Design’s Accessibility Problem

Our models of design and Design Thinking can enhance our ability to shape human systems without trivializing it’s importance.

Design shapes all human systems – families, organizations, communities and even our individual lives. We do things with purpose, materials, intent, and interaction with the world and design is what takes ideas about such things and makes it real.

The importance of this is hard to overstate and so making sure that design is clear, accessible, and understood is more than a matter of preference and semantics – it affects much more.

For that reason, three issues that shape how design is understood, discussed, and used require some attention if we’re to achieve the goal of making design accessible to all who can benefit and use it.

Everyone’s a Designer (?)(!)

One of the most contentious issues in the design community is the belief held by some that everyone is a designer. The argument for this comes from a belief that we all can be designers if we are provided with the right tools and frameworks to develop and implement them. This is the underlying assumption of Design Thinking, which sought to convert the general manner in which designers approach problems and turn it into a model. This is where the double diamond and others like IDEO’s popular model has come from.

It’s no surprise that those who have developed design thinking models (and train people on them) are those who adamantly promote this perspective. The concept has its origins in a quote by Herbert Simon 20 years before design thinking took off:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

Herbert Simon

Many designers have railed against this idea saying that it devalues the skill and craft of design. Some say it’s beside the point.

I agree.

Everyone does design by the very definition of what design is.

Not everyone designs things that serve others or achieve their intended goals. There is a spectrum of skill and requirements that shape design practice, design thinking, and the leadership tied to both. If designing with others, that also requires a set of abilities that some aren’t good at. Everyone is a designer and not everyone is a good one.

Just as not everyone who can play soccer is a qualified professional footballer, neither does having some design skills make you a professional-quality designer. That doesn’t mean that the soccer player or amateur website maker aren’t doing ‘football’ or ‘design’ — they are. Semantics matter and there’s a difference between various forms of gatekeeping (the argument against everyone being a designer) and simply recognizing differences in abilities and skill qualifications for a role or task.

It’s an important distinction and one requires more work, thoughtfulness, and assessment and if design is really shaping our world I think it’s important enough to give some time to it.

Models of Design (Thinking) in Practice

Cense’s Design Thinking Model

The second of these key issues is the idea of ‘design thinking‘ — which I’ll refer to in capital form to reflect its name. The criticism of most Design Thinking models are that they are simplistic and linear and that it doesn’t fully articulate the way design is actually done. It’s viewed by some as oversimplifying something that is actually quite complicated and requires expertise and misrepresenting it.

George Box’s quote about creating models of the world is particularly apt here:

“All models are wrong, some are useful”.

George Box, Statistician

Good design is about channeling thinking, research, and creation into a purposeful direction even if that is rarely straightforward. Nevertheless, a model that implies some kind of direction and set of activities is still useful, even if they are — to use Box’s definition — wrong.

What practical utility in communicating or making design accessible would a model that had no direction, steps, components, or features be?

The key is not to say that the models we use are right, but that they may be useful in supporting skilled, considerate training, support, and practice. Criticism of these models is suggesting they ought to be used outright and that they don’t require any further consideration. If you’re not committed enough to the work required to recognize and appreciate the context-sensitivity of these models you’re not going to do much with design.

Just as an epidemiological model of a virus (as we are all becoming accustomed to seeing) doesn’t tell what exactly needs to be done, it does provide guidance for further thought and action. That is what good models do.

Design Impact

What does design actually do?

The only way to tell is to evaluate design practice. Any designer who claims their products, services, or policy creations are impactful without evaluation data is speculating. Evaluation is the systematic examination of the process and outcomes tied to creating something of value –whatever that is. It’s compares the merit, significance, and worth of something relative to expectations, other competing products or services, or simply to established standards of practice. An entire field of science and practice has been created to support the activity of evaluation.

If we don’t evaluate what we do — study it, communicate it, and share it with stories — we are not advancing design at all. It’s why design has remained so ‘mysterious’ and inaccessible to so many because few people can claim what it does, can do, and demonstrates. It’s one thing to take a workshop on design thinking, it’s another to tell your employer why they should invest in it. What does design offer? What will we become, achieve, create, and what does any of that matter?

That is what evaluation does.

It also creates accountability because it meters what we say and claim with what we actually do and accomplish.

Design is too important to ignore the complexities that arise from recognizing that skills and abilities are context-dependent, that models require skilled application and a necessary simplification of things to be understandable and useful, and that we need to show our work to be accountable.

Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

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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