In Defense of Design Thinking, Which Is Terrible
April 3, 2018 6:46 AM   Subscribe

What to do with design thinking? ... It can be superficial, it can be misleading, and it can produce bad design... Even so, design thinking is still a useful lesson in how we, as designers, think about the democratization of our craft.
- Khoi Vinh talks about the democratization of design at the School of Visual Arts' Master's Program in Design Research.

Khoi's speech was a counter argument to Natasha Jen's presentation, Design Thinking is Bullshit.
posted by jenkinsEar (33 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
You know, I'm 1/3 of the way through that article and I still don't know for sure if they are talking about design of real-world objects or code. Maybe it doesn't matter.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 6:58 AM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

The best experiences I've had with design thinking are on teams where that's just the way they've always done their work - they just don't know that's what it's called. Don't assume the question you are asking is the right one. Listen to people - hear what they say, observe what they don't say. Don't shop around a solution in to find the problem it fits. Lo-fi prototype where you can. Test small. Measure reactions. Fail fast. Fail forward. Learn from that and try again.

I've seen the methods used on process problems, software, user interfaces, creating training - you name it. Like most things, when you try to overlay a "new system" over a broken culture, it's doomed to fail - but if it's already part of the culture? It's *golden*....
posted by ersatzkat at 7:12 AM on April 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

From TFA: A good argument can be made against spec work, of course. But sometimes our vehement opposition to it seems to exist out of spite, like rich one-percenters incensed by the idea of social services.

Side-eye-of-Sauron Emoji
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:14 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure the first article is the best intro, and both are sort of like coming in to a long conversation halfway through.

Christina Wodtke's defense of design thinking might also help.

Design thinking is (loosely) applying some basic concepts taken from both digital and physical product design to problems outside that space, and often by folks without traditional design training. The origin of the phrase is murky (see Wikipedia) but in terms of popularization, you can largely attribute it to IDEO.

My experience as a professional designer working with non-design teams that have been trained in some sort of design thinking is that, while I sometimes have to stifle some eyerolls (there can be a business fad / cult aspect to it), Vinh and Wodtke are right: spreading concepts and processes that help more people solve more problems is good.
posted by feckless at 7:18 AM on April 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

I usually define design thinking to my clients as 'thinking a bit before we do stuff'. Then propose stakeholder meetings, interviewing representative customers, etc., before we start what they think of as 'design'.

I try to be generally jargon free, explaining things in simple terms: "we need to talk to the people you want to buy your services to know what they want to buy and why they're not buying it from you now so we can make something they want to buy".

They get it.
posted by signal at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Measure thrice, cut twice
posted by OverlappingElvis at 8:44 AM on April 3, 2018

I'm not certain I can read this without it triggering my anxiety and depression that I have acquired after working for more than a decade with nice people who are not designers who wanted to explain to either me or my colleagues or our actual design students how to design stuff.
I can't disagree that methods from design can be very useful in other fields. I got myself into that terrible situation by promoting design thinking here. I strongly believe that actual design thinking as opposed to "design thinking" can be a power to improve a lot of different aspects of contemporary life.
I can also clearly see the point of having outside observers studying any given field of knowledge. I love Albena Yaneva's "Scaling Up and Down". But man, is it frustrating to have clueless people explain your own field of expertise to you day in and day out, to the point of attempting to overrule your curriculum or your grading.
At this point, I believe the field of design thinking is disruptive and damaging in many ways. I see people like Jon Ives speaking against any form of research base for design, which obviously makes no sense, and at the same time undermines our attempt to teach students that the myth of the lone genius is only a myth and they need to do research and have a coherent method. And right here on my kitchen table I have a product "designed" by a company that offers product development without any understanding of design, but that I must house because it is the city-mandated recycling bin. Products like that undermine consumers' and investors' trust in good design.
Maybe I should just feed the dog and let all of this be.
posted by mumimor at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, geez. Article author, you mistake the motives for the "cathedral" model, one of which is: you can't build anything like a cathedral if you just say "everybody just put some rocks together, don't worry about learning methodology." And cathedrals (and other important structures) are not only nice, but without them, the village just stays... not any better. Bazaars tend to spring up _around_ cathedrals.
posted by amtho at 9:02 AM on April 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

