design thinking, yet again, because, maybe, it could actually be useful, perhaps even necessary, given every thing

cameron tonkinwise
12 min readJun 12, 2017

Following is a write-up of an opening statement presented at a panel organized by the Michael Crouch Innovation Center (MCIC) at UNSW entitled ‘Is Design Thinking Over?’

Some further context only for those interested in internecine academia: UNSW is odd in that it is one of the few ‘research universities’ in Australia (they call themselves the ‘Group of 8’) to have programs in non-architectural design — most of the art and design schools were amalgamated into the polytechnics (the ‘Australian Technology Network’ universities). Stranger is that there at least 3 different kinds of non-architectural design at UNSW: in the Faculty of Built Environment, the College of Art and Design, and the MCIC. UNSW is now adding a fourth entity that will teach something like Design Innovation across the University. The ‘stakeholders’ in that new entity are Engineering, Business, FBE and Art & Design. The event this talk was given at was an attempt to bring clarity to the many designs and design thinkings at UNSW, and to push the powers that be to make the new 4th cross-university version of design thinking concern something more substantial than the IDEO-Lumio-dSchool-PwC/Accenture/Deloitte/etc version of design thinking.

Damn you Design Thinkers!

You can get a lot of ‘design cred’ by hating on designing thinking. You seem to be much more of an officianado of the material craft of design by belittling PostIt noters. This is a strange critique, because ‘design thinking’ workshops never claimed to be designing; there was always the recognition that expert designers would be needed to refine the only ever initial propositional outcomes of any ‘design thinking’ workshop.

I want to be violently critical of what design thinking is these days. But before doing so I do want to insist that design thinking has had a very important impact on the professional practice of design. Design Thinking has meant that most non-designers who engage with design now expect workshops. Designing traditionally involved only occasional discussions with clients, perhaps some formal moments of customer research. People became designers hoping that they would spend most of their working lives detailing forms quietly in studios. These days, you have to acknowledge that designing is a collective enterprise that involves many hours in messy workshops with diverse peoples. Design Thinking has usefully made the social side of co-creation unavoidable. Designing is a now more widely understood to be an extended process of persuasion, convincing not only materials to take on forms, but also convincing people that those forms are valuable responses to their situations. Sometimes it feels like designers hate Design Thinking precisely because it necessitates their spending a lot more time with the people they claim to want to help.

Thinking by, about or like which Designer?

There are many kinds and qualities of designing. The way a fashion designer works is incomprehensible to an engineering-oriented industrial designer even if they are both creating something that somebody would wear. There is then the difference in quality between a novice designer and an expert designer, a reliable designer and an innovative designer, a famous designer and a responsible designer. There is design as it is practiced as a service industry within capitalist systems of distributing goods for ownership, and there is design at its best, as a potential source of change in how we live and work, and even what we live and work for.

This wide variety of designing manifests in every single thing we depend on every day — which is why some work well, a few are even admired for their form and/or function, while others must be tolerated or hacked or quickly landfilled. And yet, despite design’s pervasiveness, almost no-one not trained as a designer acknowledges that design is axial to all that we do, let alone understands how design happens. A good part of the interrelated messes our societies are currently in stems from this ignorance about design. If we all acknowledged our fundamental dependence on the outcomes of design processes more, we might demand that designers be much more comprehensively educated, as well as aiding the designing those designers get to do by being better-informed clients and users, investors and regulators, etc.

Over the last decade, in privileged parts of the world around the North Atlantic and the much of the Pacific Rim, more and more non-designers do seem to have started to pay more attention to design under the rubric of ‘design thinking.’

Design Thinking originally referred to:

1. Expert Designing: the way designers think when designing, as revealed by research into how designing happens. The objective of these researchers was to enhance the expert practice of designing — see the Design Thinking Research Symposium and the journal Design Studies. This work tends toward cognitive science and educational theory though there are a couple of more anthropological and sociological accounts.

2. Strategic Designing: the different kinds of designing that designers have to do when expanding their remit. The objective is to identify aspects of designing communications, artefacts and environments that can help with designing services and organizations, perhaps even cultures — see the work of Richard Buchanan and various ‘social designers’ such as Ezio Manzini. This work was humanities derived but tends these days toward systems thinking.

In the 2000s, design consultancies like IDEO tried to enlarge their power (their sphere of impact and thereby fee size) by selectively combining 1 and 2. The general play was to characterize design as in essence a process of innovation. As a result, Design Thinking came to mean:

3. Design Ideation: non-designers adopting the techniques and habits of mind of designers. Given the wide range of designers and designing, the model that was extrapolated into easily reproducible workshop processes was mostly the ideation phase of product designers. In the hands of non-designers, especially STEMites, this side of designing looks a lot like rapid — i.e., less controlled — in-the-field experimentation.

