Design (thinker) hubris?

From Apple to Target -- the understanding of design as holistic innovation driver and change agent has long become business mainstream.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
3 min read
In an article for In These Times magazine, Alix Rule injects some fresh thinking into the realm of "design thinking," which has traditionally been mainly affiliated with parties like Bruce Nussbaum, associate editor of BusinessWeek, and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (also known as the d-school). Rule is skeptical about design thinkers' self-acclaimed world-changing mandate: "As we look beyond housing solutions to urban poverty, good design is enjoying a second coming as the cure for what ails us." She feels that designers overburden themselves with these universal goals, and she asks for realism rather than naive "progressivism:" "The revolution will not be designed." She explains why: "'Design thinking' describes a moment in the pursuit of social good that hardly ever arrives: when all the hearts are in the right place, all opinions have been brought into line and all that needs to happen is the change itself. If the model has intellectual benefits, it's doubtful they outweigh the deficiencies of ignoring the long process by which consensus is built -- a.k.a. politics."

That's quite a statement. From Apple to Target -- the understanding of design as holistic innovation driver and change agent has long become business mainstream. Notwithstanding the debate about whether designers should think like business people or business people should think like designers -- nowadays most business executives and designers will readily agree on the importance of design as an interdisciplinary vanguard that has the ability to address major societal and political problems: "Stop drunk-driving. Build better elementary schools. Develop environmentally sustainable offerings. (...) We use design thinking to tackle hard social problems," states the d-school's mission statement. And it seems as if there's a secret band between the school's founder, Hasso Plattner ("Design has to start with the user"), and Plato ("The good is the beautiful").

Now, of course you can have some valid reservations against "design thinking." The first one is semantic. As a marketer I understand the benefits of branding, but nonetheless I have always found the term "design thinking" somewhat unfortunate because it is essentially a pleonasm. If you define design as the "transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones," as Herbert Simon did, design is inherently an act of thinking. In other words: How can you design without thinking? Design is by definition transformational and has always been. But that's just a semantic reservation.

The second one is more substantial. The main pillars of design thinking -- systemic view; interdisciplinary approach; human-centric, ethnographic research; democratization of creativity; and a pragmatic can-do attitude -- can without doubt offer a valuable tool set for many businesses that want to ideate off the beaten path in their product and service innovations. But despite the high level of sophistication that many design firms (and corporations) have reached in employing these methodologies, jazzing up design as the world's foremost problem solver may indeed not do the discipline a favor. I, for my part, am the first to admit to feel a certain relief when the New York Times Magazine features design that is simply "good" (lower case) but, sorry, lacks the ambition to change the world.

All that being pointed out though, Alix Rule's article does have one major shortcoming: Her judgment itself lacks the very modesty that she finds missing in "design thinking." It disregards the impact of incrementalism, of those baby-steps and micro-innovations which may not quite fulfill the lofty ambitions of the most vocal design thinkers, but may, nonetheless, instigate change on a mundane, practical level. By improving product and service experiences through more participatory, human-centered, and integrated design (and business!) decisions, designers are playing a pivotal role in transforming individual and collective attitudes and behaviors. Whether it can be credited to the hype around a maybe overbearing "design thinking" or not, this brand of "good" design is already a de facto political force: and given its power to constantly evolve things and affect people in their daily lives -- isn't it ultimately a revolutionary one?