Recently, I had a great talk with Thomas Wendt: Author of two books, outspoken consultant, user researcher, author and writer based in New York City. Scrolling through various blogs, I accidentally came across Thomas’s work. His “Critique of Human-Centric Design” got me immediately interested in his work.
If you’re still a fan of long-form content in a TL;DR culture — I recommend reading the full transcript at The Pattern. Thomas outlined his concepts with short narratives that should help you understand arguments he made in his books.
For busy millennials; below are my top takeaways from our talk.
1. Design = Politics
“The act of design is a political act. Any design can influence political, ethical and cultural realities for people. Recently, Silicon Valley and those big tech companies have realized how much of a political and social influence their products have on people. Especially the younger generation.” argues Thomas.
As it seems, the politics of design is becoming a signature subject for the upcoming years.
Consequences of design decisions might have various forms and impact. A bad design might change the elections. Design can radicalize people to more extremist and hateful views. Or it can create more accessible and sustainable future. Design shape our world.
Thomas continues with a quote by Allan Chochinov from School of Visual Arts here in NYC: ”Design is doing philosophy with a hand.”
What he means by that is that, you’re the product of your environment, culture, biases and time you live in. And the things you design contain your political stances and biases. And that’s an important thing to realize.
2. Designers should learn how to use their deceptive powers for good
Villem Flusser wrote a book tracking down the origins of word ‘design.’ Pointing out its roots are connected to cunning intelligence and deception. Thomas, triggered by the idea started research in Jung’s personality archetypes (which ended up as a part of his book Persistent Fools) arguing that:
“Designers are tricksters — those who constantly thinks against the established norms.”
According to Thomas, designers should strive for more strategic use of trickery to take power back from corporate design interests.
“If we are ever going to take complexity seriously and we say that we have these complex, so-called “wicked problems,” traditional logic and business thinking will not help us work through them. We need something different.”
3. It’s necessary to be a bit skeptic
Which model of design thinking are you using to solve problems? IDEO’s human-centric? Or double diamond? Well, maybe the better question is: Why to use any of these? Why are they better than a different model?
“Too many designers and design practitioners are taking things for granted,” says Thomas.
This goes back to his critique of human-centric design. He believes that design practitioners should be critical about the design work they do and the methods they use.
“I’m not against HCD, regarding its methods or practices. But it’s a mistake to use just one methodology — and apply it as one cure for all projects we do.” We should think more critically about the things we do. Ask more. Be a bit skeptic.
4. Try other things than design
Before I start an interview, I already know a lot of things about my interviewee. However, I love to start with asking details about their background. There’re always so many patterns yet to be discovered.
Thomas, for example, shared how he got from a somewhat unusual background into design practice. How he ended up working in a marketing agency where he met a team of cultural anthropologists. They had similar unsatisfying university experiences as he did. Inspired by their example, Thomas got more interested in design. Which eventually became the successful career he’s pursuing for the past ten years.
While we’re talking; Thomas stretched the importance of diversity. Not in the socio-cultural meaning. He believes in diversity of experiences.
“I would say to expose yourself to things outside design (if there is such a place). Read political philosophy, anthropology, philosophy. Take classes on wild plant foraging, eco-housing, survival skills. Allow this exposure to shape your mindset, as opposed to worrying about directly applying everything you learn.”