Unpacking Design Thinking Futures: GK VanPatter in conversation with Rafiq Elmansy Part 2

Last week, we got the chance to discuss with GK VanPatter, co-founder of Humantific, his vision about design thinking futures as part of this series of interviews with design leaders. Our purpose is to gain a better understanding of the present and future of the design industry.

In the previous interview, Unpacking Design Thinking Futures Part 1, I got the chance to ask VanPatter few questions about how he perceives the design leadership in the context of the business of today, his classification for the upstream and downstream design thinking, the definition of design thinking, and how he sees today’s design education.

In the second part of the interview, we will continue our conversation with VanPatter to discuss the contribution of design thinking inside organizations, the future design role, and his advice to design students to face the future business challenges.

6. Rafiq Elmansy: Can design thinking contribute to strengthening the design thinking and innovation roles inside the organization?

GK VanPatter: I see some words tripping over each other in that question. Let’s take a few minutes and straighten out a few conceptual wrinkles for your readers regarding this design thinking thing, the state of it, what it is and isn’t. In reference to how the mess around the subject was created, let’s step back and articulate some context. The mess did not occur overnight. Numerous threads of activity have contributed and we do not have the bandwidth here to articulate them all.

In this short space, I will give you one example. Several years ago a moderator for what has become the largest Design Thinking group on LinkedIn was presumptuous enough to set up and insist upon so-called “group rules” insisting that design and design thinking were two different things, two different unconnected subjects.

That nonsense rule, obviously self-serving to the moderator never made any sense to us and we never bought into it but we saw it heavily policed on that list for 6-7 years as that group grew to 90,000+ people. That rule ultimately failed but due to the size of that nonsense indoctrination the impact has been significant and remains in the mix of many conversations occurring there and elsewhere today.

Design and Design Thinking are not two unconnected subjects from two different planets.  For better and for worse, the notion of and center of knowledge for the existing and evolving conditions around Design Thinking today reside in the design community. Many of the methods build on knowledge from other communities.

design thinking
Clarifying design thinking

Rallying around the banner of Design Thinking the business community including several graduate business schools have, as stated above, onboard those skills in an effort to better adapt themselves to a now constantly changing world. The graduate business schools are rather late arrivals to the design/design thinking party. As late adopters (25 years in the making) on a learning curve, they are not leading it.

That’s the context. Let’s talk about what design thinking is in terms of skill right now….what it is and isn’t.

To keep it simple think of a skills progression ladder with 6 or 10 levels of mastery. Apart from some of the heavy pitching around boot-camps lets recognize them for what they typically are in relation to skills progression.

Contrary to some of the design thinking hype in the marketplace, boot-camps are not equivalent to graduate degrees in design. 🙂 Considering that most boot-camps can range in duration from a couple of hours to several days they are most often the equivalent to Level 1 on a skills progression ladder. It is true that some of those boot-camp learning experiences might be designed for senior executives, rather than young students, but in terms of actual skill most boot camps would be considered introductory. Some are even an introduction to the introduction.

Bootcamp skills can be extremely useful to those coming in from other disciplines but the notion that design as an expert can somehow now be magically compressed into a a two-hour boot-camp is nonsense. You might attend a three-hour boot-camp in engineering or in science but afterward, you would hardly be considered a master engineer or scientist. Since we are on the subject I might as well mention that watching half a dozen Youtube videos will also not make anyone a master of any discipline subject including design thinking.

design thinking
A design thinking workshop.

It’s no secret that design education leaders have lost control of the subject and have done less than a spectacular job articulating the value and skills progression of design in the big picture sense.

One other layer of consideration is that most boot-camps entitled “Design Thinking” are right now actually teaching not meta design but a rather downstream product, service and experience creation being re-depicted as design thinking. There are some programs teaching more strategic skills but the vast majority of programs including those in the graduate schools teach Design 2 as “Design Thinking.”

Having said all that it is clear that some design firms have developed skill-building programs that offer more advanced skills. Some are integrating skills specific to driving change in organizations and or in societies. Don’t assume that the entire practice community is teaching the same thing as the graduate design schools. That is not the case.

