Design Thinking: Powerful Practice or Powerful Bullshit?

AIGA Los Angeles
Nov 21, 2019 · 5 min read

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” ~Tim Brown, IDEO

“Design thinking is kind of like syphilis — it’s contagious and rots your brains.” ~Lee Vinsel

Design Thinking

In 2009 Tim Brown published Change By Design and introduced the idea of design thinking, which he described as “a human−centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and more creative.” Since then, design thinking has grown in popularity. It has been used and misused by people working to solve all manner of problems as well as people looking to cash in on the latest buzzword.

  • Human-centered approach — defining a problem with empathy and insight, and involving users and stakeholders in ideation and testing.
  • Culture of prototyping — a bias towards action, incorporating tangible prototypes into an iterative process.

The Backlash

As with many things that gain popularity, there has been a backlash to design thinking. Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram, was the first detractor with her “Design Thinking is Bullshit” talk at the 2017 Adobe 99U conference. She’s not the only one launching criticisms, but her comments have been very provocative and she’s gotten a lot of miles out of the topic. Her complaints range from a perceived lack of criticism allowed for in the process to the reliance on post-its as our “only tool.”

“Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their process.”

While I can’t fully disagree with her definition, when viewed in context, I suggest that Jen is being protective of her turf. She’s saying that we shouldn’t let “non-designers” have access to our tools and that not just “anyone” should be given access to our secret powers. It has more to do with protectionism than a critique of the design thinking process.

“The marketing of design thinking is completely bullshit.”

In a follow-up podcast Jen slightly revises her position and states, “Design thinking is not bullshit. However, the marketing of design thinking is completely bullshit. It’s even getting worse and worse now that we have three-day boot camps that offer certified programs — as if anyone who enrolled in these programs can become a designer and think like a designer and work like a designer.”

Image source: https://digitaldefynd.com/best-design-thinking-course-certification-training/

Where Do We Go From Here?

I believe there is value to be had from a design thinking approach, but we should be cognizant of not turning it into a methodology, as Barry Katz, IDEO fellow and CCA and Stanford professor, describes: “The most flagrant misuse of this concept is in turning it into a methodology: Feed a problem into the front end of the ‘Design Thinking’ machine, turn the crank five times (brainstorm, prototype, user test …), and out spills an iPhone at the end of it! … No one who has ever worked in the design field has ever seen a project unfold like that.” Design thinking, as Tim Brown says, is “not a concept, like wallpaper, to be applied.”

Design thinking democratizes design.

Design thinking also increases the value of design (that’s good too!). If the popular version of design thinking is overly simple, those of us with a mastery of design skills can stand out from people who are just working through a process and will be more valued. And as design is incorporated into business and large-scale problem solving, our work can be more substance over style for those who want that type of practice.

Article by Amy Gustincic.

Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines…

AIGA Los Angeles

Written by

Los Angeles Chapter of AIGA. Empowering the local creative community.

Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines design history, and uplifts the new generation of designers–with a focus on the local community of Los Angeles.

AIGA Los Angeles

Written by

Los Angeles Chapter of AIGA. Empowering the local creative community.

Design Toast

Design Toast observes timely and intricate issues, examines design history, and uplifts the new generation of designers–with a focus on the local community of Los Angeles.

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