Just another B.S. argument against Design Thinking.

Just a big heaping pile of B.S.?

Just a big heaping pile of B.S.?

Pentagram partner Natasha Jen challenges all design thinking practitioners who believe in its value, to “prove it.”

In a much publicized talk from the 99u Conference last year, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen delivered a presentation titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” It was a tour de force. It had everything. It was passionate. It was provacative. It was even a little bit profane.

There’s only one problem: her arguments against design thinking—frankly—don’t address design thinking. 

Instead, she describes her perception of design thinking, and in doing so, levels criticism based not on the thorough practice of design thinking, but of traditional graphic design. By the end of her talk, she challenges all design thinking practitioners who believe in its value, to “prove it.”

With all due respect to Ms. Jen and Pentagram: challenge accepted.

An airing of grievances

Jen launches her assessment of design thinking with the complaint that it is “such a buzzword” and involves a “complete lack of critique.” Using a Google™ image search page filled with diagrams—many admittedly inelegant—that illustrate the design thinking process, she goes on to describe a “very linear methodology” that was devoid of critique. She follows this observation that design thinking uses a single tool: the 3M Post-It Note.™

Jen then describes her definition of design thinking:

“Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving, claiming it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

This definition is loaded with pejoratives: “packaging,” “prescriptive,” and worst of all, “non-
designer.” Indeed the concept of who is or isn’t a “real designer” is an underlying theme of Jen’s presentation.

Jen's Exhibit A in her indictment of design thinking: poor diagrams.

Jen's Exhibit A in her indictment of design thinking: poor diagrams.

One consistent theme amongst detractors of design thinking is that because the term has been reduced to a buzzword, and practiced incorrectly by an opportunistic consultant class (another pejorative), that its value is meaningless. This makes about as much sense as saying that because the Windows Phone™ was a failure, we might as well scrap the iPhone™ too.

Let’s get specific

Design thinking is frequently described in varying ways, from being an innovation focused tool to an empathetic application of human-centered design. Neither of these is complete as a definition, although each gives some insight into the practice. Here are some more useful defining frameworks:

In Change by Design, IDEO co-founder Tim Brown presents design thinking as a means of unleashing design’s “disruptive, game-changing potential.” It utilizes three phases—ideation, iteration, implementation—to explore opportunities that combine desirability, feasibility, and viability. 

In The Design of Business, Roger L. Martin presents design thinking as neither a logical nor intuitive thinking process, but rather one that integrates both to create new and valid models for business. He advocates the abductive thinking of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to make “logical leaps of mind” when considering how to innovate.

Lastly, Italian design expert Roberto Verganti describes three key aspects of design thinking. These are: to visualize what doesn’t yet exist, to implement as will as visualize, and to drive change towards “more meaningful outcomes.”

These definitions are both specific and adaptive. They are also not expressed in terms relating to traditional design practice, nor the creation of design artifacts.

Additionally, a useful definition of design (also historically a moving target) helps to better understand the distinctions between it and design thinking. One way of describing design is that “it’s goal is to envision and implement an improved future state (Liedtke and Ogilvie, 2010).” A broader definition may be that design is the deliberate arrangement of forms, ideas and content to achieve specific intents or purposes. These accommodate the full breadth of design as well as its individual disciplines, such as graphic or industrial design.

Design and design thinking are related, but they aren’t the same discipline. While it’s true that advocates of design thinking do believe it is broadly accessible, few serious ones would state that anyone can become an expert at it. As Tim Brown states: “taking a few lessons from your local tennis pro won’t make you Serena Williams.” 

The intended outcomes of design thinking aren’t defined by the creation of aesthetically-pleasing artifacts; they relate to creating better products, better services, and better experiences.

Contrasting the above definitions to the description of design thinking Jen presented in her talk illustrates a major deficiency in her argument. If the definition of design thinking is presented in such a way as to position it as inferior, the criticism merits little more consideration than the consultants that wish to capitalize on the buzzword without providing substance.

It’s not about being pretty

Definitions are one thing, but outcomes are another. Jen decries design thinking, with its Post-it Notes and diagrams, as being devoid of visual evidence. In her view, the only means of validating the quality of work and improving it is through critique. There are two fundamental flaws to this reasoning. 

One is that the intended outcomes of design thinking aren’t defined by the creation of aesthetically-pleasing artifacts; they relate to creating valid outcomes: better products, better services, better experiences–each with empathetic, human value. 

The second is that this point of view substitutes design’s own practices and culture of critique as preferential models to those of design thinking. Again the two are related, yet distinct.

Jen cites examples of influential designers to claim that design thinking’s relevance is vastly exaggerated. She describes the history of Charles and Ray Eames as designers that “practiced by doing.” She references Steve Jobs’ messy office and reliance on intuition as being key to developing products that fulfilled people’s desires and needs.

Detractors of design thinking claim that because the term has been reduced to a buzzword, its value is meaningless. This makes as much sense as saying that because the Windows Phone™ was a failure, we might as well scrap the iPhone™ too.

Practicing by doing, use of intuition, and focus on human needs and desires aren’t the antithesis of design thinking. They are integral to design thinking.

Enter the evidence

Jen also calls out other “alleged” uses of design thinking in practice through several case studies. As she expresses a skeptical, even dismissive attitude towards the work, she unfortunately departs from the type of rigorous critique she claims is absent from design thinking. Indeed she seems quite confident in her assessments, without offering context or commentary on ways of improving the projects. Her opinions are settled. Here are the actual cases, with actual results.