4. Wicked Problem Reframing: non-designers and designers reframing larger-scale, complex social issues as creative design problems. A key to this is approaching design methodologically; its context agnosticism is considered a virtue — the out-of-the-box perspective of the amateur not enframed by existing versions of these social challenges can supposedly access new kinds of interventions.

Distract Thinking

These versions of Design Thinking took off quickly and widely. Tedious lite-lefties like me usually say that this is a text-book case of neoliberalism:

a) In saturated consumer economies, breakthrough innovations creating significant new forms of value for how people live and work become increasingly difficult. Corporations need to try anything and everything to innovate — like design thinking. When those do not deliver, at least employees have been somewhat distracted from their soon-to-be automated jobs.

b) The various social problems that accompany corporate capitalism are not bugs but features. Design thinking hackathons further delegitimise the (governmental) institutions established to respond to those complex situations by reframing those problems as potentially solvable by deliberately non-expert corporate creativity — and definitely not by simply redistributing wealth.

Design Thinking is now pretty much the worst. It has become a tedious tool that churns money for large management consultants peddling deceptively re-packaged forms of business-as-usual. It has delivered no significant new forms of commercial value — tech unicorns are instead based on Agile and Lean processes which are more about accelerated evolution of live beta projects (as opposed to design thinking’s gesturally research-based studio prototyping). (I recognize that there are pretty diagrams that position Design Thinking as the first phase of a process that then involves Lean UX and then Agile Development. However, the ‘design thinking’ in these cases often appear to be so thin on ‘social research’ [‘quick, go outside, talk to anyone about our digital platform, then rush back’] that they are effectively just De Bono style creativity tools for randomly abducting hypotheses for Lean field tests.)

Design Thinking has certainly not delivered any instances of sustained social change in relation to any of our societies’ wicked problems. Rather, design thinking processes have become the commodified form of community consultation prior to big business telling government what best serves their own interests. Or worse, Design Thinking’s wilful naivety and one-set-of-tools-for-absolutely-any-cultural-context results in brightly-coloured devices for imperialism.

We should therefore just stop, i.e., proactively shut down, all talk of Design Thinking.

Thinking in Crisis

No matter how ineffective or appropriative design thinking is, it does not change the fact that we are all now living through various crises associated with the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the outcome of multitudes of uncoordinated design decisions, almost none of which take account of the scale, in terms of space and time, of designs’ collective consequences. We are not adequately seeing all these sociotechnical systems. We are missing the designed relations between these systems and our various habits and values that are proving so resistant to change toward more sustainable futures. We keep hoping a bit more information will lead to some enlightened attitudes that will empower politicians to regulate industry into painless sustainable economies — despite everything we keep learning about rebound effects, partisan worldviews, adtech driven fake news media ecologies, etc.

All the attention being paid to design via design thinking nevertheless should still have potential for helping our societies better understand the agency and constraints of anthropocenic design, and so take responsibility for designing our way toward preferred futures.

So, if I were asked to develop a university wide design thinking initiative right now, that is, an opportunity to teach non-design students about design, I would emphasise:

Use Value:

What is unique about design is that it aims to make useful things. Use is a weird mix of cultural conventions, cognitive psychology (or rather ecological perception) and material forms. It is consequently surprisingly under-understood. Humans are adept at making use of any thing for any purpose. But when things are designed to be usable, human capacities are exponentially increased as those things are incorporated into our taken-for-granted ways of being in the world.

Design Thinking to date almost never goes further than ideation. Non-designers doing design thinking need not go as far as the expert practice of crafting material forms into detailed usability — that is to say, as far as designers do when designing — but exploring how to make an idea more useful is essential for having insights into significantly changing how we live and work. Importantly, usefulness (as opposed to usability) is not something that you can get to through random creativity on the one hand or empirical testing on the other. It actually depends on more critical understandings of cultures (I prefer the term ‘practices’): those associated with ethnicity and class, but also organizational and professional cultures.

Acting Styles:

Another unique aspect of design is that it takes aesthetics seriously, not just as sources of occasionally appreciable pleasure (beauty) but as a quality that humans look for in all experiences. The training of designers has a lot to do with learning to discern patterns of aesthetic preferences and translating likes in one domain into the likely preferred forms of something in another domain. These styles refer not only to the physical look of things, but also to interactions and flows, their pace and rhythms, their arc and shifts.

