Is Design Thinking Actually Bullshit?

Who uses design thinking? Businesses do. Healthcare too. Non-profits use it. Youngsters in elementary schools and middle schools use it. And those in higher education use it and teach it. Design thinking has become a buzzword, appearing in one case study after another, or peppered throughout a designer’s portfolio captions here and there. Can design thinking solve any and every problem, or is it what one educator calls weak tea? Moreover, what do designers have to say about it, besides calling it bullshit?

Is design thinking bull shit?

A Primer on Design Thinking

Defining design thinking is a bit tricky depending on the context, especially since it does not always have to relate to graphic design. In 2008, IDEO’s CEO and president Tim Brown argued that historically, design thinkers were not necessarily graphic designers. He put Edison, Charles and Ray Eames, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs, and Ferdinand Porsche on the list. Design thinking—from what it seems—could be used for anything, even to fix and revive that erstwhile place for finding books, the library. Use design thinking, says IDEO, to create “solutions to everyday challenges within the library.”

Seems logical. Graphic designers can create solutions for a range of clients, a range of media. Why should design thinking be part of any one discipline, be it graphic, web, app, industrial design, or any design for that matter? Why limit it to any client, any domain?

To IDEO, design thinking is a human-centered practice that starts with people, with methods used “to envision new products, services, spaces, and experiences.” In fact, design thinking is so useful that if you’re in academia working as a teacher, it can help you too. At another IDEO site, Design Thinking for Educators, they talk about how “discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation and evolution” could solve problems for “curriculum, space, processes, and systems.”

Some academics including Dr. Lee Vinsel have reservations, strong reservations as indicated by the subhead in his article at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Its adherents think it will save higher ed. They’re delusional.”

Vinsel may not like to hear it but design thinking, in a nutshell, is a big, powerful system of methods and tools. It goes beyond design, capable of helping individuals or teams solve small problems, big problems, or perhaps even wicked problems. And if you’re a graphic designer—or any designer for that matter—IDEO’s Michael Hendrix suggests you think big, and of course, use design thinking while you’re at it. Hendrix, partner and executive design director at IDEO, recalls the moment he became a design thinker.

“I graduated as a graphic designer from the University of Tennessee in 1994. At the time I couldn’t imagine I would be able to help address the challenges I do today. I saw a future in advertising or corporate identity, which are interesting but constrained practices. A few years later I came across a diagram by Charles Eames that laid out his philosophy for design. It opened my eyes to grander possibilities and led me to stop identifying myself by my discipline (how) and, instead, start identifying with the outcome of my work (why). I went from thinking of myself as a graphic designer to a Designer with a capital D.

CoLab’s annual member event, Blueprint, showcases interactive prototypes that help evaluate future use cases for technology, photo and caption courtesy of IDEO. Initiatives such as these are where IDEO’s Hendrix says design thinking can be put to work for innovating, as well as solving problems.

To Infinity and Beyond, Maybe

Like Buzz Lightyear, Hendrix thinks big, especially when it comes to design and design thinking and has some words of wisdom for students and those who are recent graduates. “Graphic design was one of many strategies that I could bring to creative problem solving alongside other creative people. So many mental skills we learn—like the ability to produce clarity from disorder or to build a well-paced narrative for example—are transferable to non-graphic challenges. That’s incredibly valuable. And today so many software tools have shared interfaces that it’s easy to jump across disciplines rather than be limited by them. So my advice to new grads is not to box yourself in just because you know how to use a certain set of tools or strategies. Don’t let them define you as a designer. You’re capable of so much more than that. Go ahead and be a great graphic designer, and be more than that too. Recognize that you can design processes, systems and even organizations and cultures—sometimes without traditional tools at all. The world needs you.”

Sounds good, right? Go big, or go home, and do it with a big D for Design by way of design thinking. But how do you start out as a design thinker? Learn about design thinking through college classes or certificate programs like this one at UNC Charlotte (which I coincidentally caught wind of through an Instagram sponsored advertisement around the same time I began research for this article). You can also learn about it from the comforts of your own home via the d.school’s Virtual Crash Course at Stanford’s website.

