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The Skeptic’s Case For Design Thinking

Design thinking may have its problems, but it’s a crucial tool for democratizing design, Adobe’s Khoi Vinh says in a recent talk at the School for Visual Arts.

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

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Design thinking has a lot of downsides. It can be very superficial. It can be very misleading and the outcomes that it produces can be disappointing. It can lead to bad design. But it offers a useful lesson on how designers think about democratization of our craft.

I want to talk about technology and engineering because it’s very difficult to talk about design absent a discussion of technology and engineering. And this isn’t going to be quite an apples to apples comparison because engineering is quite broad and big and design thinking is kind of a narrow slice of design. It’s certainly not all of design. But nevertheless, I think when you think about engineering as a proxy for discussing design, it’s actually quite useful.

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How many of you know how to code? For those who didn’t get trained in the traditional way, like attending a computer science program, you know that there’s no shortage of educational resources that will teach you how to code. There’s the For Dummies books. Just like there’s Woodworking for Dummies. There’s also JavaScript for Dummies. There’s C for Dummies. You can go to a place like Khan Academy, and you can learn all these rich resources, available for you online. Apple has a great product called Swift Playgrounds, which is an environment that teaches children how to code. Apple website’s says, “Everyone can code.”

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That idea that everyone can code implies that there’s going to be a lot of coding going on, if everyone can code. There’s going to be a lot of good code, but also it implies there’s going to be a lot of bad code. There will be bad code as a consequence of the democratization of engineering. Engineering as a discipline, as a trade, as a profession, is largely untroubled by this. It’s largely unthreatened by the idea of bad code. It doesn’t bother them that there are a lot of people out there writing bad code. In fact, it helps elevate the value of the good code.

So you could say in a way that the prevalence of bad code has been a boon to the world of engineering. It has been a boon to the craft of engineering, because it means that engineering has been very widely distributed. It’s everywhere and so it’s helped established a cultural comfort with the process of engineering, with its tools and with its vernacular. This is also very important with the vocabulary of engineering because we all speak engineering now. And I’m not just talking about gigabytes and megahertz and RAM, the terms that we’ve become used to using in order to describe technology. I’m also talking about terms like reboot and bandwidth and offline and beta. These are all terms we use in everyday life now. Even numbers, which theoretically have no meaning. If I say 1.0 to you or 2.0, those have a meaning that are derived directly from their origins in technology.

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So you can say that really bad engineering has played a huge role in turning technology into one of the biggest forces for change in the 21st century, for better or for worse. And you could also say that engineering has been incredibly democratized and this has been good for engineers. You don’t really see engineers out there worried about not getting paid enough. You don’t see engineers out there being worried about not getting enough opportunities. There’s a huge thirst for engineering talent out there–for good engineering talents.

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And yet design and designers. I’m a designer, and what I’ve seen is that we are perpetually distressed, perpetually feel threatened by the idea of democratization. As long as I’ve been a designer there’s been talk about the idea of accreditation, about the idea of licensing designers, about making people take training, take tests in order to practice design, regulating the practice of design. Designers take a look at services and website like 99 Designs, which is a website, a marketplace–if you have a design task that you need done, a business card or something, you post it there and designers bid on the job and the effect is it drives down the price of design. It drives down to the median value of design.

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And then for years we’ve talked about spec work. About the practice of doing free work in order to win a bigger opportunity to get paid work, and this is an argument that has some merit but also the way that designers have talked about it is sometimes it seems so spiteful. It strikes me like the rich 1% who are incensed by the idea of social services. So when I hear backlash against design thinking, it sounds to me a bit like territorialism. It sounds to me a bit like designers protecting our turf.

So this is the definition of design thinking that Pentagram partner Natasha Jen put in front of an audience last year: “Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a proscriptive step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving, claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

Now I know this is not the intention here but the unmistakable implication here, at least for me, is that only designers can do design, maybe also only designers should be doing design.

To explain this, I’m going to go a little deeper into my analogy of design and engineering and technology. Some of you may be familiar with a book by Eric Raymond called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. This is a foundational text of the idea of open source technology, open source software, which is arguably the ultimate expression of democratization in modern technology.

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And the basic concept of the book is that there’s a cathedral model where technology, where software is the domain only of experts, of developers. And you think about early technology in the ’60s and ’70s. In order to do any kind of computing you had to drive there or take the bus. You had to go to a computing center and you had to be allowed by the priests of technology to take part in technology. Now the opposite is the bazaar model, where software and technology is iterated on in public. It happens everywhere. Everyone is able to participate, and this is the reason why we all have these supercomputers in our pockets or on our wrists or in our earbuds now because we had this idea that technology doesn’t need to be kept by gatekeepers necessarily.

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So this particular part of the definition claiming that design thinking claims that it can be applied by anyone to any problem, this reminds me of that tension between the cathedral and the bazaar. And when we listen to arguments about the sanctity of design as a cathedral or the fallacy of design bazaar, I think it’s really important to remember that the fact of the matter is there has long been an economic incentive for designers to shroud design in secrecy, to promote designers as genius inventors–Charles and Ray Eames or Steve Jobs even–as priests of the cathedral of design.

