The Lost “Art” of Design Thinking

Good tech isn’t enough — Moore’s law no longer cuts it as the key path to a happier customer. — John Maeda

Moore’s Law is a term coined in the 1970s that states that processing power for computers will double every two years. Design has risen in popularity, Maeda argues, because we’ve reached a point where expensive technology or number of features is no longer a differentiating factor for products. It has to be a good experience.

Following closely behind this phenomenon is Design Thinking. It is based on the idea that a designer’s methods can be codified and replicated by anyone, leading to (presumably) better outcomes and a better product experience.

Has anyone found this to be reliably true? Natasha Jen of Pentagram takes a pretty entertaining jab at this premise at a talk at 99U, as well as in a follow-up article. For reasons described below, if a good experience is the desired outcome, design thinking cannot be the (whole) answer.

By Pablo Stanley

Designers over the last decade have been fighting for a seat at the business table by trying to sever any association with the artistic and aesthetic origins of their practice and searching instead for their place in the Design Thinking hype. On the other side, businesses are making the mistake of using Design Thinking as a replacement for actually hiring designers and building a top-down design practice.

What’s lost in this shuffle is the appreciation for the emotional component of human experience and the role that aesthetics play in tapping into it. Enterprise UX has led us into the trap of thinking that good experiences need only to be functional or utilitarian — but, humans are emotional beings. A vacation experience is not just a budget, completed tasks, and pictures on a phone. There is an emotional and visceral component to every experience, and the ability to make that connection is something artists and creators have done for ages.

In 2004, video game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek outlined a useful framework connecting a design to the emotional outcome of an experience called Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (MDA). Mechanics refers to the base components of a game: the rules, every move a player can make, the data and algorithms. Dynamics are the behavior of the mechanics as they receive player input and interact with one another. Aesthetics are the desired emotional responses. The framework serves to formalize the components that the designer can control, and encourages the designer to do everything with respect to the intended aesthetic goals. Listen to Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto talk about the painstaking detail that goes into the movement mechanics of Super Mario and how it translates to an enjoyable experience.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. — C.S. Lewis

If we can agree that the art of design is truly being lost, I would like to say that it is also something that can be recovered. Amidst all of the talk about design ROI, measurable value, and business strategy, I want to take this moment to pull this proverbial cart in the opposite direction by offering a few counter-cultural statements:

  • It’s okay to be a “pixel pusher” and not a strategist or director.
  • Own the title of “visual designer” and don’t feel like you have to be a “Director” to be taken seriously.
  • Don’t be fooled into trying to argue for the value of design and just create something beautiful.
  • Create fewer wireframes and go high fidelity.
  • Take time to just create something without worrying about stakeholders and delivery.