OK, so I actually saw the Natascha Jen video, and now I am in love.
posted by mumimor at 9:11 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

A terrible argument from a terrible human being.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:23 AM on April 3, 2018

Hi Adam! I really enjoyed Radical Technologies. I would love to hear your thoughts on design thinking -- separated from Vinh if that helps.
posted by feckless at 9:36 AM on April 3, 2018

As someone who is a graphic designer, illustrator and fine artist, and also someone who teaches all three subjects full-time at a university, I think "design thinking" has brought some clarity and structure to what we try to teach students as an informed, creative process. To me, design thinking is a very similar process to the scientific method. We basically teach our graphic design students to: research a topic; brainstorm/mind map about that topic and make connections between the things that arise there; develop creative work that uses the first two phases; and then, to test that creative work by garnering appropriate audience feedback. Then cycle back to the beginning with all of that knowledge and experience. That is basically the scientific method: learn about a phenomenon, make one or more hypotheses about that phenomenon, create an experiment that tests one hypothesis, and then evaluate the data in preparation for more experiments.

Where the process breaks down is that ultimately people prefer to do the last two phases much, much more than the first two phases. We prefer to create and react much more than to read or observe and then to ponder what we have read or observed and potentially make lateral connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. I find as a teacher, it's the lateral connections that are really quite difficult to teach students. They either make things that have no relevance to the research or that simply regurgitate the research. That's why a "genius" model like Jony Ives is so seductive - ultimately he (or Paula Scher, or April Greiman, or...) can make those lateral connections in a seemingly effortless way. The historian recognizes that Ives is very adept at learning lessons from Dieter Rams or that Scher is adept at learning from Victorian broadsides, but to the outsider it looks like "genius."
posted by Slothrop at 9:37 AM on April 3, 2018 [10 favorites]

> A terrible argument from a terrible human being.

Vinh? What did he do?
posted by ardgedee at 9:46 AM on April 3, 2018

"Design Thinking" appears to be the buzzwordization of basic problem solving. Hexagons and Post-It notes are the uniform you wear to belong to the DT tribe.

Prescriptivism is anathema to creative thinking. The music equivalent would be studying Western classical music theory and then only writing fugues.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:48 AM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

As Jen says in her talk from the OP's link, design thinking is bullshit because "it's really just human intuition."

You would me AMAZED (or maybe you wouldn't) at how few people don't have hardly any intuition about humans at all, despite being one themselves.

I agree with Slothrop above, that "design thinking" as a process is something akin to the scientific method that we use as scaffolding to teach application of design tools/skills, and through it we begin to develop human intuition as a habit, like exercising a muscle. The "genius" (I hate this word) that good design exhibits springs from deeply understanding what motivates people, what their needs and limitations are, and how they feel about it.

Folks who naturally have a stronger sense of intuition about people tend to fall into creative fields like design on purpose (or by accident, like myself), and I'm fine if that puts us in a position of needing to help everyone around us understand people better. We're in a better position to do it, we've been trained in tools we can use to help us understand people better and I want everyone around me to know those tools and be able to use them.

Training non-designers in design thinking, whatever you consider it to be, helps bring those who don't have that intuition developed into the creation process. And since everyone who contributes to a project impacts the design of it, I'm inclined to have everyone on my team or at my company developing their human intuition skills and invoking design's set of tools when they don't have a sense of what's better for the people who will be using the thing they're trying to make.

Critique is great for tapping into the collective human intuition on your team. Research is great for cultivating a better sense of human intuition by getting people to reveal something about themselves. Patterns emerge, and people on your team can begin to develop a sense of what people tend to prefer, tend to pay attention to, etc. (You also conveniently get feedback about whether people want the think you're in the process of making.)

