Will design professionals become little more than glorified maintenance workers? We don’t think so–but still, the question deserves our attention.

In each issue of DesignIntelligence, we explore the future of the design professions by studying best practice stories and looking at current issues, concerns and opportunities. As we near the close of the year, now seems like a good time to reflect on the overall status of the design community. In our recent workshops in firms, we have looked at the ten trends reshaping the design professions. The irony of these trends is that each carries with it a double-edged sword. As one participant in Grand Rapids, Michigan recently recanted, Will design professionals become little more than glorified maintenance workers? We don’t think so–but still, the question deserves our attention.

The need for smart thinking and assertive problem solving has never been greater. Yet in many respects, many in the design professions are still primitive in problem-solving capabilities. It’s serious because their own future is at stake. Talking is one thing–and most in the design profession can talk problem solving with great aplomb. Those who are able to live out the action and get true results are in quite another league. The league of innovators and the success-oriented are those who will not become designasaurs. Those who are effective problem solvers know how to cut through complex issues, ask the right questions and solve the right problems.

One of the resources that we have been using to address this issue is a new book by Ian Mitroff, Smart Thinking for Crazy Times: The Art of Solving the Right Problems. There are five chapters that dig deeper into the practice of solving problems than is commonly seen. Consider the following:

  • Picking the Wrong Stakeholders: involving only a small set of stakeholders in formulating a problem and not challenging at least one assumption about a critical stakeholder;

  • Selecting Too Narrow a Set of Options: it is vital to produce at least two different formulations of any problem deemed important;

  • Phrasing a Problem Incorrectly: using a narrow set of disciplines, design functions, or variables, or addressing only the symptoms;

  • Setting the Boundaries of a Problem Too Narrowly: broaden the scope of every important problem just beyond your comfort zone; and

  • Failing to Think Systemically: focusing on a part of the problem instead of the whole, focusing on the wrong part, and/or ignoring connections.

Mitroff is the Distinguished Professor at the Business School at the University of Southern California. The book is a short 169 pages and easily digestible. Professor Mitroff’s book is published by Berrett-Koehler. It can be found in most book stores that have large business sections. You can also find it on the internet at amazon.com.

In future issues of DesignIntelligence, we’ll keep pushing on the critical issues that will make or break you in the year ahead. We’ll be looking at firms and organizations that have the will to tackle certain insipid trends that will bring others to their knees. Don’t let yourself play the victim role.