Design thinking is BS (and other harsh truths)
Design thinking continues to gain popularity as a means for creative problem-solving and innovation across business and social sectors. Time to take stock and consider what ‘design thinking’ is and whether it’s a real solution option for addressing complex problems, over-hyped BS, or both.
Design thinking has pushed its way from the outside to the front and centre of discussions on innovation development and creative problem-solving. Books, seminars, certificate programs, and even films are being produced to showcase design thinking and inspire those who seek to become more creative in their approach to problem framing, finding and solving.
Just looking through the Censemaking archives will find considerable work on design thinking and its application to a variety of issues. While I’ve always been enthusiastic about design thinking’s promise, I’ve also been wary of the hype, preferring to use the term design over design thinking when possible.
What’s been most attractive about design thinking has been that it’s introduced the creative benefits of design to non-designers. Design thinking has made ‘making things’ more tangible to people who may have distanced themselves from making or stopped seeing themselves as creative. Design thinking has also introduced a new language that can help people think more concretely about the process of innovation.
Design thinking: success or BS?
We now see designers elevated to the C-suite — including the role of university president in the case of leading designer John Maeda — and as thought leaders in technology, education, non-profit work and business in large part because of design thinking. So it might have surprised many to see Natasha Jen, a partner at the prestigious design firm Pentagram, do the unthinkable in a recent public talk: trash design thinking.
Speaking at the 99u Conference in New York this past summer, Jen calls out what she sees as the ‘bullshit’ of design thinking and how it betrays much of the fundamentals of what makes good design.
One of Jen’s criticisms of design thinking is how it involves the absence of what designers call ‘crit’: the process of having peers — other skilled designers — critique design work early and often. While design thinking models typically include some form of ‘evaluation’ in them, this is hardly a rigorous process. There are few guidelines for how to do it, how to deliver feedback and little recognition of who is best able to deliver the crit to peers (there are even guides for those who don’t know about the critique process in design). It’s not even clear who the best ‘peers’ are for such a thing.
The design thinking movement has emphasized how ‘everyone is a designer.’ This has the positive consequences of encouraging creative engagement in innovation from everyone, increasing the pool of diverse perspectives that can be brought to bear on a topic. What it ignores is that the craft of design involves real skill and just as everyone can dance or sing, not everyone can do it well. What has been lost in much of the hype around design thinking is the respect for craft and its implications, particularly in terms of evaluation.
Evaluating design thinking’s impact
When I was doing my professional design training I once got into an argument* with a professor who said: “We know design thinking works“. I challenged back: “Do we? How?” To which he responded: “Of course we do, it just does — look around.” (pointing to the room of my fellow students presumably using ‘design thinking’ in our studio course).
End of discussion.
Needless to say, the argument was — in his eyes — about him being right and me being a fool for not seeing the obvious. For me, it was about the fact that, while I believed in the power of the approach that was loosely called ‘design thinking’ offered something better than the traditional methods of addressing many complex challenges, I couldn’t say for sure that it ‘works’ and does ‘better’ than the alternatives. It felt like he was saying hockey is better than knitting.
One of the reasons we don’t know is that solid evaluation isn’t typically done in design. The criteria that designers typically use is client satisfaction with the product given the constraints (e.g., time, budget, style, user expectations). If a client says: “I love it!” that’s about all that matters.
Another problem is that design thinking is often used to tackle more complex challenges for which there may be inadequate examples to compare. We are not able to use a randomized controlled trial, the ‘gold-standard’ research approach, to test whether design thinking is better than ‘non-design thinking.’ The result is that we don’t really know what design thinking’s impact is in the products, services, and processes that it is used to create or at least enough to compare it other ways of working.
Showing the work
In grade school math class it wasn’t sufficient to arrive at an answer and simply declare it without showing your work. The broad field of design (and the practice of design thinking) emphasizes developing and testing prototypes, but ultimately it is the final product that is assessed. What is done on the way to the final product is rarely given much, if any attention. Little evaluation is done on the process used to create a design using design thinking (or another approach).
The result of this is that we have little idea of the fidelity of implementation of a ‘model’ or approach when someone says they used design thinking. There is hardly any understanding of the dosage (amount), the techniques, the situations and the human factors (e.g., skill level, cooperation, openness to ideas, personality, etc..) that contribute to the designed product and little of the discussion in design reports are made of such things.
Some might argue that such rigorous attention to these aspects of design takes away from the ‘art’ of design or that it is not amenable to such scrutiny. While the creative/creation process is not a science, that doesn’t mean it can’t be observed and documented. It may be that comparative studies are impractical, but how do we know if we don’t try? What processes like the ‘crit’ does is open creators — teams or individuals — to feedback, alternative perspectives and new ideas that could prevent poor or weak ideas from moving forward.
Bringing evaluation into the design process is a way to do this.
Going past the hype cycle
Gartner has popularized the concept of the hype cycle, which illustrates how ‘hot’ ideas, technologies and other innovations get over-sold, under-appreciated and eventually adopted in a more realistic manner relative to their impact over time.
Design thinking is most likely somewhere past the peak of inflated expectations, but still near the top of the curve. For designers like Natasha Jen, design thinking is well into the Trough of Disillusionment (and may never escape). Design thinking is currently stuck in its ‘bullshit’ phase and until it embraces more openness into the processes used under its banner, attention to the skill required to design well, and evaluation of the outcomes that design thinking generates, outspoken designers like Jen will continue to be dissatisfied.
We need people like Jen involved in design thinking. The world could benefit from approaches to critical design that produces better, more humane and impactful products and services that benefit more people with less impact on the world. We could benefit greatly from having more people inspired to create and open to sharing their experience, expertise and diverse perspectives on problems. Design thinking has this promise if it open to applying some its methods to itself.
*argument implies that the other person was open to hearing my perspective, engage in dialogue, and provide counter-points to mine. This was not the case.
If you’re interested in learning more about what an evaluation-supported, critical, and impactful approach to design and design thinking could look like for your organization or problem, contact Cense and see how they can help you out.
Image Credit: Author