You need both -- critique isn't enough, you need to hear from your users, and research isn't enough because you may have missed an obvious alternative that only comes from another designer on your team with different lived experiences and perspectives critically evaluating your team's work. This is why diversity is important on teams who build things for people, but super fucking important on design teams in particular. Designers (the conduits of human intuition) are the first line of defense against a bad idea that doesn't serve people well.

(I believe this is what Mike Monteiro was trying to argue for in his recent essay about the professional responsibility of designers toward their users. We have an ethical responsibility to do right by our users, and since we're usually the first people to get in on a project, it means we need to challenge and critique the fuck out of it and push back HARD before it goes out the door and into the world.)

I really don't have any beef with the term "design thinking" or it being so vague/hard to define. The term itself being so popular is just a sign to me that a lot of people are now very receptive to changing the way they approach problem solving because they know they can do better, and they want to. I can work with that.
posted by Snacks at 10:08 AM on April 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

Vinh seems to equate "engineering" with technology. Which seems like a mistake when the subject is design processes.

Especially if you're using engineering as something that's benefited from being "democratized" and then immediately segue into the idea of design accreditation. I mean, engineering accreditation is a thing.
posted by RobotHero at 10:11 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Where the process breaks down is that ultimately people prefer to do the last two phases much, much more than the first two phases. We prefer to create and react much more than to read or observe and then to ponder what we have read or observed and potentially make lateral connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information.

Some people prefer the reading and researching and making connections. The problem is that those two groups of people -- the "in the moment" people and the "ponder and connect" people -- have a hard time working together. When the two approaches can be united in the same person, and that person has support, really good things can happen.

Those support structures are rare and take a lot of work and sacrifice by other people, though. Sometimes they take the form of large opportunistic corporations (Bell Labs, Apple, Google), sometimes fairly flawed social institutions.
posted by amtho at 10:19 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Design thinking" as a summary of what designers do for a living, is pretty okay. "Design thinking" as a call for democratizing the profession, is no no no no.

Design is difficult to democratize because a) most of the important mistakes one can make in a design are not obviously mistakes, and b) most of the important parts in a design isn't the stuff that non-designers think of as "design".

The comparison he tries to draw between engineering and design really falls down hard.

"Everyone can code" is fine, because broken code is obviously broken. It doesn't work, so it doesn't ship. If it does work, well, even if it isn't elegant or well-written code, it works. So it's fine. Everyone can code because there's a built-in feedback loop to let them know when they've succeeded and when they've failed.

"Everyone can design" is not the same. A broken design still looks just great to the person who designed it. So it ships. Even if it's cumbersome to use, or designed for the wrong audience, or the controls are illogically grouped, or it's not accessible or it's just plain ugly or any of the hundreds of other design pitfalls that non-designers don't even know they need to avoid. The feedback loop is a lot more indirect, so it's a lot more difficult to learn from your mistakes (or even to recognize that they are mistakes). Everyone can't design, largely because everyone thinks they already know how.

(Maybe, fine, maybe everyone can learn how to design, given enough time and effort. But wouldn't you rather be focusing on your own job, and letting the designer get on with theirs?)

Yes, design should be done by designers. This isn't because designers are a breed apart, or because they have an economic incentive to do their jobs(like who doesn't), or because they hate democracy or whatever. It's because the skills and expertise that go into being a good designer take time to acquire, and focused attention to develop. A five-point hexagonal checklist is not an adequate substitute.
posted by ook at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

TL;DR: where did this society-wide craze for kicking out the experts come from
posted by ook at 10:48 AM on April 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

One could view the "democratization of design" as part of a larger trend of human capital despecialization driven by market forces that desire to cheapen labor (and political forces that desire to disempower the masses) under the guise of proletariat empowerment. See also: Uber, anti-union sentiment in general, antipathy towards higher education.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:03 AM on April 3, 2018

Well, graphic design was democratized by Microsoft, and we all know where that went. Billions of posters made by amateurs using word or powerpoint have not taken any jobs from graphic designers, so that is a good thing. Maybe some people even realized that graphic design is a skill.

