Why “Design Thinking” Makes No Sense To This Designer

{NOTE: Cheskin visitors can read my response in the comments section below the blog entry. Unfortunately, the Cheskin Added Value blog is not allowing comments to post.}

Consider this a continuation of my previous post (those coming here from O’Reilly might find it especially worthwhile – reLink) inspired by something written on the Core77 forum. Here’s the entire post by RAVE12 (Link):

Having been in school not that long ago I see it like this. 4-5 years of school is NOT that long to go from “Hey I think I would like to be a Industrial Designer” to ” Holy SH!#, I’m a professional”. You have roughly 8 semesters and at best you have 6 dedeicated classes to mock product design. the rest of the classes are fragmented parts of the whole (drawing, rendering, 3-D modeling, GD, etc.) typical you have one class a semster that does the full process summing up all the parts into one project. If you are a teacher with that limited amount of time to mold young minds into the innovative minds of the future which things are you going to spend your time on?

Yes the ability to communicate an idea effectively is how you can define a GOOD designer. I think the learning curve for effective idea communication has a finite limit. You can only get so good at the ability to communicate an idea, at which point all ideas will become equally valid on the bases of the presentation (sketches are tight, push pins are all the same color, rendering communiacte the idea, etc.)

But what begins to seperate the GOOD from the GREAT is what is the IDEA. If I am an educator that understands these principles and the limited amount of time that I really have, I might be tempted to let the student struggle and figure out how to communicate an idea on there own so that I can emphasis and teach how to define a good idea and how to properly align that idea with a user group or vise versa.

The solution to the problem of student project not having enough consideration for real world problems like mass production and price points is not better communication abilities; it is to teach them to dig deeper in there design process and method of thinking and evaluating concepts. If the project aren’t considering these things that means they need more “design thinking” classes not less.

The design world is a pretty one of cool sketches and hot rendering and designed presentation; once you pull down the fascade you have to have some real meat in order to actually have relevance. TEACH MORE MEAT

This was fully endorsed by another designer, someone with whom I disagree and who has for some time supported what I consider overblown hype regarding the Industrial Design profession’s supposedly newfound and wide-ranging respect in the business world.

So let’s take this apart and see if it deserves that Design Manager’s unequivocal endorsement.

1) “Yes the ability to communicate an idea effectively is how you can define a GOOD designer

I disagree. The ability to communicate an idea effectively is how one defines a GOOD communicator, not a good designer.

Design as an activity should not be confused with communication. These are two separate activities. People can design without communicating. Did the first caveman to fashion a wheel first give a powerpoint or waste time chiseling his thoughts on cave walls. I doubt it.

2) “You can only get so good at the ability to communicate an idea, at which point all ideas will become equally valid on the bases of the presentation (sketches are tight, push pins are all the same color, rendering communiacte the idea, etc.)

Ideas never gain justifiable validity on the basis of presentation. A bad idea communicated brilliantly is just a brilliantly presented bad idea. A brilliant idea presented horribly remains a brilliant idea even if it never goes beyond the originator.

Whether or not the people to whom an idea is presented act upon that idea based on the quality or circumstances of the presentation itself is irrelevant to the worth of the idea. Plenty of companies chase bad ideas because they were dazzled by great presentations. Most often they regret the mistake. One need look no further than all the people currently going into foreclosure because someone presented a bad financing idea to them and they liked the presentation so much they signed off on it… to their lasting regret.

3) “But what begins to seperate the GOOD from the GREAT is what is the IDEA.

Which, again, is irrespective of the communication of the idea.

Certainly, a great presentation can generate investment funds which can help a mediocre idea evolve through an iterative design process into a great idea. But that just means the design process was far from being adequately complete. In fact, this reinforces the position that great ideas don’t usually come first but are, in fact, born of the iterative process.

4) “If I am an educator that understands these principles and the limited amount of time that I really have, I might be tempted to let the student struggle and figure out how to communicate an idea on there own so that I can emphasis and teach how to define a good idea and how to properly align that idea with a user group or vise versa.

This is where educational institutions often screw up, imo. Design classes should not be concerned with teaching technical skills; that’s what years of prior basic instruction are intended to teach and where each person has to use their own initiative to improve themselves. Anyone can learn these things in a rote manner; no critical thinking necessary.