CoLab hosts fellowships four times per year, bringing together academics, designers, professionals, and other stakeholders to build prototypes through collaborative design sprints, photo and caption courtesy of IDEO.

Calling Bullshit

Design thinking seems to be everywhere, and if you’re like me and search for it on Google, Instagram, Facebook, and Amazon, you’re likely to see it even more in sponsored posts and advertisements. But is design thinking actually the savior that many make it out to be, especially in academia where IDEO and Stanford’s d.school have both made strides? It’s a polarizing issue, with some in the For Design Thinking camp and others very, very Against Design Thinking.

Designers should be the first to embrace design thinking—and many do—but skeptics are out there. Pentagram partner Natasha Jen, who lectured at 2017’s HOW Design Live, called design thinking bullshit. She recently gave the talk for Adobe 99U and her lecture has made big waves through social media, perhaps a result of the word bullshit neatly nestled in its title.

A Limited View

During an interview with Jen, she talked about the problems as she sees them, calling design thinking “quite homogenous” since it takes the personalization out of solving problems. It’s a way that can easily become the way, and if you use it you might suffer the consequences because it could limit you and your abilities, and limit the results you deliver your clients.

“People need to, first of all, have their own way of seeing things. We’re in a world right now when we are not sure of our own way of seeing things. The media landscape is so complex, so much bombards us. I feel like that’s a general condition. It’s something I also question myself, and also as an educator… Do we really know how to look at the world? To see first, and then to think about what we see? Design thinking eliminates your right as a human being to see things in your own way. That departure point is so flawed, and so problematic. I’m not just talking about the whole snake oil business that spun out of control. Schools begin to use design thinking without any scholarly analysis, they just sell it. Boot camp—then you get a certificate. There’s no scholarly study. It’s just 100% optimism, confidence in the methodology itself, and I find that quite shameless.”

Jen looks at and analyzes design thinking as a designer and critic, and also as an educator. She’s not picking a fight for the sake of arguing. She cares about how design students, and those starting out in the world of design, look at the world, see the world, and solve problems. “Impulses, I want to help them discover that. Help them nurture that, have their own voice develop… it’s really about, for me, as an educator, how you promote and encourage that tendency they already have while keeping that tendency, keeping them somewhat disciplined. With that, I have a problem with design thinking, or any methodology that eliminates any possibilities that may come from unparticilars. Prescriptions eliminate all of that.”

According to Jen, after Vinsel saw her 99U talk he too was motivated to respond. Not only has Dr. Vinsel written about design thinking once, but he’s written about it again and again and again, in a manner that some might call fierce: Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains, Design Thinking Is a Boondoggle, There’s So Little There There: A Response to the Stanford d.school’s Defense of Design Thinking, The Design Thinking Movement is Absurd.

Vinsel takes issue with the ways design thinking has been applied as a catch-all tool for solving problems. “In a way, my main concern isn’t whether design thinking is a helpful way to teach design, which is the concern of my friends who are designers. My issue is that it has this ethereal ambition to spread into all of these ways of culture… and culture generally, or solving problems in the government. There’s not enough proof or evidence there that it can do everything.”

Vinsel, for the record, does not consider himself a designer, calling himself kind of a historian who works in an interdisciplinary field known as science and technology studies. The impetus for his controversial piece, Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains, was a series of Chronicle of Higher Education articles where he read about how design thinking could be used to revise, reinvigorate higher education.

Process vs. Product

Maybe design thinking could change higher education for the better, but Vinsel sincerely doubts it because when it comes to simple fixes for anything, he’s not buying it. Moreover, he doesn’t believe design thinking should be turned into a recipe that’s sellable and marketable, pushed into this domain or that.

But Ron Edelen, creative director, former agency owner, and assistant professor of graphic design at Jacksonville University, sees things differently, identifying the pros and cons. For some things, design thinking makes sense but for others, not so much. Like Jen, Edelen does sense trouble when it comes to using design thinking as a rigid methodology. “The problem with creating a formula, or codifying the process… it’s tied to the human side of things, and that’s chaotic, and always changing.”

