Lately, I have been seeing more and more vacancies and call outs on LinkedIn that show job openings for a ‘Design thinker’. Recruiters seem to look for people with this ‘job title’, possibly since there is so much buzz around the term ‘design thinking’ – and everything associated with it. What does that even mean, a ‘Design Thinker’? Do these headhunters actually understand what it is, that these ‘design kids’ do? What are these recruiters actually looking for?

To go very short, a design thinker – according to its (most) loose definition – is a creative problem solver. That’s it. A problem solver. Taking a (complex) problem, applying a process with certain tools and methods to it, and there you have it: a solution! An (pardon my French) ‘out of the box’ solution that was the result of 200+ post its on glass walls, 15 sharpies, 2 ice-breakers and an office space that probably has the word ‘lab’, ‘hub’, ‘co-working’ or ‘studio’ in its title.

So what’s the problem?

OK so what’s the problem here? The problem with this, is that people who think ‘design thinking’ is the ultimate ‘tool’ in coming up with a million dollar, radical, innovative new business solution – and the answer to almost everything – fail to understand that applying the process solely, is not enough. More often than not, I see that people who finished a 2-day design thinking course start using all newly acquired skills on the very first problem they lay their hands on, when they back in their offices. Sure, I love the enthusiasm and eagerness of people willing to learn, but it’s not the magical wand tool, as people tend to think it sometimes is. It requires much more than following a process.

Critical thinking

The best way to do innovative design, is to not always follow a premeditated process and just blindly follow the checklist (persona – check, customer journey – check, brainstorm with 60 ideas – check, etc.). Rather than calling it design thinking, it’d be better be called ‘critical thinking’: being ready to abandon an idea, a brainstorm tool, an insight, etc. Making bold moves in the process, not just in the solution.

But that’s scary and often requires experience. It also requires in-depth knowledge about an industry, your client, a technology or a societal trend. And it requires confidence that things will turn out right, even though you’re not following what you’ve been thought in Design thinking 101. In short: it requires much more than following a pre-defined process. And so by wanting to hire a ‘design thinker’, what are you really looking for? Somebody that knows how to facilitate a workshop? Knows how to conduct a brainstorm? Did interviews before? Someone that follows the process by the book?

Focus on output, not process

Design thinking is nothing more empathizing with an audience and coming up with solutions for their needs and desires. In that sense, it’s a skill any business or commercial oriented person should possess and learn. Then, when you hire your next marketeer, CRM expert, business developer, Salesforce consultant, engineer, or whatever position, ask them what they have done around ‘critical thinking’ and what evidence they can show for that. Also, you can ask them what true value they have brought to them: what solution, idea or innovation did they bring about that answered to an target group’s need? Sure, ask them if they’re familiar with the term ‘design thinking’ and whether they know how to use a persona, customer journey or any other design tool, but stop hiring ‘design thinkers’, as such. Hire people that think critically and can empathize with people, who first and foremost, are good at what they do. The danger in focusing and trusting too much on the process itself, is that you lose eye for quality, in-depth knowledge and the ability to truly create a radical, innovative solution for a complex industry problem.

Tip for ‘design thinkers’

That brings to me a final tip for ‘design thinkers’ out there: if you truly want to add value for your client, learn and immerse yourself in one specific industry (e.g. finance, retail, FMCG, etc.) and you’ll see way better results of your projects, as you understand terminology, business implications, industry trends and much more that makes your complex problem at hand.. well, complex. If it wasn’t complex, you wouldn’t need design thinking in the first place.