Design thinking has brought the language of design into popular discourse across different fields, but it’s failings threaten to undermine the benefits it brings if they aren’t addressed. In this third post in a series, we look at how Design (and Design Thinking) can elevate themselves above their failings and match the hype with real impact.
In two previous posts, I called out ‘design thinkers’ to get the practice out of it’s ‘bullshit’ phase, characterized by high levels of enthusiastic banter, hype, and promotion and low evidence, evaluation or systematic practice.
Despite the criticism, it’s time for Design Thinking (and the field of Design more specifically) to be elevated beyond its current station. I’ve been critical of Design Thinking for years: its popularity has been helpful in some ways, problematic in others. Others have, too. Bill Storage, writing in 2012 (now unavailable), said:
Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design.
Bruce Nussbaum, who helped popularize Design Thinking in the early 2000’s called it a ‘failed experiment’, seeking to promote the concept of Creative Intelligence instead. While many have called for Design Thinking to die, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Since first publishing a piece on Design Thinking’s problems five years ago the practice has only grown. Design Thinking is going to continue to grow, despite its failings and that’s why it matters that we pay attention to it — and seek to make it better.
Lack of quality control, standardization or documentation of methods, and evidence of impact are among the biggest problems facing Design Thinking if it is to achieve anything substantive beyond generating money for those promoting it.
Giving design away, better
It’s hard to imagine that the concepts of personality, psychosis, motivation, and performance measurement from psychology were once unknown to most people. Yet, before the 1980’s, much of the public’s understanding of psychology was confined to largely distorted beliefs about Freudian psychoanalysis, mental illness, and rat mazes. Psychology is now firmly ensconced in business, education, marketing, public policy, and many other professions and fields. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his work applying psychological and cognitive science to economic decision making.
The reason for this has much to do with George Miller who, as President of the American Psychological Association, used his position to advocate that professional psychology ‘give away’ its knowledge to ensure its benefits were more widespread. This included creating better means of communicating psychological concepts to non-psychologists and generating the kind of evidence that could show its benefits.
Design Thinking is at a stage where we are seeing similar broad adoption beyond professional design to these same fields of business, education, the military and beyond. While there has been much debate about whether design thinking as practiced by non-designers (like MBA’s) is good for the field as a whole, there is little debate that its become popular just as psychology has.
What psychology did poorly is that it gave so much away that it failed to engage other disciplines enough to support quality adoption and promotion and, simultaneously, managed to weaken itself as newfound enthusiasts pursued training in these other disciplines. Now, some of the best psychological practice is done by social workers and the most relevant research comes from areas like organizational science and new ‘sub-disciplines’ like behavioural economics, for example.
Design Thinking is already being taught, promoted, and practiced by non-designers. What these non-designers often lack is the ‘crit’ and craft of design to elevate their designs. And what Design lacks is the evaluation, evidence, and transparency to elevate its work beyond itself.
So what next?
As Design moves beyond its traditional realms of products and structures to services and systems (enabled partly by Design Thinking’s popularity) the implications are enormous — as are the dangers. Poorly thought-through designs have the potential to exacerbate problems rather than solve them.
Charles Eames knew this. He argued that innovation (which is what design is all about) should be a last resort and that it is the quality of the connections (ideas, people, disciplines and more) we create that determine what we produce and their impact on the world. Eames and his wife Ray deserve credit for contributing to the elevation of the practice of design through their myriad creations and their steadfast documentation of their work. The Eames’ did not allow themselves to be confined by labels such as product designer, interior designer, or artist. They stretched their profession by applying craft, learning with others, and practicing what they preached in terms of interdisciplinarity.
It’s now time for another elevation moment. Designers can no longer be satisfied with client approval as the key criteria for success. Sustainability, social impact, and learning and adaptation through behaviour change are now criteria that many designers will need to embrace if they are to operate beyond the fields’ traditional domains (as we are now seeing more often). This requires that designers know how to evaluate and study their work. They need to communicate with their clients better on these issues and they must make what they do more transparent. In short: designers need to give away design (and not just through a weekend design thinking seminar).
Not every designer must get a Ph.D. in behavioural science, but they will need to know something about that domain if they are to work on matters of social and service design, for example. Designers don’t have to become professional evaluators, but they will need to know how to document and measure what they do and what impact it has on those touched by their designs. Understanding research — that includes a basic understanding of statistics, quantitative and qualitative methods — is another area that requires shoring up.
Designers don’t need to become researchers, but they must have research or evaluation literacy. Just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable that program designers from fields like public policy and administration, public health, social services, and medicine lack understanding of design principles, so is it no longer feasible for designers to be ignorant of proper research methods.
It’s not impossible. Clinical psychologists went from being mostly practitioners to scientist-practitioners. Professional social workers are now well-versed in research even if they typically focus on policy and practice. Elevating the field of Design means accepting that being an effective professional requires certain skills and research and evaluation are now part of that skill set.
Designing for elevated design
This doesn’t have to fall on designers to take up research — it can come from the very people who are attracted to Design Thinking. Psychologists, physicians, and organizational scientists (among others) all can provide the means to support designers in building their literacy in this area.
Adding research courses that go beyond ethnography and observation to give design students exposure to survey methods, secondary data analysis, ‘big data’, Grounded Theory approaches, and blended models for data collection are all options. Bring the behavioural and data scientists into the curriculum (and get designers into the curriculum training those professionals).
Create opportunities for designers to do research, publish, and present their research using the same ‘crit’ that they bring to their designs. Just as behavioural scientists expose themselves to peer review of their research, designers can do the same with their research. This is a golden opportunity for an exchange of ideas and skills between the design community and those in the program evaluation and research domains.
This last point is what the Design Loft initiative has sought to do. Now in its second year, the Design Loft is a training program aimed at exposing professional evaluators to design methods and tools. It’s not to train them as designers, but to increase their literacy and confidence in engaging with Design. The Design Loft can do the same thing with designers, training them in the methods and tools of evaluation. It’s but one example.
In an age where interdisciplinarity is spoken of frequently this provides the means to practically do it and in a way that offers a chance to elevate design much like the Eames’ did, Milton Glaser did, and how George Miller did for psychology. The time is now.
If you are interested in learning more about the Design Loft initiative, connect with Cense. If you’re a professional evaluator attending the 2017 American Evaluation Association conference in Washington, the Design Loft will be held on Friday, November 10th.
Image Credit: Author