Design Is A Verb

There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding a post titled, “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again” (Link) by interaction designer Dan Saffer over on the adaptive path blog. Here are a few excerpts:

D schools are doing a serious disservice to their students by only teaching them “design thinking” when a class in typography or mechanics or drawing might not only give them a valuable skill, but also teach them thinking and making and doing – all at the same time. For design to be truly useful as a profession and as a discipline, designers can’t just use “design thinking” to come up with strategies and concepts.

Details often get overlooked in just “thinking” projects, as do constraints. Constraints are somehow less solid in the world of thought than they are in the world of making.

What we’re going to end up with is a generation of “innovators” who are MBAs in MFAs’ clothing, who can neither create or run businesses like entrepreneurs can, nor design products and services like designers can. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Dan Saffer, as I understand it, isn’t trying to start a “civil war” between design and design “thinking” with this post, as BusinessWeek’s Bruce Nussbaum says in comments and then claims on his pseudo-blog (Link). Saffer is saying that design schools should teach design and, as part of a well-rounded education, something more than just sitting around thinking about design needs to be included; design “thinking” (and only thinking) is a subset of Design which, of course, includes critical thought.

In his response to Nussbaum, Saffer spells it out:

Design Thinking vs. Design isn’t an either-or for me: Thinking is part of Design. As I’ve said elsewhere, separating thinking from design is like separating oxygen from air. Design is thinking – thinking given form. Thinking is a crucial (but not the only) part of the practice of design. Teaching Design Thinking by itself will create only lopsided designers.

I’m unsure why Nussbaum sees a rift in what’s being said here. Perhaps he doesn’t understand Design as well as he believes. Why else would he even say that there is such a thing as a “purist” point of view? There isn’t, because from my perspective, “design” is first and foremost a verb, just like “sink” or “swim”. You either do or you don’t.

{Update: I’ve decided to just post the comments I’ve made elsewhere instead of providing links. This post is getting a bit of traffic and it may as well all be here. Besides, I trust my own archiving more than leaving it to someone else. Here goes… and no blockquote tags.

Over on adaptive path, my first comment (Link):

I’ve long argued the exact same thing: “Design is thinking”.

For what it’s worth, although I first earned my Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering at Notre Dame, I’d always intended to return to art school in order to study Industrial Design. Four years and some additional professional on-the-job training after getting my first degree, I went back and spent another five years at the Cleveland Institute of Art and earned my BFA in Industrial Design.

I don’t now merely sketch concepts. There’s much more going on; a continuous feedback loop occurring throughout the creative process itself. And varying the activity – swapping materials or mediums (e.g. 2D switching from pencil to charcoal, or 3D swapping clay to polyurethane foam, or 2D/3D shifting from marker to clay) – changes the filter of the information going back into my mind. Each filter rendering the problem in unique ways which my mind interprets differently. It’s like opening up new windows to possible solutions.

The point I’d make is that it wasn’t until my fourth year at CIA that I removed the blinders my previous education and experience had put over my eyes. It’s like somebody throwing a switch connecting the two hemispheres. Good luck explaining it to those on either side who have their own blinders with which to contend.

My second comment on adaptive path (Link):

If the true definition of design is enlightened problem solving, then design thinking is the tool set – this tool set can be given to anyone – not just designers.

I suppose this is where I perceive a disconnect. I don’t consider Design as something that can exist without a toolset. Additionally, I believe the toolset to be seamlessly integrated into the design process itself. Thus, if the problem solving effort is unenlightened, I’d venture that’s because it’s lacking an appropriate one to start with.

The problem we run into, in my opinion, is when we try to define a standardized, cross-functional “toolset” so that we can teach it or sell it to others. That’s an inherently left-brained, list-maker solution. I do not now believe there is a one-size-fits-all package for something that is, by its very nature, internalized; no matter how desperately the spreadsheet-retentive business world wants something with an associated set of bullet points and standardized metrics which can be used to improve their bottom line. You can hand someone a guitar, but that won’t make them a guitar player. You can teach them the chords, but that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to improvise. And good luck beyond that point, because true Masters aren’t even playing guitar – they’re singing.

Design is not, in this way of thinking, limited to applied arts. In fact, it’s definition and integration of differing toolsets that allows Design to transcend disciplines and scope; to be as applicable to designing a business system as it is to designing a single piece of furniture. I’d submit that some corporate CEO’s are among the most obvious Designers in that they’ve integrated thought and action into the creation of a profitable organization; in many cases after many repeated failures (insert “fail early, fail often” quote here).

If there were a perfect blueprint for becoming a successful CEO, the author would be both famous and wealthy. There isn’t. If there were failsafe post-grad courses for being the next Steve Jobs or Michael Dell, we’d all be attending. There aren’t. Some things can’t taught; they can only be explained.

As the applied “design” profession becomes increasingly viewed as a potential solution to commoditization woes, I guess it’s no surprise that businesses are trying to (finally) figure out how “Designers” work and think (or more: “Read our mainstream business publication telling you how to act like, dress like and be cool like a designer!“). But in the end, all they’ll likely achieve is teaching workers a few chords. The rest is – as it’s always been – left to the Individual.

A comment I made over on (Link):

I would suggest you read the post to which he [ed. – Bruce Nussbaum] is responding and the associated comments. What’s missing is that there is no such thing as “purity” in Design. One either designs or one does not; there are no degrees. Furthermore, there is no classical training in Design. There is classical training in the mediums by which people are able to engage in design, but not in the act itself.

Bruce and the design “thinking” people are, imo, giving the business world what it desperately wants in an age of commoditization desperation: a way to “think” like applied arts “designers”. The business world being largely a left-brain affair has never been able to figure out the “design” community (I know, having watched firsthand how corporations move applied art designers from Marketing to Engineering and from integrated work areas to seclusion). And with their left-brain solutions yielding fewer and less impressive returns, many see an opportunity in the applied artists’ approach to Design. They read about Apple’s Jonathan Ive and the iPod (without knowing anything about the iPod’s development, btw) and figure that if they could just unravel how those odd designers tick, they’d be more “innovative” and thus increase their business success.

It’s uninformed hype, imo.

There is no such thing as “design thinking”. Design is a verb first. It is an activity that, when at its best, involves a feedback loop between the person and the activity itself; the incarnation of “fail often, fail early”. For applied artists, that activity involves media; hopefully the broadest range of media. For others (e.g. engineers, business people, aso) it involves those things with which they create. The problem is that much of what they do is left-brained and the tools with which they are most familiar are geared towards listmaking, logical, linear thinking. The very processes and tools that gave them the power in the first place (relative to the right-brained people) are now shackles on their own creativity limiting their thoughts and their ability to innovate.

This isn’t about classical this or that. It’s about understanding that the best Design is a) an individual issue and not something to be packaged and sold, and b) at its best when thought and action as well as both hemispheres act in concert. The only one’s separating things off into “design thinking” activities are the ones trying to fit it into some entrenched left-brained system.}

{Note: This train of thought is continued on a subsequent post titled, “Why “Design Thinking” Makes No Sense To This Designer” (reLink)}

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