The first time I really got how destructive and even evil the design thinking people were was at a conference I was co-chairing. A paper I had graded 0 was accepted by someone else, and it was in my session. The paper was on prototyping, and the presenter showed how they had "developed" a product using cardboard boxes with sharpie text on them. Even as I was the host of the session, I had to go out because I could not control my anger. A big green energy company was paying for that charade, and students were being scammed.
I have spent a large part of my adult life first learning how to build useful prototypes and then teaching other people how to do it, and yes, critique those prototypes, and here was a person pretending that a cardboard box with the word "interface" written on it was a prototype. My work is hard and requires skills. You can't just pretend. Or rather, this person could, because suddenly there was a whole industry of design thinking where the actual practice of design was irrelevant.
14 years on, I've realized that it is all mainly a marketing tool (and an academic wasteland), and most of the time I'm cool with it. If you are a manufacturing business, you either have good products or you don't and the bottom line will show it. All the post-its in the world will not make you the next iPhone, but if you really want to spend your money on post-its, why not?
When it still sometimes angers me is when people profit from genuine community efforts to improve their local area without providing real improvement. But I guess that is on the edge of what this FPP addresses.
posted by mumimor at 11:25 AM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Right after college I stumbled into a job that meant I was working for and alongside some very famous graphic designers. I barely knew that the discipline even existed at that point, but seeing them work was like magic, so I definitely have great respect for good designers. But I've also worked with a lot of designers who didn't listen to their clients, although they definitely made pretty designs, just not really what the client needed or wanted at the time. So much so that I was surprised to learn that "design thinking" meant listening to users ha.

I thought Vinh did have a point, though, that design is unusual in that most design criticism is written by designers.

I have a deep love/hate relationship with designers.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:27 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had my first real experience with design thinking at my last nonprofit job and, honestly, it turned me into a convert. It worked really well for our organization because we were trying to do advocacy through culture change, and that is a really hard thing to do. In prior jobs, when we had planning meetings, it was basically a bunch of people in a room throwing out ideas, and we would end up with either the same kind of thing we'd always done (which, hey, if it's successful, that's fine, but I mostly worked for environmental groups who have just not been as successful as we need to be in fighting things like climate change) or some "creative" idea that sounded cool but either had no strategy behind it or were unworkable in the real world.

But at my last org, we had a bunch of in-house staff who had been trained in creative facilitation (based on design thinking), and honestly, it led to some of the best work I've ever been a part of. It also sometimes led to a lot of spinning wheels, but those were cases with bad leadership or projects that were challenged in other key ways.

I am not really well-versed in the landscape of design thinking, so I'm not sure how well what we were doing matches up with what the authors/speakers mentioned here are talking about, but what I really liked about these processes is that they encouraged creativity but in an informed, structured way in which people can build off each other's ideas but also course-correct each other where needed and stay grounded in the ultimate goal. And yeah, there were A LOT of post-its. I will be finding post-its in random bags and suitcases for the rest of my life, I'm pretty sure.

I think the key in my last org is that we did indeed democratize design thinking. A lot of us who hadn't been through the pricey week-long training wound up taking tools and exercises from those who had. And I'm sure that would horrify some purists, but it resulted in a culture that was creative and dynamic in ways I have not experienced anywhere else I worked.
posted by lunasol at 12:25 PM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have a deep love/hate relationship with designers.

So do most designers, I think. (The guys you talk about who don't listen to the client, for example, go in my "hate" box)

(it's not an actual box)

(but now I think I need one)
posted by ook at 2:32 PM on April 3, 2018

(The box is shaped like a hexagon for some reason)
posted by RobotHero at 2:35 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Hexagonal edges maximize the volume of the box while still allowing multiple boxes to nestle together. Nobody remembers why this is important anymore, but the client insisted on it, 2 years ago, when Project DisruptTheBox started.)
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 2:50 PM on April 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

TL;DR: where did this society-wide craze for kicking out the experts come from
It started with that "Free To Be You And Me" crap in the 70s
posted by thelonius at 5:56 PM on April 3, 2018

As a layman am I supposed to understand what design thinking is after reading this article, the comments here, and the Wikipedia page? Because I'm still at a loss. It's kind of buzzword overkill. Maybe this is some meta strategy to prove the point.