The first is the well-known GE Healthcare Adventure Series™ MRI suites that featured themes and graphics to make them friendlier to sick and frightened children. “Did we really need design thinking to figure this out?" Jen asks.

Veteran practitioners of design know from experience that valid solutions have a way of looking correct, even obvious. Paul Rand’s IBM rebus and Milton Glaser’s I (Heart) New York are great examples of this. Did design legends really need to design these? Aren’t they completely obvious? 

The truth is no, they are not. Or at least were not when they were designed. The IBM rebus symbolizes much more than a clever, visual interpretation of the company name. It represents vision, focus and clarity through the eye, and teamwork and industriousness through the bee. We’ve seen ad nauseum interpretations of I {Heart} whatever over the years, forgetting Glaser’s original icon stood alone when it was unveiled.

Veteran practitioners of design know from experience that valid solutions have a way of looking correct, even obvious.

So it is with GE Healthcare. No one knew in advance if it would produce results. Design thinking offered a visualization of a friendlier, less intimidating environment. If all that had occurred was a slightly improved visual design experience, one could rightfully question the effort. But aesthetics weren’t the goal. The goal concerned reducing a shocking need to anesthetize 80% of children in need of an MRI. The adventure series has reduced that figure to 30%.

So, for the parents of sick kids that need MRIs, and the professionals that have to treat them, is that B.S.?

She then takes Olay to task for shifting its focus to younger women as sales slumped across older demographics. She suggests this was an obvious strategy. This ignores the fact that Olay suffered from brand perceptions linking it to older demographics, even as it was questionable as to whether younger women would invest in regular skin care regimens. To test this market, Olay not only redefined its brand, it re-engineered its product line. 

In the process, Olay grew more than tripled its sales from $800 million to $2.5 billion. Even a “real” designer would likely agree that these are not B.S. returns on investment.

Lastly, she calls up a dashboard screen from IBM’s Bluemix™ line. Here, she reviews it (calling it a prototype) and suggests it is undistinguished, yet the result of rigorous design thinking.

Recent research conducted independently by Forrester™ indicates IBM’s return on investment for its design thinking commitment is 301%. That kind of B.S. will likely be in demand by the truckload as more companies seek sustainable business models.

One more line of evidence is also worth considering. Pentagram as a company, besides creating superior design work in general, can rightfully be called an innovator, even a disruptor. The formation of the partnership in 1972 addressed a critical issue. The more creative organizations grew, the farther removed the partners were from the creation of the work. They became managers and client service executives. Pentagram solved that problem by retaining the model of a small, elite creative team with a single partner in charge. The top level was an equal relationship of 5 partners. When scale is needed, or cross-disciplinary expertise, two or more partners collaborate. Today there are 19 partners (Natasha Jen is one), but the structure holds.

Yet, for all the company’s success, there is still only one Pentagram. While many designers aspire to equal or exceed the company’s level of design excellence, that has not led to the Pentagram structure becoming a common studio management model. Design excellence on its own was not sufficient to drive this kind of change across the industry. 

The change movement related to design thinking, on the other hand, has shifted the landscape of design in dramatic fashion. Since 2013, an astonishing 75 design agencies and studios have been acquired by non-design companies (J. Maeda, et.al. 2018 Design in Tech report). This is additional evidence of another way design thinking has elevated the value of design. Some of the most significant consulting companies are among the acquiring parties: Accenture, Deloitte, and McKinsey among those. 

IBM’s return on investment for its design thinking commitment is 301%.
— Forrester Consulting

Concurrent with the increased value of design is perhaps an uncomfortable realization for traditional designers: when design becomes this important, it’s too important to be left strictly to outsiders. As Fjord CEO Olof Schybergson stated in 2013: “design is so central...that simply hiring it in when you need it, if you need it, is not really a good long-term game anymore.” This changing landscape presents challenges to the traditional role of designers as outsiders, and may explain some of the skepticism expressed by Jen, and other designers, as they seek to maintain their independence.

Closing argument

Individuals can—and should—critique design thinking. It should be done, however, with an eye towards improving the practice, weeding out bad actors, and building a more inclusive and collaborative culture. To dismiss it wholesale as not being “real design” ignores substantial recent gains and success stories. Within the last decade, design evolved rapidly from being an external embellishment to a strategic priority within business and technology as a whole.

It is not a coincidence that this closely corresponds to the rapid expansion of design thinking’s influence in that same period (roughly accelerating with the publication of Change by Design in 2009). The fact that design literally has a “seat at the table” in the C-suite, that it is a priority for companies and organizations, that it has never been more highly valued, and that its practitioners as a whole have never been better compensated, is indisputable. Design thinking is a primary influencer to that state of affairs.

And without more compelling evidence in rebuttal, any argument that design thinking has not
contributed to a healthier design ecosystem is frankly, B.S.

: : Contact Tom Berno directly at tb.idea21@gmail.com for more information




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Forrester Consulting (2018) The total economic impact of IBM's design thinking practice. IBM.com. Retrieved March 23, 2018 from: https://www.ibm.com/design/thinking/static/media/Enterprise-Design-Thinking-Report.8ab1e9e1.pdf.

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