Yes, Design Thinking Is Bullshit…And We Should Promote It Anyway

Design Thinking is indeed a buzzword, and it’s also a useful starting point for deeper understanding

In her recent talk at 99U’s Conference in New York, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen throws some provocative thought-bombs at Design Thinking.

I teach Design Thinking in places ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to universities. In some ways, I agree with Natasha: Design Thinking is (sometimes) bullshit. But I also think it’s useful bullshit.

Before we go any further, here’s my working definition of Design Thinking:

Design Thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.

Natasha calls Design Thinking a “buzzword,” accuses it of being obsessed with a single tool (Post-It Notes), and claims that it lacks the rigor of expert “crit” (critique) and proof. Check out Natasha’s video yourself:

Here’s Natasha’s definition of Design Thinking:

By Natasha Jen, via 99U

Reading between the lines, I can see how expert designers like Natasha are concerned about the proliferation of Design Thinking. If anyone and everyone can “design think” to solve any problem, what makes professional designers special? (Besides our fancy design industry conferences, of course)

The tension is clear: serious, critical expert designers versus amateur design thinkers with their babbling buzzwords and bubbling positivity.

A recipe is not a substitute for expert technique

Let’s think of Design Thinking as a recipe.

Even if a Michelin-starred chef were to reveal their best recipes to us, we as amateur cooks would not have the capacity (skills, technique, craft, intuition, expertise) to be able to make the same quality of food.

Think of it in terms of this equation:

Recipe x Capacity = Results

Multiply the method (the recipe) by your ability to deliver (capacity), and the results are the potential dent you make in solving a given problem.

Design Thinking may offer up some of the problem-solving recipes from the designer cookbook, but novices still have to take the time to develop their capacity to get the same results as an expert.

Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” — It’s a painting of a pipe

Design Thinking is more than Post-Its

Natasha did a Google Image Search for “Design Thinking” and saw a bunch of pictures of Post-It Notes. She doesn’t seem to like Post-Its and the audience chuckles in agreement.

But Post-Its are just tools, not the sum total of Design Thinking. In the same way, Magritte’s painting of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe.

It would be absurd to call out graphic designers for their singular obsession with tools from the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.). You can still practice graphic design even if you don’t use the most popular tools of the trade. Use of a certain tool does not define an entire discipline.

Post-its are popular tools for transcribing and organizing ideas, but Design Thinking works with or without them. Use recycled paper instead. Write on papyrus, parchment, or cuneiform tablets even! Whatever works for you.

Post-Its are not Design Thinking, just a tool of Design Thinking. Just as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator are not graphic design.

Critique isn’t in a hexagon, but it’s baked into the process

Natasha derided the hexagons (exhibit below) that are commonly used to visualize the Design Thinking process. The audience chuckled. There is no need to argue with one’s polygon preferences, so I’ll move on.

One of Natasha’s principal points against Design Thinking is its perceived lack of crit (critique):

“Crit is completely missing from this process”. — Natasha Jen

“Critique” isn’t written in one of the hexagons below, but it is baked into the Design Thinking process every step of the way:

A visualization of the Design Thinking process featuring the hexagons that Natasha derides (source: Stanford
  • EMPATHIZE: Empathizing with people (“users” in Design Thinking parlance) requires open-minded and open-hearted listening and observation without judgement, but it also requires critical understanding of how to conduct user interviews and information. We need to be critical when deciding what user information is relevant, and which insights are useful and actionable.
  • DEFINE: Defining a problem requires critical discussions about what is the real problem to be solved, and how the problem should be framed.
  • IDEATE: Ideation involves open-ended “yes, and…” brainstorming (and yes, there are often Post-Its involved) as well as more critical periods of whittling down ideas into the best ones to move forward.
  • PROTOTYPE: Prototyping is the time to make something rough. Maybe it sucks the first time around. But whatever we make serves as a communications tool for receiving critique and feedback.
  • TEST: The testing phase embodies much of the spirit of design critique. This is where we actually get feedback from our peers, fellow designers/design thinkers, as well as from our target users. From there we go back to the drawing board or the drafting table and continue until we get it right.

There is space for critique and feedback throughout the entire Design Thinking process, even if it’s not written in a hexagon.

When we teach design thinking to beginners in our workshops, we pair students with expert coaches to provide critique and guidance when necessary. But coaches also know when to hang back when the time is right for students to foster their own creativity and to learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again.

