Thursday, July 18, 2013

Design Thinking Imperialism and the Danger of Simplification

In the Economist there is an article, "Design companies are applying their skills to the voluntary and public sectors", that examines IDEO and the growing "design thinking" industry. The author, Schumpeter, makes the case that design is today moving from traditional "clients" of design to clients in governmental and non-profit organizations. The author sees this as part of a "revolution" that has almost signs of being imperialistic.
Schumpeter writes:

"IDEO is the standard-bearer of a broader revolution. Designers are becoming much more ambitious—perhaps imperialistic—about design thinking. In the United States the Stanford University Institute of Design, or D-School, which Mr Kelley founded in 2006, acts as an intellectual centre for the movement. The school helps businesses improve innovation and reduce complexity. It also encourages students to apply their skills to solving social problems, such as designing an inexpensive incubator for premature babies. In Britain the Design Council and the Royal Society of the Arts are also strong advocates of design thinking."

It is understandable that design can be seen as imperialistic with the attention and recognition it has received the last few years. Design and particularly 'design thinking' is often portrayed as the approach to apply to any problem where there is a lack of creativity, new ideas, or human oriented thinking. However, design as a human approach to inquiry and action is often presented in a simplistic and almost 'childish' way when it comes to what it is as a process, methods and tools. This article is an example of this. The author gives a summary of what is the core of the IDEO approach. To him it consists of three elements.

He writes:

"There are three main elements to IDEO’s “design thinking”. 
"The first is “lots of different eyes”. 
"The second is to look at problems from the consumer’s point of view"
"The third element is making everything tangible."
This description apparently captures the nature of 'design thinking'. This is to him the core of the approach that has been successful and that everyone is trying to copy. It is not surprising that he shows some hesitation about the approach when he writes:
"It is easy to mock all of this as bearded nonsense (if you are on the political right) or a ruse to divert attention from cuts in essential services (if you are on the left). .......Nevertheless, there are good reasons for giving the new fashion a chance."
To me there are two observations to be made from this article. First is that when design (or 'design thinking') spreads to larger and new groups of people less educated and trained  in design, it inevitably looses in richness and is slowly almost disintegrating as a unique approach. Design faces the danger of becoming a 'common sense' approach that anyone can do.
The second observation is that proponents of design have to very careful in 'overselling' design and explaining it in a simplistic fashion. Both 'overselling' and simplification leads without a doubt to failure, disappointment and the consequence will be a serious backlash for design. If all of us, who do believe in design as a powerful human approach to inquiry and action, different from other approaches such as science and art, that can produce unique outcomes; if we are not careful in how we present and explain design, we and design will fail. Design is an activity that is complex, rich, highly dependent on the competence, knowledge, skill and character of designers. It is a process that requires well developed judgment and ability to discern quality and to research and understand complex contexts and the desires and needs of people and organizations in order to create something 'not-yet-existing'. It is an expensive process that takes time. If this process is simplified into three elements that lack depth, richness and any form of practical relevance, then design will never be successful in any 'imperialistic' sense, instead it will be disregarded and ridiculed for not providing what it promises. 

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