He sees design thinking as a good thing, unless you’re a designer bound up in it and bound up by it, working rigidly time and time again. That would be a big mistake, a rookie mistake. Those starting out, who might be insecure about their abilities, could easily and mistakenly use design thinking as a crutch one too many times. And the more you think about design thinking, the more you might feel threatened. “If others can do the things I do by using design thinking, perhaps I won’t be needed anymore,” is a dark way of thinking.

If you’re a designer and you’re worried about others using design thinking to steal your clients, steal your work, Edelen has some thoughts. “Personally, I have yet to see design thinking ‘hurt’ designers—specifically those designers practicing good design. This is because well-trained and practiced graphic designers naturally involve design thinking in their everyday process. Designers are inherently experiential learners and makers. That said, I can see the danger in a new discipline of practitioners who attempts to codify and execute a design process in the absence of being the ones who also attempt to make their ideas.”

Less Thinking, More Making

So maybe design thinking is not intended for designers or even design educators. Maybe it’s for those who need a boost, a starting point. At IDEO U’s online design thinking portal, CEO Tim Brown stresses that “everybody’s creative.” Design thinking does demystify the process, providing a foundation. Lack creativity? Feeling uninspired? Don’t know where to start on a problem? It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Design thinking to the rescue!!

Superman references aside, it is an issue Edelen often thinks about. “The challenge is that it’s hard for me to accept that you can bottle up the creative process into a five-step approach, and claim a guarantee that it’s going to deliver amazing results every time. Really, a good approach is giving yourself a license, or a tolerance, for failure. Currently, design thinking is the business term for endorsing a tolerance for failure because design thinking encourages ideas that could ultimately fail.” But design is about more than process, more than failure, and Edelen, wants to set the record straight.

“The best way to learn is to make. Making is a core part of the thinking process and is essential to a successful idea. Being a maker, this is where the designer comes in. They can think like a design thinker, and also make because they’re a designer.”

Choosing What Works (for You)

Each individual is different, and each individual works differently. So how important is the process at the end of the day? Anne Jordan, a graphic designer specializing in book covers, sees design thinking—or any process for that matter—as less important than the final outcome, so much so that critiquing any creative process is a dead end.

“We can critique the actual work, but to critique the way somebody is thinking, I choose not to do that. If somebody came and called my process bullshit, I would have a real problem with that. I don’t expect everyone to work the way I do, but just because you don’t work the way I do, doesn’t mean that my way is bullshit.”

For Jordan, form and concept both inform and enhance one another, and when it comes to her own work, form comes first, so design thinking is a foreign process in some ways but it has a place.

“Sketching is a tool. Mindmapping is a tool. Looking at books in the library is a tool. Design thinking is just one other way to develop ideas. I’m not for or against it, and I would use it if I needed it. Design thinking can sometimes be needed to help sell an investment, or to help get business people on board, to help make the creative process something that non-creative people can understand. When the stakes are higher, the money is serious, and design thinking can be helpful to get everybody on board.” Businesses do use it, but Dr. Vinsel believes the way design thinking is being picked up in the business world is weak tea, a stance that others in design and design education agree with.

Does Rejection Means Re-Mystifying?

Darryl Clifton, illustration program director at Camberwell College of Arts, sees why businesses would want to use it, and is not surprised by that choice since it gives their methods what he calls “a potent veracity, a quantifiable legitimacy.”

When digesting the arguments that both Vinsel and Jen have shared about design thinking, namely their critique of design thinking, he sees the arguments framed around professional practice. But he sees a much bigger elephant in the room, or a bigger turd, or a big elephant turd, it all depends on your perspective.

“The anxieties expressed and embodied in design thinking are actually symptomatic of a much more profound structural problem. On the one hand, Jen is clearly exorcised by the diminution of the so-called profession of design by the phenomenon of design thinking. The impression given is that her status as a designer is being challenged by the ubiquity and ‘ease of use’ of design thinking. It is the ‘off the peg-ness’ that she objects to. Jen wants to re-mystify the process—hence the co-option of ‘crit’ into a nascent lexicon of magical design thinking terminology. It suggests a desire to re-territorialize. Vinsel’s pro- intellectual stance is equally defensive. Both parties feel the threat of their expertise and specialism being eroded or stolen away.” Whether it’s used by businesses, libraries, or schools—or designers—shunning design thinking appears to be just as en vogue as practicing it. But Clifton believes that dismissing design thinking because it’s wrong or bad or nonsense might be a mistake. For some, it might work. For others, it might not. And at the end of the day, so long as you’re thinking, well, that’s just fine. “This may seem like a ‘cop out’ but increasingly I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as design thinking or illustrative thinking, there is just thinking.”

