Design Thinking is a western ideal, where local knowledge, techniques and practices are eschewed for the One True Process
Viewpoints: James Delaney

Next up to consider design thinking is James Delaney. James designs and builds stuff for the internet (including aspects of this site), as well as making forays into the worlds of critical speculative design and design research. Following on from his classmate Lara Hanlon, here's what he's thinking about design thinking:

So what is design thinking, anyway?

I had always thought that when my time came due to write on 100A, it'd be something titled like, "Web Development: How you are all killing me and I love it”, or possibly, ”Speculative/Critical Design: How I've wasted my life". Treasured romps to be sure. Instead I'm here to deliver a skeptical view of Design Thinking. The phrase at times feels like a giant energy sphere looming over our collective heads as designers, gearing up to come crashing down into your professional life if and when a client utters the phrase. While it's got nothing on automation (srsly watch out there), it's still a bit of a humdinger to wrap the head around. They're murky waters indeed, so let’s strap on some wellies, hitch up yer britches, and take a quick look at what it's all about.

Let's start with where the phrase came from. Since around the ‘50s, design has been tentatively etching out its own territory in theory and practice that separates it from both the sciences and the humanities. Design theorists were building a body of knowledge in academia to legitimise and link much of the work in this broad field, all the while practicing designers were reflecting and writing more on their own work. This movement was a sort of proto-design thinking, at the time called 'designerly ways of working'.

Fast forward to the ‘90s, and these 'designerly ways of working' had become fairly solidified. The term 'Design Thinking' took over as a catch all for a broad collective of theory and practice that was gathered at the time. It's also around this time that, outside of academia, it was packaged into a form that was a little bit lighter, and very much focused on developing innovative products and services in the world of business. This is the form of Design Thinking I think most of us would be familiar with: the IDEO and IBM version, A.K.A. Post-it World™ and can be broadly described as an ideology and process. The ideology says that a hands-on, creative, collaborative, iterative and most importantly, user-centric approach has the power to deliver innovative and successful solutions to any realms of human activity they are set upon. The process involves researching, defining, ideating, prototyping, releasing, tracking and then, if needed, repeating it all again.

As you might imagine, when ideas leave academia and cross the chasm into the commercial world, there is a good deal of dilution that happens as well as a differentiation that draw lines around your company's version of design thinking. Between the huge amount of actors claiming to teach and do design thinking, and the various branding applied to all these company's promotional and educational literature, it makes it pretty tricky to wrap hands around it all in its entirety and deliver a fair and reasonable critique of the whole thing. Despite that, I think there are a few angles that capture the field as a whole.

Something I'm skeptical about is the movement in the past ten years of Design Thinking not only into a wider audience of businesses, but also the rate it's appeared across design publications. All the while, critical and reflexive looks at practice are dwindling. Quite a few people have been decrying the lack of genuine in-depth critical design writing: Simon Sweeney mentioned it in our own context and more recently Khoi Vihn from Adobe wrote about it for Fast Company. Lately, it seems the thirst for more in-depth writing on design has dropped off, and either ‘press-release as article’ or whimsically PBR style stories make up the majority of what I'm seeing on my screen these days.

Is it a case that while prophesying design into a comfortable bright process filled with guarantees of success we have been feeding a wider audience what amounts to junk food? Leaving us with spectacles like the What Design Can Do Conference, where fully nude models introduce design challenges like 'the refugee crisis'. Perhaps this is a natural occurrence when any industry grows to wider audiences, but more so it would seem to go hand in hand with the idea of 'Design getting a seat at the table', where the designer is apparently commanding more power nearer to the top of corporate structures and elsewhere. Yet what is there to show from this? Cameron Tonkinwise, never one to pull punches, gets down to the brass tacks of what passes for Design Thinking these days below:  

Design Thinking has certainly not delivered any instances of sustained social change in relation to any of our societies’ wicked problems. Rather, design thinking processes have become the commodified form of community consultation prior to big business telling government what best serves their own interests. Or worse, Design Thinking’s wilful naivety and one-set-of-tools-for-absolutely-any-cultural-context results in brightly-coloured devices for imperialism.

In a broader context we have to admit that the methods are not universal, and as Ahmed Ansari has pointed out, Design Thinking is a western ideal, where local knowledge, techniques and practices are eschewed for the One True Process. You often end up with projects like the Merry-go-round pumps, a bright eyed idea that sidesteps the incredibly complex reality of the situation. You also have to acknowledge that the process can be employed by people acting in bad faith or with potentially destructive ideas. Did Design Thinking give us the Brexit bus? Who knows, but the reality is Design Thinking is no silver bullet and it is most certainly not a neutral process. I’m reminded of James Auger’s ‘Design Myths’ whenever I encounter the rosy outlook of a lot of Design Thinking’s propaganda:

Myths taught at design school: (i) Design is good, (ii) Design makes people’s lives better, (iii) Design solves problems.


Whether it is workshop or talk, Design Thinking is on the altar for the big outreach campaign of Design. Missionaries of good faith, offering clear steps wrapped in hexagonal diagrams are going to be appearing at conferences until the cows come home. While it's hard to argue against the core concepts of developing diverse interdisciplinary teams that span departments, specialities, and points of view, bringing in stakeholders and the people being designed for early on, I'm left thinking that C-Suites have been sold fairy dust and we're getting high on our own supply. Broader understanding of design is an arguably good thing, but Design Thinking in and of itself will not provide any significant waypoints for our reality, apart from some placating post-workshop fuzzies. The deeply ingrained systemic issues that we’re stuck with now will take decades to unravel, and probably longer again to reform into systems of living that don’t destroy the planet and ourselves. Design Thinking might play a role in this process, but I think it's time we all did some of our own out-loud Thinking on What Design Can Do. The world’s your oyster but the sea is shit.

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