Drunk on Design Thinking
It was about 2015 when I got asked about Design Thinking.
‘Design thinking?’, I thought.
You mean like staring at a canvas silently, cursing yourself up and down for hours until suddenly something occurs to you, and you save your job for at least one more day?
Or did they mean Leonard Bruce Archer and his seminal work around systems thinking for the Royal Academy of Art in the 1960s?
No, what the clients were all talking about was this piece of flaming debris:
Design Thinking is a corporate buzzword that has so caught fire that in the upper echelons of most Fortune 500 companies, it is spoken of in hushed tones, a talismanic spell to be whispered at any large problem.
Design Thinking is supposed be an easy framework that anyone with a large problem can use to breakdown an obstacle into solvable parts. These are, in general, laudable goals.
In reality, Design Thinking is a meaningless set of Action Words strung together that do little to help a team in need. Natasha Jen says it all better than I ever could, so I won’t rehash that argument here.
Design Thinking proposes that it respects design by putting it on a pedestal, and borrowing its best attributes to help broaden its appeal. It’s best defenders make a similar argument — if Design Thinking broadens the general perception of Design as valuable, that’s a net benefit.
But let’s look at what’s really going on.
When one “systemizes” a practice, one highlights the most common patterns and easy-to-implement factors of an infinitely complex discipline. This instinct — let’s call it the “IKEAization” of anything under the sun — has some pretty good justifications. A populist notion runs through many of these movements. It is true that sometimes academia and the upper levels of professions are tribal and cultish. To take a rarefied system and bring it down to the level of discourse where everyone can be a part of it means a broader accumulation of knowledge for the general population. And I do think that there are parts of Design as a professional practice that can be applied to the broader world that would be useful. You won’t find me arguing against that.
But while the core values of design may in fact by defined by those high-level words listed above, what lies beneath is the true grist of what Design Thinking actually is.
A momentary reality check: the process of large corporate organizations adopting Design Thinking is in of itself is basically meaningless, and hence, harmless — it is a problem solving framework that could potentially have been pulled from any number of industries.
However, I do think it is intentional that Design (or, more broadly, the creative arts) is what has been usurped to create these frameworks. The reality is, it’s not just the visual arts realm that has been so repurposed. Perhaps if I was an actor, the predilection of corporations to adopt Improv notions would irk me. If I was a dancer, “movement icebreakers” might give me fits.
By objectifying creative arts practices as “fun” ways to solve serious problems, the creative arts are infantilized. By infantilizing and packaging these practices, one renders the true practitioners of this field worse than obsolete — you render them beneath value. Ask a mime how they feel about their market worth these days.
It is the professional version of a pat on the head. And it is dangerous.
The damage is not necessarily done to the high-minded ideals of the Design Industry, mind you. Whether Pepsi uses “Design Thinking” or not does not affect a fancy design agency’s bottom line. They will be fine. And whether “Design Thinking” solves or doesn’t solve the problem for Pepsi is also immaterial. Pepsi will also be fine.
No, I don’t despair for the upper echelons of the creative industry, nor for the clients, but for the creatives themselves.
Design is degraded by taking it out of the specialist realm. By making it something that anyone can do, we degrade it by making the process so transparent as to be basically detached from what the work of “design”actually encompasses. A missing factor in many of these discussions is the value of the actual practitioners of the discipline, and the the often-invisible work that goes into a good design practice.
Creativity might be something anyone can do (debatable), but it’s not something anyone can do well, and what’s more, like all professional rigors, it is a field with a million different tiny habits that lead to a whole practice.
All of this might be moot if the creative space was not already fraught with value doubt. If Design was a practice regarded with high esteem, this sloppy appropriation of design practices would come off like the backhanded compliment: poorly executed, but harmless.
But Design, especially in the digital space, suffers a value problem. To be a creative is to constantly living under the yoke of being forced to prove value. While other aspects of industry have provable KPIs, creativity has no such universal data to pull from. To lead a design effort is as much to be a carnival barker as to be an expert in type. The fungible and soft science of convincing another human being that you are speaking in relatable terms has no proper measurement to success besides secondary behavioral analytics. A hero video on a website may get people to stay or make people leave; was it the video? The actors? The music? The placement on the page? There’s only so much discrete testing anyone can do. At a certain point, a design team must be trusted to make the right choice, data be damned. Successful designers are trusted, and succeed. Untrusted ones fail.
This extremely unverified science makes many in our data-driven world very nervous. We have not yet perfected the industry of packaging brilliant creativity and deploying it at will. This, I am convinced, is the genesis of where that Design Thinking diagram springs from. It is a wholesale attempted extraction and packaging of creativity.
It is one more message in a long line to creative people everywhere that some would prefer to extract and package silly processes than trust creatives and give them real chance to make great work. It’s unsurprising, because the work of being creative is hard, and if there is any truism about humans, it’s that we are mostly lazy and like the easy way out.
Design thinking is accidentally saving over a file you swore you named something else, and having to recreate the composition from scratch. Design thinking is having two really good ideas and trying really hard to make a third one seem viable enough to be included in the design review, but not good enough to be actually chosen. Design thinking is realizing that you need to rotate out the plants near your desk, because all of your designs have that leaf shape. Design thinking is being the only one who realizes that the word on the slide being displayed right now is kerned poorly. Design thinking is the bafflement when someone calls a light violet “gray”. Design thinking is wishing your messy pencil work was as clean as a vector line, and your vector line had as much life as your pencil work.
Design thinking is doing the hard work of being a designer. Every day. Anything else is someone trying to sell you something.