Design Thinking Is B.S.

In a recent talk at the School of Visual Arts, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen argues against the cult of design thinking.

Design Thinking Is B.S.
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This article was adapted with permission from a talk Pentagram partner Natasha Jen gave for the MA Design Research, Writing, and Criticism Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Read a counterpoint from Adobe principal Khoi Vinh here.


What’s missing in design as a practice and as a group of professionals? The one thing I feel is missing is a kind of sense of skepticism from designers.

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Digital platforms provide an incredible opportunity for us to make our voice heard. But yet at the same time, we don’t really choose the platforms or even the format through which we react with. So you see a condition is that we tend to resort to the things that are provided to us without us really questioning it.

This incredibly reduced form of looking at design is very common nowadays–we can just basically click on a button. One out of the three things is awesome or is it really bad and then that is the design criticism that we have right now.

And I haven’t actually seen much skepticism from designers about these platforms and mediums and blogs and channels that are provided to us. I haven’t seen much of that yet, but then I think that if we look around into other adjacent fields, we see that in art–not that all artists are critics–as a field they tend to just be a lot more reflective.

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In their writing, they reflect on their own work, and they’re skeptical about what they’re doing often times. They’re also very skeptical and question the world around them. And that’s something that I think that we can do a lot more as designers, and I know it is not an easy thing to do, because a lot of our practice is to serve commercial goals and purposes. Under that kind of condition it’s not that easy to say, “Okay. Are we doing the right thing? Or are we doing good design right now?”

I think we should strive to do a lot more reflection as a group. So I would like to propose the idea that the designer is a skeptic. I know that skepticism is not necessarily encouraging and positive work, but I think that really opens up the ability for us to question things around us, and that also asks us to think about a cultural and attitude shift that needs to happen.


There are certain shifts that I would like to see happen. The first one is to shift our obsession on “prescription” to “exploration.”

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The Limits Of Design Thinking

Design thinking embodies our obsession with prescription. I gave a talk on design thinking and my issues with design thinking last year and got a lot of responses. We crave prescriptions and mythology in general– as a profession and as a society. That probably explains the proliferation of design thinking.

Prescriptions create a kind of prison, in terms of how we can think about things and how we work. But a very linear methodology-based way of working completely removes other possibilities.

With 3M Post-it Notes–a hallmark of design thinking–you can do a lot of quick brainstorming and collaborations, right? But if you actually look at what’s on the stickers, they are all just thoughts from our heads, right? That is questionable because it removes a lot of the other possibilities and materials that you can bring in to actually really enrich the discussion.

So from prescription, I would like to go back to some of the old ways of working. That is not just going back to old mediums, but rather it’s the idea of going back to the very notion of explorations.

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I look at an image of [legendary designers] Charles and Ray Eames working in their studio, and the first thing that I notice is all the stuff that they have in their studio. Of course, that was before the internet and computer came about. But what was special about their way of working is that they were just really curious about everything around them, and they collected everything possible. It was through genuine interest in the world around them and through exploration they were able to develop this incredible body of work.


If you looked at that body of work from today’s lens, you would find much of it really crazy, like how is that even possible? And why would they do that? There is no focus whatsoever, right? But if you put the business focus aside, you see that they translated their exploration directly into their work and created this incredible body of work that is still inspiring us today.

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Democratized Design Versus Cross-Pollination

We have entered an age of the democratization of design. The assumption is that by democratizing design, we’re actually able to create better design. I don’t think that. I’ll propose a different idea that’s what I call cross-pollination between domains.

The word “empathy” is prevalent in design discourse; people have become experts on design empathy. Back in the day we called it research. It’s just part of your research. You listen to your audience. You understand what their needs are. It’s not that I’m against empathy. We, as designers, need to empathize with our audience, and now we call them “users.”

But there’s also this assumption right now with the word “empathy” that we should just give people the pencil, and let them actually design because we have to create this kind of user-centric solution. It’s too simplistic to draw that equation–that being empathetic to your audience or users equates to giving them the ability to tell you how to design or drive how you design.

I want to bring out a historic example. This is really an interesting case. And I got to know this project when I was at SVA in 2001, through my art class. The artists Komar and Melamid work as a pair. And each of them has his own body of work. So in early ’90s, they had this idea. They wanted to know what true “people’s art” would look like. This, I think, is the only and perhaps largest of user research in art ever.

So they created this project that is called the “Most Wanted and Least Wanted Paintings.” How did they do that? This was before the internet came about. So they couldn’t actually put out an online survey and send it out to millions of people. They didn’t have Facebook at that time. So what they did was they literally traveled to these countries. They’re 14 countries that they traveled to. And you see from the list they’re culturally quite different with the majority being in Europe but America is also on the list.


They wanted to find out, out of each country: What would their most wanted painting look like, as well as least wanted? So they asked very simple questions–similar to what we ask our users today.

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What colors do you like? Do you like warm colors or cool colors? Do you like to see colors blended into each other or do you like to see them separate? In America, the answer was predominantly blended color.

Out of the answers, they started to realize the paintings. America’s favorite painting was a very classic landscape with people in it and two deer on the right with a tree in the foreground, a little hill on the left, and a lake and mountains in the background.