Design instruction should be focused on Design. That isn’t “design thinking”. It’s just Design.

5) “The solution to the problem of student project not having enough consideration for real world problems like mass production and price points is not better communication abilities; it is to teach them to dig deeper in there design process and method of thinking and evaluating concepts.

I disagree. The solution to resolving a poor design is no more about digging deeper into the design process than having a better injection molding process will get someone more thoroughly “injection molded” results (i.e. the definition is in the process itself). The solution is to acquire the necessary inputs – to acquire the relevant knowledge – so that the design process yields an acceptable result; there are, of course, degrees of success in Design as there are degrees of quality in injection molded parts.

Through the design process, the individual determines the worth of the resulting design solution and then repeats as necessary until success is achieved. This is most often an iterative process. Lack of knowledge is not a Design issue; it’s an Experience and Intelligence issue. If someone doesn’t know about mass production, no improved understanding of Design will remedy that failing.

Design should be focused on one thing: integrating thought with action. I contend that it’s this narrow definition that allows Design to be applied so broadly.

If someone is an Industrial Designer and needs to increase their knowledge about aerodynamics to improve the result of their transportation design effort, then they need to learn about that particular subject. If someone works in Advertising they may need to learn some things about programming websites in order to improve the design effort that goes into an ad campaign. If a CEO finds his company’s products are not selling well in a particular region of the world, then that person needs to learn some regional history and local culture in order to improve the design effort addressed at coordinating an increase in sales.

6) “If the project aren’t considering these things that means they need more “design thinking” classes not less.

I again disagree. Thinking cannot be separated from the act itself, thus to say that a project needs more “design thinking” is inherently flawed.

Design is the fusion of thought and action. Remove either and you no longer have Design.

Drawing an object isn’t designing, it’s recording a visual image. Take critical thinking out of design ideation/concept sketching and you have nothing left but drawing.

Thinking about an object isn’t Design. Take the activity out of Design and all you have left is “thinking”. Not “design thinking”. Just… thinking. Sticking “design” in front of the word implies that it’s something special. It’s not.

If the issue is left-brain versus right-brain “thinking”, then that’s what it should be called; not something as confusing, inappropriate, and misleading as “design thinking”.

If, however, the issue is that Industrial Designers and other applied artists are coming out of college unable to design specifically because they lack what people are calling “design thinking”, then what that says to me is that in addition to the technical underpinnings of their craft, they need more education in the basics; more math, more science, more history, more literature, more everything.

If the business world wants to better understand how applied artists/designers approach problems and design “out-of-the-box” solutions, then they would be well served to first understand how they themselves are already designing… or attempting to design. If they find themselves creating action lists and equations at every turn or spending time only thinking about the problem, they might want to consider trying some right-brain training methods to help them perceive the problem they wish to solve with more than half their brain. Unfortunately, most business institutions are themselves the product of successfully applying left-brain solutions to problems, so breaking out of that mode of linear problem-solving will be more difficult for those with traditional educations and experiences than it will be for those with different backgrounds; the environment reinforces left-brain habits among the traditional business crowd and facilitates balanced thinking among the non-traditional types.

7) “The design world is a pretty one of cool sketches and hot rendering and designed presentation; once you pull down the fascade you have to have some real meat in order to actually have relevance. TEACH MORE MEAT

The meat, however, is not mythical “design thinking”. The meat is the knowledge necessary to deal appropriately with a particular Design challenge.

I’ll continue the analogy. If meat is knowledge, then bones are technical skills/craft. And of course the mind represents Thinking.

Thus , if a skeleton is analogous to the underlying technical ability of a designer, and the mind represents the thoughts which put the body in motion, then too little “meat” means there is not enough muscle to animate the bones when the mind tells it to move. It’s tough to reach a destination – a design – when you can’t move.

Designers shouldn’t rely on having the “killer idea” first and then communicating it, but that’s what I suspect many people – including the above individual – believe. That’s all wrong in my opinion.

Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

An Innovation is just the offspring of an Idea which matured through a combined application of thought and action, both of which are components of Design.