Designers, to some extent, want design to be an exclusive domain. We want the process to be mysterious because it preserves the perceived value of design. The thinking is that the more difficult design seems, the rarer good design seems, the more good designers will be able to charge for it. But thinking back to the cathedral and the bazaar, if you have an idea like technology, you have a force of nature like technology, it becomes most powerful when it’s democratized, when it gets out there in the world. And I believe that design is just like technology in this respect.

Any embrace of design by non-designers, and I think design thinking qualifies here, any embrace is a good thing because it means that our language, the language of designers, is broadening to the rest of the world. And this is important because relatively few people understand design, and very little of the language of design has crept out into the real world. There is so little understanding of design by non-designers, and that’s partly because people don’t have the language to talk about design.

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We don’t have design counterparts to words like “reboot,” “bandwidth,” “offline,” and “beta.” And when you lack language, you really lack the capacity to understand what it is that you’re dealing with.

How many designers can successfully explain what they do to their moms? By dint of evolution, your mom is predisposed to root for you, to try to understand what it is that you do, predisposed to being your champion. So if you can’t explain it to your mom, if you can’t get your mom on your side, something is wrong with the equation. So we’re not talking to our moms, right? So who are we talking to? To whom is our discourse aimed? I would say the answer is to ourselves. Designers are most comfortable defining design to one another, to initiated peers, to people who already have the vocabulary, to people who already understand the world of design.

Design is really small community. Most of us, I would say, are only separated from one another by one or two degrees. We probably all know each other. The smallness of that community has profound repercussions on who talks about design. Most of what gets written about design and certainly most of what gets discussed and what gets read, what gets talked about, comes from other designers. It’s designers talking to other designers. And in some respects, that’s a good thing. It means that the design community is wonderful about sharing our knowledge, about talking about our process, about helping to push the craft forward. But it also has its downsides.

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It’s not just that we’re insular either, and it’s not just that our language is kind of obscure. It’s the idea that the smallness of our community compromises our discourse. That familiarity prevents us from talking openly and honestly. It constrains the discourse.

This lack of independence in design discourse is really, really problematic if you think about it. Imagine if other art forms worked this way. Imagine if Michael Kimmelman–he’s architecture critic at the New York Times–were a practicing architect. What if he were working on a huge project in downtown Manhattan at the same time he’s filing his stories. It would profoundly change what he has to say. It would profoundly change the way we think about his opinions and his influence.

For years, the famous film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had a syndicated television show where they came into our living rooms and talked about current cinema, but they also talked about the ideas behind cinema and they made us better moviegoers, made us passionate about the idea behind cinema. But if they were working film directors or producers or screenwriters, their influence would have been much, much less profound, much less far reaching. A critics’ job is to think and talk about and interrogate design and give it context and meaning. We don’t have a lot of those though. We just don’t have the economic formula to allow for design critics, unfortunately.

And as a result, design discourse is really dominated by designers, and I think that is a major shortcoming of our industry and our craft. And this isn’t just about being taken seriously as an art form. It’s also about how important it is for designers to contribute what we can do at this very moment in history. So if you search the term “tech backlash,” you’ll get no shortage of results talking about this really pivotal moment in our relationship as people with the digital world that we’ve been building for the past few decades. You’ll get stories about a real inflection point, where people are really reconsidering their relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Google. Discussion about all of the data that they’re compiling about us and stories about how technologies have been so successful in giving us these powerful computers, but now we’re all addicted to them–and they have some potentially ruinous mental health side effects.

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And also about how our activity online is effectively being weaponized against us and against democracy. This is a very serious time. The world at large and maybe even some of you in this room. If you think about these problems at first blush, you may describe them purely as tech problems. But I think a lot of you if you think about them a little bit more you would agree that these are just as much tech problems as they are design problems and that the solutions need to come, at least in part, from designers. Designers need to participate in these solutions.

But if you search “design backlash” instead, you’ll get none of these stories. You’ll get a disappointing random array of results. A whole bunch of links to pages where the words “design” and the words “backlash” just happen to be together, right? So this is funny and it’s also sad. It is as stark an illustration as I can think of to show how little the word understands design. How little it values design and how little it thinks of design as a critical factor in changing the world.

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But we all know this is not true. Design has a lot of offer. We’ve been arguing for years about how important design is. We’ve been passionately arguing for it. We’ve made some strides, but I think the way we’ve been arguing has really been counterproductive. Our insular discourse, the way we’ve sort of jealously protected the language and the tools of design, the way we focus so much on the genius designer, these behaviors have all worked against us. They’ve limited us basically. They’ve limited our opportunities–the chances we get to contribute to the full extent to our ability.

And they’ve limited our capacity to fulfill designs true potential as the world changing force that we’ve all been insisting it can be. So when I think about or when I consider design thinking, it really matters less to me whether it leads to a lot of bad design or not. What matters to me is whether it helps broaden the language of design. If it helps expand the community of design. If it helps builds a world where people understand design better than they do today.

So design thinking, sure. It’s fine. I have really no quarrel with it. I would be happy to have, alongside design thinking, design feeling too, right? Design sleeping, design eating, bring it on. I’ll take it. Ultimately debates like these, they’re really about simple questions: What do we want design to be? Do we want design to be as small as it is today? An insular community with a really obscure language or do we want it to be as big and as influential and as inspirational as everyone in its room knows it can be?