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“Design Thinking is BS”, is BS


Natasha Jen thinks that Design Thinking is bullshit.

At her 99U conference talk she makes a case for why traditional Design Thinking isn’t as useful as we’ve been lead to believe. Unfortunately, Jen’s case is pretty thin. Her talk title is clickbait and her arguments are backed up by nothing but anecdotal evidence and some audience entertaining jokes.

But, in spite of the superficial nature of her talk, it’s a worthwhile question to ask: Is Design Thinking bullshit? And is the process it suggests any better than the way designers have been working for almost a century?

Natasha Jen, 99U conference

Claim #1: Design Thinking is a Buzz Word

Jen claims that Design Thinking has become a “buzz word”, specifically in the design community, and she doesn’t like this trend. I personally have no issue with buzz words if they help a community of creators speak the same language and create mutual understanding. However, I will concede that buzz words can often be used without real understanding of their meaning. For example, the phrase disruptive innovation is used universally to describe any market changing idea. It’s actual meaning is intended to describe new innovations, normally from a startup, that provide a lower value service at a lower cost, thereby reducing the incumbent’s market share.

Reality: Buzz Words Serve a Purpose.

Buzz words are neither the issue here, nor is trying to fight against them a good use of time. Instead of rallying against them, use them to clarify what the person is trying to convey. Smart designers see the use of buzz words as an opportunity to ask good questions like, “When you say Design Thinking, can you describe what that would look like in terms of outputs and outcomes?” or “By Design Thinking do you mean the following…?”

Design, with a capital D is about creating understanding and solving problems. Using buzz words, or popular descriptors, simply adds another opportunity to talk about the problem and the process. We have several clients going through what they describe as “digital transformation”. There is no universal meaning for this phrase, so instead of us getting weird about it, we simple ask, “Can you describe what the outcomes of a digital transformation will look like?”

Claim #2: There is No Criticism of Design Thinking

I know it makes for good stage entertainment to make vast generalizations, but it does nothing for our industry’s credibility. Showing images of “5-step design process hexagons” and “Post-it Notes” might get a giggle from the crowd, but it displays a complete lack of understanding of Design Thinking. Focusing on outputs instead of outcomes is a basic mistake and her talk only reinforces these misunderstandings.

Reality: Design Thinking has been Criticized for Over 10 Years

Practitioners of Design Thinking have been scrutinizing the process and approach for a very long time in an effort to get the best out of it. She might have Googled “Design Thinking Criticism” instead of the term “design thinking”. True designers never take process as dogma. They put it through it’s paces and make sure it can stand up to the rigors of the real world.

There is a massive amount of good and valid criticism of Design Thinking. There are literally dozens of articles on Medium alone providing thoughtful and considered criticism of Design Thinking at large. I contributed to this criticism myself a few months ago with my article How to Make Design Thinking Deliver on it’s Promise of Creating Better Product. Even as a practitioner of Design Thinking methods, our team is constantly questioning our work and outcomes. This is the way of our craft. This is what it means to be a designer.

Claim #3: There is No “Crit” in Design Thinking

The design critique is a valuable part of all design processes. The flaw that was discovered in this approach was that it was limited to either subjective peer review or moments in the process when critique was no longer valuable. In traditional design studios, like the one Jen works at, the peer critique is a staple of the design process. Designers will share their work with their teams, or art directors, and they will receive feedback. We use this technique in our studio, as do many others, but it’s not objective and it should be treated with caution. Crits are only useful when you can filter our the local critics biases — a near impossible task. In the absence of any other qualitative or quantitative research it can be tactically useful but not a objective strategic solution. However, just having your fellow designers critique your work does not in any way guarantee better outputs.

Reality: The “Crit” is Now Embedded and Much More Objective

Designers have spent the last decade fighting the ‘black box’ of internal decision making and opinion that drove traditional design for decades. The Mad Man era of lording over ideas in a closed office is the very opposite of the modern design process. Cutting edge approaches to the design thinking process always embed the end user’s perspectives into the process. Furthermore, they seek context and meaning behind why a customer or user might behave in a certain way. They seek objectivity. Your office mate’s opinion means nothing if that person has no grasp of the reasons why a user responds to a product or design element. Attend a Design Sprint or implement the Directed Discovery process and experience how ‘crit’ is woven into every part of the process.

Claim #4: Messy Evidence Is Proof of Creativity

Apparently a messy work environment is the only place a creative person can be creative. This claim stands amongst others like only open office designs can be productive or beanbag chairs and foosball tables make employees more engaged. Jen claims that people like Charles and Ray Eames, Steve Jobs and the folks at Pentagram are creative because their work is lying around and their desks are overwhelmed with prototypes and sketches. She calls this “messy evidence”. My question is, why does evidence need to be messy?

Reality: Evidence for Creativity Isn’t Always A Mess

While I’ve always been a huge supporter of the idea that designers should “show their work”, the idea that only creative things happen work in messy environments is myopic. Evidence is essential to showing the designer’s thinking. This evidence can take dozens of forms and doesn’t need to be a pretentious pile of sketches laid randomly round the floor. The idea that messiness is causative in the creative process suggests to me that Jen has never seen a bench scientist design a new protein, or observed an engineer design an electric motor for a self driving car.

While writing my three books on design processdesign leadership and product leadership, I encountered a wide array of work environments that ranged from the exquisitely clean to the chaotic. Over almost 200 interviews, most of them at the designer’s office or studio, has convinced me that your work style has no relationship with the output. Nothing!

Final Note

While I appreciate the idea that speakers need to get their audiences attention with bold claims and controversial topics, I ask that we all do our homework before we get up on stage. Designers deserve to be treated with respect. Let’s not feed them half-truths and click-bait because we’re too lazy do our research. Let’s all ask the hard questions. Let’s get tough on ideas. Let’s raise the tide for all of the design community. Let’s do better.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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