11 thoughts on “Why “Design Thinking” Makes No Sense To This Designer

  1. The idea or a concept is only but less than 10% of all the effort put in to make it happen. I think this individual needs a few more years and more products under his belt to see it.

    However it is kinda pointless to seperate design thinking and design execution (lets call it execution). Both cannot totally exist without one another. Unless design thinking is applied to solve non-design issues for example how do i get more people to visit my country… thats where most designers get their knickers in a knot. The context of how design thinking is used and where people like bruce naussbaum cant articulate well enough simply because he is not a designer. The problem gets worst when he presumes to be able to tell designers what to think. I hate that, you dont see me telling journalist what to write even though I am a citizen blogger?

  2. DT said: “Unless design thinking is applied to solve non-design issues…”

    It’s because they can’t exist without the other that defining either makes no sense {other than using terms like “thinking” and “drawing” which we already have available}. Do you say you engage in “the thinking of breathing” and “the activity/execution of breathing”. No. Of course not. Breathing is a singular integrated thing.

    “Design thinking” implies it’s a special kind of thinking divorced from Design; some subdivision process in which applied artists/designers engage, and that’s bullshit, imo. I don’t apply “design thinking”. I think first and then I design (which is the combination of thinking and doing)… and then I evaluate the result and I do it again if necessary.

    When I was in school, no one ever called what we did “design thinking”. If someone wasn’t being active and engaged in Design, they were Thinking. Nothing more.

    The only reason we have this new phrase, imo, is because the business world is trying to understand us and in the process trying to make what we do fit into their left-brained system. And the reason it has traction is because like most every other “How To” system, it sells. And the people who push the idea of this new way of thinking benefit.

    DT said: “The context of how design thinking is used and where people like bruce naussbaum cant articulate well enough simply because he is not a designer.

    Exactly. He doesn’t seem to understand it nor does he even understand the issue within the design community over it.

    Not being a designer or a design educator, the vituperative tone of the current blog debate over design education escapes me.

    Nussbaum has been surfing Design hype waves for decades. In my opinion, he’s just a business journalist milking his supposed expertise on Design.

  3. Hmm I think the last part of Bruce’s Parsons article he has mentioned the the business and business leaders actually are calling it anything else but “design thinking”. They go with innovation, innovative thinking etc, so he goes on and says you can call it by any name but its still “design thinking”.

    That is itself an ignorant statment. Cos I think he gives the people actually in the business of design too littlecredit. They know better than to call such activities “design thinking”.

    But hey while we are at it, what do we call it? Perhaps we can set a president here and call it “problem solving”, “innovative thought”, “Innovation thinking?” What do you think?

  4. Nussbaum has a vested interest in pushing certain phrases and words; he’s a journalist. So I’d not say it’s ignorance; it’s more a form of self-promotion. I discussed just that sort of thing in an earlier post where I take him to task on it and a number of other things (reLink).

    DT said: “But hey while we are at it, what do we call it?

    THINKING. Anyone can do it. No one owns it.

    I don’t believe in catch phrases… like “innovative thought”.

    To me, Design – the coming together of thought and activity – is not just for {applied artists, aka…} “designers”. That’s just an unfortunate linguistic circumstance.

    The best Design yields Innovative results. For example, take a left-brain Finance person and a right-brain Graphic Design person. Both, if they are too far to either side, won’t likely be very innovative. They’re unbalanced. Pure right-brain people won’t innovate because they’re in fantasyland. Pure left-brain people won’t innovate because they can’t break rules or see past established guidelines.

    Now let’s say the Finance person has a natural talent for musical improvisation. And the Graphic Design person has a natural aptitude for mathematics. Now you have balance and an ability to approach a problem from different perspectives; not too crazy and not too strict. Both are equally likely to Innovate.

    Okay, take the Finance person and give them a typical education. What’s outside their Finance core curriculum? Well, they probably take upper level literature, some college level history, and enough language to satisfy a general graduation requirement. They may have to take some religion. Most liberal arts students still have to suffer through basic calculus classes, freshman chemistry, aso. And they’ll still have a chance to take an art class or a media studies class. In other words, it’s pretty good.

