The predominant image of design in the 21st century is that cliché of the empty conference room or studio–just after some feverish brainstorming extravaganza–plastered with Post-it notes … as if the act of design had suddenly morphed into some strange game of pin the Post-it on the mind map. How is it possible that the wonderfully complex process of design has devolved to the point that we now commonly represent it by the leftover artifacts of quickie ideation? Is that all there is?
I point the finger of blame squarely at Design Thinking, that aspiring little brother of design that has recently been getting all of the attention. The rise in Post-it portraiture has more or less mirrored the infiltration of Design Thinking into the boardroom. And as creativity becomes the lubricant of the innovation economy, what says it better than a crazy quilt of Post-its smeared to the wall? It’s no surprise that this version of ideation is particularly salient in a business context, where outputs are more often intangible strategies, financial instruments, services, and information flows. An array of Post-its does make a more vivid photo than a bunch of suits with their ties off ruminating. The Post-it portrait accomplishes the work of saying, “creativity and leaps of imagination happened here.” It puts the gloss on innovation.
Three additional factors (and probably more) account for the ubiquity of Post-it. First, designers themselves are producing increasingly immaterial–and un-pictureable–things. Whereas designers used to make buildings and interiors and posters and toasters, they now are just as likely to be designing services, systems, platforms, and protocols. These don’t really photograph well, so the design process itself becomes the photographic fetish. Second, the tools of design have become profoundly democratized, so that more and more people are taking part in design practices. This means in many cases that a Post-it and a Sharpie are becoming the basic visual vocabulary for lowercase “d” designers who are not necessarily skilled in drawing, rendering, or model-making. And finally, the easy flexibility of Post-its, particularly when they are combined with mind maps, do allow for a quick and dirty way to capture the dizzying interconnectedness of the many systems that surround any design project nowadays. Together, they are low-tech, low-cost tools for modeling complexity and the ways in which people, ideas, objects, finances, and technologies flow.
So why gripe? So what if the Post-it has become a visual cliché–especially if it’s on the back of design’s ascension to the grown-up table? The problem is that in serving as a substitute for the whole of design, the Post-it represents only a small fraction of what makes design uniquely effective. It papers over the fact that ideation without materialization is not design. Designers discover as they turn ideas into thing (even when those things have no physical form). We gain true insight in the act of making a mark on a page or pushing pixels on the screen. We don’t need to over-hype those processes, but to ignore them means that we shortchange the practice of design. Clever ideas are a dime-a-dozen–about the cost of Post-its. If design wants to maintain its place in the value-chain, it’s going to have to find a way to make its contribution more compelling than a pretty picture of a Post-it pasted to the wall.
Jamer Hunt collaboratively designs open and flexible programs that respond to emergent cultural conditions. He is the Director of the new graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design. His practice, Big + Tall Design, combines conceptual, collaborative, and communication design, and he is co-founder of DesignPhiladelphia an initiative to foreground the city as a laboratory for innovative design projects. With MoMA and SEED Magazine he collaborated on and co-hosted MIND08: The Design and Elastic Mind Symposium as well as the project Headspace: On Scent as Design in 2010. He has consulted or worked at Smart Design, frogdesign, WRT, Seventh Generation, and Virtual Beauty. His written work engages with the poetics and politics of the built environment and has been published in various books, journals, and magazines, including I.D. magazine, which published his Manifesto for Postindustrial Design in 2005.