In France, they had some pretty similar results with the exception that there were some haystacks in the foreground. There was also that tree and there’s a lake and there’s a mountain in the back, and there are two deers Iceland is almost the same compositionally as well as thematically.

So it is astounding that, first of all, they so similar in terms of themes, objects, and compositions. Even more astounding to me is how generic they are. This is very kind of enlightening study in that, not all user feedback is good. And oftentimes user feedback is the bottom line and we should strive to do better than that.

So what I would like to propose is this idea of cross-pollination between different domains. It simply means that designers should get into other domains–ones that are typically outside of our own comfort zone.


One interesting example for me is this architecture group in the ’60s called Archigram. Archigram was a group of architects, and they never got anything realized. That was not their agenda to get their thinking built but what they were trying to do is to agitate modernism, which again, was on the rise at that time. They created a medium that is very unconventional in the architecture realm–a zine–and they focused on issues such as technology and architecture, mobility, modularity.

So they would propose things like the whole city can move. Things like that. These are some examples from their really large body of work, and as you can see here, none of this is traditional architecture drawing. These are so exuberant and stylistically diverse that they’re inspiring to look at, and you don’t even have to be an architect to enjoy these images.

In issue four, they completely borrowed the language of Marvel Comics. They just use it as is, but the content was their original content. I find that clash and that cross-pollination really interesting. That kind of thinking is missing in our field of design right now. Everything feels sterile and safe. So I would like us to get out of our comfort zones and get into our domains.

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The Jargon Of Design Thinking

We have too much jargon. And I think that we’re also responsible for creating a lot of jargons. Both in design thinking and also in branding, there’s ton of jargon. We have to shift our focus from jargon to vocabulary. Again, old-school vocabulary. You can’t have any meaningful or deeper conversation unless you have a rich set of vocabulary.

Design thinking is full of jargon, and most of it is confusing and doesn’t mean much at all. Take words like, “unleash” or “unlock.” You hear these two words quite often in design thinking. I find that problematic because design itself is not just like you’re letting go of this beast and it’s going to go save the world. Design is a lot more nuanced, but because of a lack of vocabulary, we begin to see simplistic words used over and over and over again.

That lack of vocabulary has real consequences in the world, not just on paper. Think about an MRI room for children. This is a pretty terrifying experience for kids to go through these machines, for adults even. So let’s say you’re trying to figure out, “How can kids enjoy such an environment?” And the solution is to create a lot of cartoons and plaster them around the wall, around a whole machine.


That intent is great. But the solution and execution is terrible. There are so many other things that can be questioned, like the dimensions of the room, the ceiling height, the lighting, the textures. It’s about all the other things that you not actually see in graphics. And that requires a great interior designer or architect to answer these questions.

Once you bring in these experts, you begin to have a deeper vocabulary to critique such a design. So that a lack of design vocabulary is an issue that we really have to address as an industry.

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We are in an era of innovation. I gathered a quick, small collection of the word “innovation” in relationship to design thinking. And I found a false promise that design thinking guarantees innovation. But innovation is different from invention. You can invent something but if you fail to bring it to market, that is not innovation. Innovation is that process from inventing something and making something to bringing it to a market and mass adoption.

All the tools that we’re in love with and that we rely on are examples of innovations. They’re great. But in looking at the “right now,” you begin to fail to look back or look forward. So these great products result in incredible problem in e-waste and no, it’s not just e-waste, it’s basically pollution of all kinds. Plastic as well.

Plastic was an innovation back in the day. So was the atomic bomb. That changed the game of warfare. If you just focus on innovation then you actually fail to look at history and also what we can learn from history.

Now, in the last few weeks, we’re so angry at Facebook, through this exposé of Cambridge Analytica. And there’s a movement, #DeleteFacebook. But #DeleteFacebook is not the solution here. It’s a symptom of looking at right now. Social media is not going away. Invasion on our privacy or our personal data is not going away. Deleting Facebook is not going to change anything.


It’s not a question of taking away social media. We might as well just take down the internet. It’s about how we can use it, how we can regulate it so that it can serve us better.

From Functionalism To Craft

I propose that we go from a society obsessed with how things work–that’s functionalism–to craft. Right now, we want things to work. The professor Brett Waters teaches at Stanford about design thinking, and he wrote a piece titled, “Design Thinking Is Not About Design.” That caught my attention.

Design is an engineering methodology, according to Waters, for developing successful products. Design thinking has nothing to do with making something pretty and everything to do with making something useful. For example, an engineer could use it to develop an ugly machine that does its job beautifully. This statement fails to recognize the importance of beauty and how beauty is actually intelligence, is rigor, is culture. It embodies so much more of us people than sheer functionalism.

Take the work of Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen. If you look at her dresses, you see that there’s nothing about them that look like normal clothes. And there’s something so spectacular about them that you question their usefulness. They may not be useful, but you can see incredible craft and use of material and technology to create these things that almost look like some ancient artwork from ancient culture.

And the other example is the Aspen Art Museum designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The façade is a basic looking façade, but the technology and material required to go into it is actually really, really difficult. The material is a combination of paper and a little wood with resin. It is fireproof and incredibly strong. It’s structurally sound but it’s also incredibly beautiful.

So this dichotomy between functionalism and beauty, between something that actually works versus something that’s just pretty–that should be completely dissolved. It’s not serving us any good.