    Now take the Graphic Design person and give them an education at a typical art school. Outside of Graphic Design what do they get? In four or five years at art school they probably have two years of basic literature; not much more difficult than high school level. They might also take a creative writing class, but it won’t be very rigorous imo. They don’t take world history because they get art history. No upper level math to challenge them (if there’s any math at an art school). No international studies or such classes. No science. No chemistry. Maybe a second language taught at a sister school, but no physics. Maybe rudimentary business “art professional” classes, but nothing like Econ 101/102. Maybe some ergonomics. Maybe. But it’ll be joke if it’s like what I had. But definitely more art classes. Printmaking. Ceramics. Sculpture.

    Tell me, which is more likely to have the better inputs into the Design process?

    The business world doesn’t need help with Design process; we’re all born designers. They need help with gaining their balance so they can be better at Design.

    Stick a left-brain person in a left-brain system and you get more left-brain output. Stick a right-brain person in a left-brain system and you get Innovation. That is why applied artists/designers are so interesting to the left-brain people trying to figure out how to be better Innovators. All they need to do is break free of their way of thinking.

    But that’s not easy. I’ve been there. Four solid years immersed at a fine arts college and aptitude since I was in grade school. Four years before I finally figured it out.

    Do I believe a typical left-brain business person is going to figure it out after a seminar or a couple of offsite “Innovation classes”?

    No.

    {Just took a look at the current CIA course schedule. Look for yourself: Link to PDF download.}

  5. If you’re going to insist on ranting about the state of design education in writing, you might want to get your quotation marks turned in the right direction.

  6. Hunter, do you mean contact Ulf Pettersson (see credit at bottom of this blog) and ask him to change his free blog template in order to satisfy your fundamentally irrelevant concern? Or is there some typographical error (which is, again, irrelevant to the content) that prevents intelligent individuals from understanding what I’m attempting to communicate?

    Please. If you’re going to *insist* on pointing out something so trivial, at least take the time to provide specifics.

    (btw, this isn’t a post about “design education”. It’s about “design thinking”.)

  7. first, apologies for the cryptic response (and late follow-up). second, i should add… all good stuff content-wise and thanks for sharing your thoughts with a broader audience.

    as far as specifics on the backward quote marks: yep, it’s very likely a wordpress issue — i struggle with typepad issues with my own blog… and it is certainly a compromise between something that works perfectly (and is expensive) and something that has some bugs (and is free).

    however, when reading good content, unusual or incorrect type issues do cast a bit of a shadow, especially when the content is design-related. i often liken it to a trust issue that you make with your audience (in a practice-what-you-preach kind of way). would you trust an overweight personal trainer? a mechanic who drives a backfiring car? an engineer with sloppy math? perhaps these type-refinments are the “meat” of the (graphic) design education we’re seeking… and it’s something i’m teaching (or trying to teach) to my students every day. i often ask them: would you trust a visual communicator with a sloppy presentation? typos in their creative brief?

    back on topic: i do understand the sensitivity/numbness to the “design thinking” moniker. it’s received a bit too much play in the past few years and is beginning to ring hollow. however, having worked for a firm pegged as one of the originators of the term (and having typeset it in many, many instances), i can only hope that the sentiment behind the catch-phrase will not fall into the corporate-cliche-graveyard because — at its core — it is something quite nice.

    again, good stuff. i look forward to reading more.

  8. Appreciate the vote of confidence. However, as to the screwy quotation marks and issues of “trust”, I’m not asking you or anyone else to trust my content. This isn’t some connected media site, this is a personal, ad-free blog. Furthermore, I tell people to *not* trust what they read, and instead form their own opinions. What I write is no exception. Consequently, I think your case is severely overstated.

    Which brings me back to my original point: is the issue you’re raising sufficiently relevant to prevent commenting on the substance when I obviously don’t have the time to generate my own custom template and you admit to being aware of the problems of maintaining typographic consistency for software such as WordPress? I don’t see how you can believe it is.

    As you’re doubtlessly aware, most of us pick and choose our compromises under real world circumstances. That’s mostly what it is to be a designer. Maybe Marc Newson can design a jet that isn’t intended to fly and Philippe Starck can design expensive juicers that look sculptural but are effectively non-functional, but most of us aren’t afforded those luxuries. Design students should be aware of the realities most of them will face.