With the marketplace now flooded with boot-camps, there seems to be growing appetite for more advanced skill building. For the most part, these are specialized programs geared for organizational leaders. Even those advanced programs, spanning three weeks or more are not equivalent to graduate degrees. These specialized programs remain popular in the real world due in part to the slow adaptation of the academic community.

7. Rafiq Elmansy: How do you see design role (design thinking and design leadership) in business in the next decade?

GK VanPatter: It depends on which design you are referring to. Presently the schools are producing Design 1 and Design 2 leaders. My central concern as stated above is that design education has lost its leadership role on this subject and is not creating leaders with competitive innovation leadership skills applicable in the context of Design 3 and Design 4. If this is not addressed soon the leaders of Design 3 and Design 4 will not be design school educated design folks. That train is leaving the station. Indeed a case could be made that it has already left. This is one of several not well-recognized burning platforms in the community….in the design education community in particular. Repositioning downstream skills as upstream skills is not going to get the job done.

8. Rafiq Elmansy: What is your advice to design students in order to help to prepare themselves for the future business challenges?


GK VanPatter: In speaking at various graduate schools what we suggest in general is to look forward not backward. It is great and useful to understand design history and appreciate various design heroes but understand that the marketplace is in forward motion. The arenas of design are changing. First and foremost think carefully about what scale of challenges you are most interested in. There are serious methodology and skill building implications because there is not just one design thinking. If you want to work on logo and poster size challenges then a 100% invisible, intuitive process might be perfect for you and that arena. If you want to work in the context of organizational change-making or societal change-making where there is high complexity and many disciplines typically involved then more process skill is going to be required. Understand that the diverse worlds of design focused at different scales of challenges, with their various neighborhood heroes, all have their strongly held opinions regarding the process or lack thereof. That will never change. You have to decide which neighborhood, which arena makes the most sense for you to belong to.

design thinking
A design thinking workshop.

To new generation folks, we also suggest thinking practically, realistically about which scale arena is growing and which is shrinking. Not often discussed in the graduate design schools is that some arenas are growing and some have already rapidly shrunk due to globalization. Some of your old design heroes might have practiced in a now greatly reduced in size arena.

Globalization has ravaged the fee structure of Design 1 and is on its way to doing the same with Design 2, product, service and experience creation. Thus Design 1 is a shrinking commoditized arena while Design 3 and 4 are growing arenas with vastly different fee structures. In part, this explains the movement in that direction by all the major design consultancies as well as the graduate business schools and their graduates.

The tricky part is those arenas also involve different skills and methods.

This is why we recommend that young generation folks do some research and have their eyes wide open when choosing a route today. Practically speaking it is probably not a great idea to spend 30K on a graduate degree and end up in a rapidly shrinking arena of design with collapsing fees.

Looking forward might be less comfortable than nostalgically looking backward but the truth is it is highly unlikely that the old marketplace conditions from yesteryear will be returning.

One part of the good news, especially for sense-makers is that sense-making continues to rise as the challenges we face on planet earth grow more and more complex. This is one factor in the changing nature of what design has already become today and will become tomorrow. The Future Institute in California among others has identified sensemaking as a future important skill.

Last but not least we suggest keeping in mind that process knowledge has a much longer useful life than most forms of content knowledge. In your lifetime you will see many cycles of content knowledge come and go. Adaptable change-making process skills will stay with you for a lifetime.

I hope this has been helpful. Good luck to everyone out there! Let’s go create some meaningful futures!

Rafiq Elmansy: Thank you so much for your time, and allow me to share with Designate readers your articles on LinkedIn and follow your publications on Issuu.

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Dr Rafiq Elmansy

As an academic and author, I've had the privilege of shaping the design landscape. I teach design at the University of Leeds and am the Programme Leader for the MA Design, focusing on design thinking, design for health, and behavioural design. I've developed and taught several innovative programmes at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Northumbria University, and The American University in Cairo. I'm also a published book author and the proud founder of Designorate.com, a platform that has been instrumental in fostering design innovation. My expertise in design has been recognised by prestigious organizations. I'm a fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the Design Research Society (FDRS), and an Adobe Education Leader. Over the course of 20 years, I've had the privilege of working with esteemed clients such as the UN, World Bank, Adobe, and Schneider, contributing to their design strategies. For more than 12 years, I collaborated closely with the Adobe team, playing a key role in the development of many Adobe applications.

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