How To Make Design More Critical

I studied art and now work in design. An interesting thing happens when you move from art to design. You tend to become less critical and become more effective. John Maeda is known for stating that design makes solutions and art makes questions. Design also questions. But art tends to be more critical. Art can also make solutions but does so to question, to criticize. Design can fall into the trap of not questioning enough and losing criticality. Art can fall into the trap of easy criticism from the sidelines. Art can be easily dismissed. If art becomes l’art pour l’art, entertainment, it loses its power to criticize. The trick is finding the right balance. In my case, to make design more critical.

“Design makes solutions. Art makes questions.” — John Maeda

Levels of criticality

To me, critical is a scale. Terms like critical thinking imply that there is a fixed amount of criticality. But like all things, criticality is relative. What is critical to one person can be not so critical to another. It all depends on how much you are willing and able to question. If you are too critical, you lose people. If you are not critical enough, you don’t contribute enough.

In design projects, I find it good practice to try to raise the level of criticality. When a design project starts, the level of criticality is often quite low. Clients often come in with a request for a specific solution that needs to be designed. The first thing a designer does is to start questioning. What is the purpose of this solution that you want me to design? Why do you need this solution? What is the context of this solution? What is the problem we are trying to fix here? Why do you have this problem? There are levels of criticality in the questions a designer asks. Clients are only able to go along so far on this criticality ladder. The thing with design is that the deeper you can dive into the problem, the more effective the solution you can design will be. The quality of the questions determines the quality of the solution. Elon Musk is known for stating that if you found the right question, the answer is relatively easy.

“Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy.” — Elon Musk

Critical making

The secret to design thinking is making solutions that question. The trick of design thinking is mixing making and thinking. Most people don’t realize that making is also a form of thinking.

Think different

This means that when you make something, you think. Mostly this will be visual thinking which is different from lingual thinking. When you make something, you cannot help but reflect. The thing you are making starts talking to you: asking you questions, handing you solutions. This creates a totally different way of thinking and will generate totally different solutions.

Open up the creative conversation

If making is a form of thinking, this also means you can ask questions by making, by designing. Design thinking is about opening up the design process. Normally a design process is only between a designer and the design he or she is making. So the conversation, the questions, the answers are only between the designer and the design. But if you open up the design process and you involve other stakeholders in the conversation that comes from making things, you can tap into the capacities of others, let all stakeholders benefit from the creative conversation that arises from making things.

More critical questions

I found, that if you view a design not as a solution but as a question, you can go far higher on the ladder of criticality than by only asking lingual questions. And the more critical the questions, the deeper you can go, the better the questions become and the better the answers will be.

Harnessing the energy

When people first start with design thinking, they will see that making things can spark interesting conversations, raise interesting questions. All kinds of creativity is released, people are pulled out of their comfort zone, all sorts of creative solutions are produced. Getting in contact with the idea of making as a form of thinking is immensely powerful. A lot of energy is released. There is usually a lot of enthusiasm in design thinking workshops and lego sessions. More often than not, there are lots of post-its produced but the real impact is disappointing. This is because people still need to raise their maturity level.

Design thinking maturity levels

When it comes to design thinking there are three maturity levels:

  • Level 1: doing design thinking exercises. When you first start out with design thinking, you do the thinking by making workshops, you start making things. This introduces the idea of making as thinking. This opens up a new world, creates a lot of energy.
  • Level 2: using design thinking to find solutions. The first step in harnessing the energy of design thinking workshops comes from finding solutions. If you can transfer the creative energy from a design thinking workshop into solutions, you can come up with a lot of creative solutions. The thinking by making energy can fuel a brainstorm.
  • Level 3: using design thinking to find questions. If you realize that finding the right questions is far more powerful than finding solutions, you want to direct the energy of thinking by making to finding the right questions. If you start making to learn and not to solve, design thinking really becomes powerful.

The problem with most design thinking activities is that most people expect success from level 1. The energy it creates also creates expectations. Some people judge the quality of a design thinking activity by the quality of the conversations that arise. Good communication is fundamental but if the energy is not directed, it is lost and people get disappointed.

On level 2, if you direct the energy towards finding creative solutions, you run the risk of having really creative solutions to the wrong problem or that the solutions are not aligned with the organization. You basically run into the same problems any brainstorm has. This is why a lot of products from design thinking activities end up in drawers collecting dust.

“Really good questions without answers belong in the domain of philosophy or art. Raising productive questions with real and challenging solutions is the domain of design.”

Level 3 is where design thinking really shines. If you can establish a new way of thinking that is aimed at learning, you have a much more sustainable result. Where solutions really shine is in their ability to raise questions. The challenge in level 3 is not to fall into the trap of criticality for its own sake. Finding the right question has a lot to do with having a vision of the solution. Raising questions without a vision is easy and counterproductive. That is why raising questions with real solutions is so powerful.

Really good questions without answers belong in the domain of philosophy or art. Raising productive questions with real and challenging solutions is the domain of design.


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