    Making the choice I did was my own compromise. Letting that interfere with an important conversation is, however, not a compromise I would make. Nor would I expect it from an educator who should, in my opinion, be teaching students about real world issues and how to prioritize them appropriately. No offense, but do you really want to teach your students to close down communication channels because they can’t properly prioritize? I hope not. From my experience there are already too many designers out there who can’t properly pick their battles. Sometimes it’s okay to walk away. That should be taught, too.

    Finally, as to the “design thinking” moniker, I simply disagree. As stated above I don’t think it’s appropriate. If someone instead used “right brain thinking”, I’d have no problems, but the word “design” is being stretched thin as it is. Now we’ve attached “design” to a way of thinking that might be prevalent among designers, but is in no way exclusive to them. All we seem to have done is confused the issue; great for the Nussbaum’s of the world who make their living exploiting such catchphrases, but from my perspective it’s not so good for the long-term sake of the design community.

    Consequently, as far as I’m concerned, the term can’t be buried fast enough. The last thing the design community needs is yet another confused effort to gain legitimacy in the predominantly left-brain business world through a marketing ploy. Besides, I’ve long believed we’re returning to a “craft”/niche product economy. And there are increasing signs this is finally occurring. When that happens – when the Long Tail starts to flatten, as it appears to be doing – creatives won’t need catch phrases and hype to sell their services. But they will need to understand how to properly communicate.

  9. Closed again due to blogspam. If anyone would like to comment, drop me an email and I’ll open it up for you.

  10. I sincerely wish [the Cheskin] opinion piece – http://www.cheskin.com/blog/blog/archives/001117.html – sounded less biased to me, but it’s so reactive and emotional I can’t help but be both amused and offended at the thoughtlessness. For example, it includes the following:

    If we deconstruct design into component parts, could we go so far as to create an algorithm for replicating it? Horrors! Designers want recognition for their different and special genius, not for their processes or tools.

    and

    Think how it must feel to the celebrity designer to have the media be focusing not on them but on Design Thinking and on non-practitioners. Ouch!

    When I read stuff like this – which seems to be suggesting the “backlash” against Design Thinking stems from elitist designer ego – it’s clear to me [the author hasn’t] considered the possibility some designers don’t fit the personality profile [s/he seems] to believe is behind the critical response. Horrors!!!

    Counter to what [s/he seems] to be suggesting, some designers (including me, a traditionally educated aerospace engineer) have, in the past:

    – attempted to explain/teach process to non-professional designers
    – supported algorithmic-based generative design programs and mass customization
    – given clear examples of how defining the problem is critical to problem solving
    – made it clear design is not just for traditionally trained (industrial) designers and acknowledge non-traditionally trained designers can be some of the best Designers ( e.g. http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1405 )
    – have agreed with some elements of Design Thinking and taken issue with those professional designers who do, in fact, behave in the manner suggested.

    We’re not all ejected from the same mold. Surprise!!!

    Furthermore, [the author is] using falsehoods to support [their] position. For example:

    In the old days, designers would ask for the specifications and then go about designing the solution. The definition of the problem was assumed correct.

    Bunk. Perhaps in [their] experience the problem statement was assumed to be correct, but that’s not my experience. In fact, I’ve found the people least comfortable with such an assumption are industrial designers, who seem to always question conventional wisdom. It’s the risk-averse, left-brain operators – the ones who now “want to understand how a designer will approach a problem” and be assured of success by some mathematically derived formula – who most often make this assumption.

    [The author asks] the question: “Where is this [backlash] coming from?”

    I’ll offer an answer: Some of the critical response is coming from designers who aren’t willing to simply jump on some bandwagon without giving it the critical thought it deserves. I personally know too many designers who have thoughtlessly joined the Design Thinking ranks without having given it any real thought; it just sounded like a good way to gain some business. Same applies to non-practicing designers. Ouch!!!

    In response, I’d like to ask, “Why [is the author] framing critical opinions in this one-dimensional manner?” I would have thought a Design Thinker {and, apparently, “one of America’s top strategic design consultants”(!)} would have checked [their] bias at the door and considered the possibility some of the most vocal critics don’t fit the easy profile.

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