Design Thinking needs a makeover

About a year ago, Natasha Jen gave this provocative talk at the 99U conference. It was an emotional outburst about Design Thinking. Natasha vehemently disagrees with the value Design Thinking provides. She thinks it is a buzz word. And very un-designer like.

In order to drive her point across, she used everything from Google Image Search results to pictures of kitsch MRI machines.

In fact she went on to proclaim:

Design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its.

A rather cheap shot, I must say. And facile too. Especially since she herself presented Steve Job’s messy table as a counter argument.

I’m sure someone with Natasha’s experience knows pretty well that good design does not come from external artefacts and processes but rather through a good old combination of inspiration and perspiration.

Despite my reservations and glaring flaws in some of Natasha’s arguments, I actually see this as an important presentation.

It is a Hegelian Pendulum Swing where one extreme idea is counteracted with the opposite until a state of equilibrium is reached.

We saw the same swing when the Flat Design movement countered to Skeuomorphic Design movement.

We have seen the waterfall development process countered by Agile.

And Avengers countered with the Justice League.

OK OK, the last one is not really an example of Hegelian Dialectics. Just checking if you are still with me 🙂

Designing in the wild west

One of Natasha’s argument was that Charles and Ray Eames never used Post-It notes. They, in fact, used good old Moodboards instead. This again is one of her flawed arguments. After all, Post-Its were introduced the year Charles Eames died. Imagine the impact he could have had, if he could use Post-It notes. 🙂

But as mentioned before, good design is never the never result of the tools used. It is the result of a clear design vision. I’m sure if you had given Charles Eames a hammer and a chisel, he would still have been able to produce this beauty.

In fact, a lot of good design came out during the pre Post-It era. The one common ingredient that stood out in good design is the clarity of vision. This is an important part of design that gets overlooked in the modern process. It is often seen as rather a tall order. People believe that it takes an enigmatic persona like a Steve Jobs, a Dieter Rams or a Charles Eames to articulate and drive down the right vision.

And visionaries of that caliber are not born everyday.

And that’s where Design Thinking comes in

It came with the promise to codify the thinking of Dieter Rams, Steve Jobs and Charles Eames into a single process. It further offered the same power to a newbie. Heck, it even promised that non-designers would be better designers.

And this is where the fundamental challenge is. It is not clear to a seasoned designer as to what additional benefit the process provides them with. Their intuition has worked well for them. And often times the output they can produce without the design thinking process is far superior to the output that would have come out of ‘rigorous design thinking’.

But that does not mean that design thinking is bullsh*t. Nor does it mean that Design Crits are the the only way to design.  Or that you need to go back to the wild west mode of design. There are, in fact, a number of good things that we can gather from a the various process and maybe we should see what are the other places and times one can learn from.

Maybe what we need is a better design process.

I’m in the process of working towards a better design process. If you have any thoughts or ideas you wish to share or collaborate on, do get in touch.

[PS]: If you still haven’t caught up with it, maybe you should watch the talk by Natasha Jen here:


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