Are designers being devalued by the proliferation of design thinking?

When I was an ‘in the trenches’ designer, and by that I mean knocking out page after page of interface design in advertising agencies while art directors hovered, I was a very angry person. Not unlike my contemporaries, I couldn’t understand why campaign creatives and strategists were doing the ‘big idea’ work and we, the product experts, were pushing pixels, particularly when those ideas appeared to be based on nothing more than individual instinct and not on what end users actually needed. Designers were highly devalued by agencies in those days. I was particularly angry that I had purposefully moved away from creative direction, back to design so that I could make something I considered to be more useful, and here I was being instructed by creative directors on what that thing should be.

So I became a UX. I learned the tricky techniques of how to derive greater insights from intelligent user research and unite with my technology colleagues to inform the production of a useful thing. Then UX became devalued as a support role in some agencies and we still had to deal with strategy teams telling us how we should be documenting their ideas. So I became an experience strategist, allowing me to inform the product instead of only executing on the interface.

Although I don’t regret a single thing I have learned, this shouldn’t have happened. I should have been able to stay put as a designer and simply learned more strategic skills while getting better and better at the craft aspects of design. But In those days, the ability to actually make the end product was seen as colouring in or coding a ‘big idea’ and I wasn’t up for that demotion. Over time, designers and technologists liberated themselves with research and data and proved how valuable they are as strategic thinkers, particularly in lean and agile methodologies where tiers of contributors are too cumbersome to support. But now our intrinsic problem solving abilities have been converted to frameworks that are being taught to the waterfall contributors of old. Design thinking is being incorrectly used as an invitation back to bad habits.

I should just say that the design thinking movement is positive for thinking in general; introducing more ways to solve problems can only be a good thing. But there are some unfortunate perceptions about the business end of design that sometimes relegate designers back to where they don’t belong; mocking up other people’s ideas. The term ‘getting your hands dirty’ is often used to refer to executional design, a crucial part of design thinking. It is also the thing that makes designers so much more valuable in this age of rapid prototyping and innovation and the thing that no designer, no matter how ‘strategic’ they become should lose touch with. Frankly, product should always belong to the makers. When design becomes democratised to the extent it is now, craft dies. If I wanted to overdramatise, I would say that it’s the end of beauty. Instead I will say that it makes every product a little bit ‘meh.’

So I find myself facing the irony that so many of us struggled so hard to get out of hands-on design in order to have more control over the direction of a product or service, only to discover that strategy without executional skill is not as valuable. Yet we live and learn in this industry and I, for one, will be making sure that I scamp and wire and layout whenever I get the chance, regardless of whether I am directing a transformation programme or running a workshop about organisational purpose. Because soon the designers will trump the design thinkers again and I want to be ready for that eventuality.

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