Is design thinking bullshit? Poo sparkles

Understanding the Appeal

Clifton shared a wealth of feedback about design thinking in our email interview and was also recently interviewed by AIGA Eye on Design. He believes that those who practice design thinking just might find that the process works for them—albeit, in a rigid manner.

“It, the design thinking mechanism, is a thing in the world and there is a great deal of conviction (however misguided) that wraps around it. In a way the desire for simple, semi-computational models that address complex and messy human situations tells us something much more profound about the congested informational territories that we now inhabit. Being able to cut the bullshit and have a linear ‘plan’ is very appealing. How design thinking shapes itself speaks volumes about our cognitive inadequacies. An inability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty may become our Achilles’ Heel. At Camberwell we are taking an educational approach that foregrounds uncertainty; we suggest that it is the only given in an increasingly precarious and ‘unnecessarily transparent’ world. Creating space to ‘think’ complex problems, without trying to ‘know’ them fully—something that is beautifully articulated in James Bridle’s New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future from Bloomsbury—is a mode of engaging with the world that might prove fruitful. But it is important to remember that design thinking is a process not a discipline. Disciplines accommodate multiple methods and processes and have the capacity to mutate/evolve/grow. Design thinking (as it is defined in most cases) presents a rigid and inflexible narrative, simple but brittle!”

is design thinking bullshit?

Students at Innova Schools benefit from a blended learning approach that combines self-directed and group time, photo and caption courtesy of IDEO. Although some wonder how exactly design thinking can solve the big, wicked problems facing educators or governments, IDEO’s Hendrix admits that applying design thinking to some applications works, but others aren’t good matches. “For example, cherry-picking a method like using sticky notes and markers for a brainstorm without structured facilitation and a review isn’t going to result in much. Continuing to educate ourselves about the practice and outcomes will only make it more effective.”

For or Against, or Whatever

When IDEO’s Hendrix was asked about critiques put forth by Natasha Jen and Dr. Lee Vinsel, he said that declaring all design thinking to be bad was bad logic. “We haven’t declared marketing dead because of poorly executed ad campaigns. We haven’t declared all graphic design useless because of font-happy strip mall signage or the illegible layouts of government forms. And if someone actually did, no one would pay attention because it’s such a well-understood field today. We need to continue developing this craft, celebrating its good outcomes and critiquing it’s poor applications just as we have done for other practices of design. Practically, in design education we need to continue introducing multi-disciplinary collaboration and broadening the perspective about who those collaborators can be. Some of our clients are amazing design thinkers which makes them exciting to work with. I remember early in my career when I thought clients were the enemy. But really they are the catalysts for your most innovative work. Introducing perspectives from outside the practice of design into your design process only makes it better. And recognizing clients as design thinkers can make the work stronger.”

Whether you’re an illustrator or a designer, Hendrix is right: stronger work matters. For most of us that happens by way of making the work, putting the work up, talking about it, breaking it down, designing from scratch or redesigning what you’ve already made, and then going through that process again—and again and again and again if needed.

Anne Jordan, who believes that there is no one or right process when it comes to design, agrees with what Natasha Jen said about the design process, namely the need for critique in a group setting or on your own. Making the work and discussing the work matters most and the biggest problem that Jordan sees with design thinking is that “form can be an afterthought.”

Having studied with Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell at RISD, Jordan said she’s biased about these matters because RISD is a school focused on form. “Design thinking is an extreme approach, and it’s really in the opposite direction: concept and form are secondary. Had I gone to a different school, I may have a totally different take on design thinking. I’m definitely cut from the RISD cloth, in that form is important to me. I don’t need to convince anybody that my process is valid. We need to critique the results.”

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