Again Design Thinking rarely explores the particular styles of its problem contexts or proposed solutions, frequently being guilty of cultural insensitivity. Being empathically human-centered is no corrective, because it tends to be individualistic in focus, missing group phenomena. Design Thinking that is more sociologically attentive to distinctive group identities would have more effectiveness precisely by being less mass-market if not universalist.

Conversing with Others:

Design Thinking in most cases begins with observations of the people in the world doing things related to the ‘challenge context.’ Getting people out of their cubicles to look up and around and notice what is ‘actually going on’ is clearly valuable. However, there is perhaps a reason that Design Thinking tends to take only the observational component of social research: observation can be done quickly. It supposedly does not take much training (‘use your eyes’) nor does it take much set up. A more insidious reason is that Design Thinking perpetuates a wider distrust of people: ‘they do not know what they want, they unintentionally lie about what they really do and they mostly intentionally lie about why.’

Richer understandings of humans recognize that practices involves doings and sayings, and that people often know more than they can say. This becomes a reason to learn the difficult skill of interviewing people in order to draw out their habits and values ‘in their own words.’ Design Thinking should focus more on learning how to converse with a diversity of people rather than just ‘quick and dirty observations.’

Other Empathies:

To STEMites, learning to pay attention like designers to individual material experiences in everyday life is often revolutionary. In a world where people tend to be treated as aggregated data points, and the most valuable people, as measured by earning capacity, tend to be the most sociopathic, Design Thinking is valuable for at least getting people to be nicer to each other for a while.

But design at its best is not only empathetic with users. It is empathetic with those who must make the designs and perhaps maintain them. Design Thinking too rarely widens its scope of empathy in this regard, just as too much Service Design is often highly attentive to customers while ignoring the experience of service workers.

Further, design at its best takes into account not only those present in the situation being designed for, but other stakeholders — those less able, or non-users, or, in the case of sustainability, future generations. Issues like sustainability may even demand empathy with non-human actors — being a spokesperson for the trees for example. The ‘creativity’ of ‘design thinking’ workshops seems to be an excellent opportunity for ideaters to use empathy to more comprehensively understand the consequences of their ideas.

Finally, and most challenging, designers empathize with the things they are designing and designing with. To creatively construct thoughtful interactions that richly anticipate a variety of human actions and situations, designers often project themselves into products and interfaces. Having a feel for the constrictions of a material or code and then being able to sense how humans seem from those perspectives in order to direct them toward the right kind of interactions, is essential for developing valuably useful experiences. This is clearly a skill that takes lengthy design training and experience, hence studio-based reflective practitioner design education. However, non-designers doing design thinking should have some experience of these more creative forms of empathy precisely because they reveal the power of design, the way in which designed products, environments and communications have the agency to sculpt or at least nudge how people go about being in the world. In short, design thinking processes could, and so should, give people experiences of ‘what technology wants.’ It ought to expose people to the extent to which they are insufficiently aware of how mired we all are in designed sociotechnical systems.

Process Time:

One of the pleasures of being a designer is that, if you are good at it, you get to complete things. Designing means taking on someone else’s mess and giving them a finished artefact to deal with that mess. Design Thinking workshops often seem to be motivated by this same fantasy of quick, creative, once-and-for-all solutions.

In fact, design at its best involves strangely detoured forms of problem-solving. Despite its empathy, designers do not respond to situations immediately, but instead demand time and resources to explore more creative ways of dealing with those situations. There is the promise that the extra time and effort involved with result in a more valuable solution than any currently available.

Design Thinking adds even more complexity to that detour. It demands more time with more stakeholders in even messier processes. One of the most valuable things that can come out of such a workshop are true recognitions of what the ‘wickedness’ of ‘wicked problems’ entails — that they are never solvable, that every ‘solution’ will create further problems, that there is only further detouring. Design Thinking workshops should therefore be more explicitly experiences of the shift from short-term solutionism to longer-term engagements, from final products to ongoing projects — in other words, ‘Transition Design.’

Transition Design Thinking

Enough with the fantasist ‘how might we’s. Time for a Design Thinking that takes serious responsibility for what becomes possible when non-designers engage richly with aspects of a more sophisticatedly understood designing. Design Thinking workshop processes that explore:

· how things become useful, and not just usable, and to who, where and when

· the preferred styles of the different classes of people involved

· ways of having revealing conversations with different kinds of people

· how to experience situations from radically different perspectives, including that of non-humans

· what it means to ‘stay with the transition’ (pace Donna Haraway)



cameron tonkinwise

(post)sustainable service systems, (post)critical design thinking,,