Rethink Design Thinking

Design thinking might need a re-think as we continue to see it used in ways it probably never should be.

The moment you start seeing ‘design thinking and [insert topic]’ events happening across sectors as diverse as corporate strategy, public policy, healthcare, government, non-profit fundraising, and education (to name just a few) you know a term has become mainstream. But like the often quoted and misquoted phrase made by Yogi Berra and others that say ‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded“, the popularity of the term might just be its undoing.

Design Thinking: The Cool Kid?

The more I see ‘design thinking and _______’ talks, papers, workshops, and more, the greater the disconnect becomes between what design thinking was and what it is becoming. On one hand, design thinking is growing up and starting to finally show some evidence for what many of those who espouse its charms claim. That’s a positive step toward becoming a respectable field of practice.

Yet, the other side of the coin is that there is also a wealth of dubious uses of the term, with universities, consultancies, and others creating courses that have questionable foundations and value. Just as taking a sensitivity training course does not make a person culturally literate across cultures, contexts, a design thinking course won’t make someone a competent, responsible designer.

I wonder what would have happened if design thinking would have emerged in a different time – say in the 1960’s or ’50s or earlier and in a different space. The concept of ‘design thinking’ caught fire after the ABC Nightline special caught people’s attention and it was subsequently repeated and then sold as a stand-alone VHS episode. As it got popular, it wasn’t clear who was in charge and whether this popularity was guided by thoughtfulness or happenstance.

Is design thinking just the cool kid or is it something more?

Ethics & Design Thinking

Design thinking is a product of its roots, which is to say that it’s intimately connected with Silicon Valley and the ethos of that environment. It’s about moving and failing fast and breaking things. The problem with this is that it has also adopted many of the problems that are a part of Silicon Valley and its easy to see these design thinking initiatives, poorly conceived, replicating those issues in other settings.

Design thinking has emerged in parallel with the Internet. And just like the Internet the concept of design thinking is as filled with incomplete, competing, and outright false information. The claims of design thinking have been overwrought and hyperbolic – even delusional to the point where practitioners now question about what it actually does or can do.

This is partly due to a lack of ethics in design thinking and design in general. This isn’t to suggest that design is an unethical field, rather it is largely an a-ethical field. I’ve studied design and taught in design institutions and rarely have I come across any substantive examples of training in design ethics. While some, like Mike Monteiro, have voiced loudly this need for ethical consideration in design, there is — like design thinking itself — a difference between talking about ethics and ethical practice.

Rethink, Again

The idea of a rethink isn’t to throw the whole practice out. Don Norman wrote about rethinking design thinking nearly a decade ago, referring to it as a useful myth (and then taking it back, more recently). Nor is it to simply flood our journals with research studies validating its worth. To move the field forward its important to recognize that design thinking exists in a context and that this context continues to change.

Our products mean something different now. Our services do, too. The interconnections of our world are more fragile and stronger than ever and will change in the months to come (to what, who knows?) — and when they do, whatever they replace will be a design decision. We are in a time of great transformation and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future (which is, admittedly, murky to assess).

This is part of what is design thinking is: rethinking.

Perhaps it should be design rethinking?

The difference in the cultural, social, psychological, and political landscape prior to 2020 and afterwards is unprecedented. The speed, complexity, and scale of transformation is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The role of tools like the Internet, workplaces like grocery stores and restaurants, suppliers, and educational institutions has been completely upended. The limitations of old systems exposed and the opportunities for new ones introduced.

This is what design thinking is made for.

If we look at the image above, we might see something different than we did before. We may not be able to fully appreciate what it means to empathize with someone now. It’s hard to define what we’re facing, especially when it’s moving fast and transforming before us. Ideas are many, but what are they based on? What does prototyping look like in a pandemic? How do we test? It’s time to rethink all of this and whether they are even the right questions to frame.

These are ethical questions and questions of utility. If we can’t ask these with design thinking, what can we ask?

We can design think if we can’t design rethink.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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