A good design in my view is something the user doesn't even have to think about and it gets out of the way; it's a means to an end. Design already is a "world-changing force," through dark patterns, through iOS and the great simplification of software, and so on. It's there underpinning everything and Khoi is right, there's such a failure to spread the ideas of design and get people thinking about it.

Anyway the design book that changed my life was The Design of Everyday Things and it gets into my head every day (e.g. noticing doors designed the "wrong" way).
posted by hexaflexagon at 6:15 PM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unless I am missing something (which happens a lot), it seems that this is problem-solving by a) information gathering, and b) iteration. Which is pretty much literally how problems are solved, so it can be distilled down to "problem-solving by solving problems". That Wikipedia page is an absolute train wreck.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:51 PM on April 3, 2018

I'm a designer. Much of the stuff that is discussed in design circles is well-intentioned but gets lost up its own ass. For the most part, design thinking is what turbid dahlia and others upthread have mentioned: gather information, try to find connections between things, create simple solutions that you can quickly prototype, test those prototypes, repeat.

A couple of things that sometimes get missed:

Good design thinking requires you to record everything along the way. Most people do some light documentation of the early phases - a shit-ton of post-its from a couple of day-long workshops - and then do the real documentation in the iteration/prototyping phases. This is not great, because the whole point of design thinking is to prove out the early work w/ the prototyping bits. If you try out a couple of prototypes and they're not panning out, you might need to go back and see if there is something wrong with your initial assumptions.

It is much easier to do this if you've taken the time to formalize the work that you've done, particularly the parts where you're still laying out the problems. This involves some real buzz-wordy things, (shit like abductive reasoning, synthesis, etc.) but if you do them with any regularity, they actually can help to find ways to get at the heart of real problems to solve, that people really need solved, in ways that can make your company honest-to-goodness money. But all of this is the work that comes BEFORE you start coming up with solutions.

This is really hard for most groups to do, because it takes time. Companies (and especially software companies) LOVE to build shit fast and break things faster. And there is a whole strain of design that is pushing to help do that. I fucking hate this. Design is about being deliberate: slowing down, being an anchor to the whole idea of cowboy coding the first idea you have and throwing it out in the market to see if it floats.

I think good design is actually kind of antithetical to late-stage capitalism: I'm kind of fed up with building software that makes it easier for people to consume things. I basically have to put my ethics in check all the time, because I'm tired of using the most wonderful tool in centuries to extract wealth from people in exchange for cheap goods.

Anywho, that's a lot. I'm happy to talk about this all day long if anyone cares.
posted by nushustu at 9:19 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

TL;DR: where did this society-wide craze for kicking out the experts come from
It started with that "Free To Be You And Me" crap in the 70s

For those too young to remember, Free to Be... You and Me was a 1970s children's album with stories and songs promoting gender equality. It's been a while since I listened to it, but I'm curious to know what made that crap. Is it something to do with feminazis?

A little boy wants a doll instead of a train set. The horror.

It's alright to cry
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:22 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

What I remember of it, and what I meant, was a general tone of nothing-matters-but-your-feelings and believe in yourself! 70s positive thinking glurge- who are experts to tell you your design is bad, if you think you are a designer!
posted by thelonius at 12:07 AM on April 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Design is about being deliberate: slowing down,"

Yeah, I think the value of making "Design Thinking" into explicit stages like this was to stop people from jumping ahead to making things before they've nailed down just what they're making and why.
posted by RobotHero at 2:31 PM on April 4, 2018

« Older No more chips for you, but let's not have another...   |   Braille for everyone Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments