, when probed, admit that 1/2 of the designers were anthropologists or psychologists or some other social scientists.
I always characterize my work and that of my students as being hybrid between design and the social sciences, design anthropology or anthro-design. The absence of anthropology/ethnography from the discourse of design thinking makes me think that I cannot play a part in a world where I clearly play a part because the core aspect of my identity as an anthropologists is being shut out by the discourse of design thinking, which implies that you are a designer or trained as one. Or why call do they call it design thinking and not hermeneutics? But perhaps I feel threatened mostly because Design Thinking is copping the brand of anthropology and there was great value in my anthropological training that will be lost if people feel they can get it from a design department (as most are currently configured). Again, the irony is that I am providing that anthropological perspective within a design school.