Design Thinking is a method and a mindset of shifting between open-ended “yes, and” and more critical “no, but” thinking and doing. When Design Thinking is done right, critique is baked in along the way.

Design Thinking is a means, not an end

As the Buddha teaches, “the raft is not the shore.”

Design Thinking is a starting point, a tool, a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. Design Thinking may be bullshit, but it can be useful bullshit. It’s a starting point for going deeper.

Sure, every system of belief and practice — whether it’s Design Thinking, Crossfit, or organized religion — has its overzealous advocates, but that should not deter us from engaging with the main points of the practice itself.

Sure, Design Thinking is often taught in short, intensive courses ranging from a half-day to week. And for some students, a little bit of knowledge can be a big deal of dangerous. A little bit of Design Thinking can over-inflate egos and self-perceptions of creative greatness, but so can a lot of fancy expensive design school education.

Either way, it’s fair to blame the practitioners who go astray, but still engage fairly with the practice itself.

The evidence is there, if you Google harder

Natasha takes issue with a Design Thinking project by GE that put cartoons characters and graphics in hospital MRI rooms:

“MRI Scan for children: Let’s put cartoons on the wall. Do you really need Design Thinking to actually do that? Isn’t it a little bit obvious?” — Natasha Jen

Watch Doug Dietz of GE talk about the Adventure Series MRI project:

Back to addressing Natasha’s point: Yes, everything is obvious in retrospect. When the problem is solved, the solution can seem obvious. But from Doug’s account of the story and the process, it wasn’t obvious for the industrial designers and healthcare providers involved at the outset.

Natasha challenges designers and design thinkers to provide evidence for the effectiveness of our work, but there is evidence for the effectiveness of the GE Adventure Series.

Before it was introduced, hospitals had to sedate as many as 80% of its young patients, something that comes with staggering financial costs, emotional difficulty, and medical risk. After the Adventure Series was introduced, these sedation rates plummeted, and hospitals using the new service achieved up to a 90% increase in patient satisfaction scores.

The evidence is there, if you Google harder.

So What? Yes, And…

Design Thinking is a way to put empathy into practice. It teaches practitioners to try to understand of human needs as the basis of problem solving. In a world in desperate need for more empathy, I’m happy to promote more Design Thinking as one of the ways to get there.

When I have to decide between two equally technically proficient designers to hire, I will choose one who demonstrates more empathy any day. In the times in which we are living, we don’t just need talented, critical craftspeople, we need concerned, civically-engaged designers and design thinkers.

I think we can use Design Thinking as a hook to go from buzzword, to real talk and action to address the social and environmental problems that we face.

Yes, and…you can have your Design Thinking and eat your Crit Cake too!

Maybe Design Thinking is corporate jargon. But it has served as a starting point for the buttoned-up law firms, staid policy think tanks, and old-school humanitarian organizations of the world to have conversations about approaching and solving problems in new ways.

If Design Thinking is the good cop that gets you to open up and talk, then Design Critique is the bad cop that keeps you honest.

Design Thinking may be bullshit, but it’s useful bullshit. I’m down to play in the shit and meet people where they are.

Design Thinking is training wheels. Design Thinking is a deliberate linearization and simplification of a complex creative process. This simplification makes accessible what is often opaque. It allows diverse teams to participate in conversations with seasoned design practitioners who have honed their craft, skills, and instinct over time. It offers a (partial) recipe, but we still need to hone our capacity through time, practice, and critique.

One final analogy to illustrate my point: I also teach capoeira, a Brazilian martial art disguised in dance. Practitioners of capoeira play (we don’t say “spar” or “fight”) capoeira in an improvised manner in a circle known as a roda. Expert capoeira is improvisational, instinctive, and responsive to the movements of one’s partner and context. The only way to get to such apparent effortlessness is through long, rigorous training. But for beginners, we start with scripted sequences of movements to work on technique through rote repetition before the improvisation can begin.

Design Thinking is like the scripted sequence version of design. It may not be elegant, or pretty. It may not be even “real design,” but it serves a pedagogical purpose for getting novices and non-designers involved in creative problem solving.

A capoeira sequence: the “training wheels” version for teaching beginners
Real capoeira in action

Design Thinking is a way to open up conversations about design and creative problem solving to a wider audience. Design Thinking gives people the tools to think creatively, work collaboratively, and imagine and prototype potential future states. It may use tacky hexagons and Post-It notes. The professional expert designers may look down on, it, but I think it’s a good place to start.

I hope this post has helped to further those conversations.

Ok, now crit me please. Let me know what you think!