Who is Talking About Design?

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Design is having a moment buoyed by the emergence of design thinking. What started as a science, literally “design science,” is now a buzzword in the business world and beyond. I argue that everyone is talking about design and I’ll prove it, with some carefully crafted research.

But first, a little history. In the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller, the designer of the geodesic dome among other things, began to talk about design science. After a few decades of growth and refinement, like thinking about human-centered design (we’re looking at you: Herb Simon and Don Norman), design as a mindset (we’re looking at you: Nigel Cross and Donald Schön), and design for everyone (we’re looking at you Richard Buchanan), “design” began to sneak into the wider consciousness. It is here, in 1991, with a design company IDEO, that our story begins…

In the background a geodesic dome, in the foreground a nifty fountain, at the Paris Museum of Science and Industry

The creation of IDEO, which was a merger of several design companies featuring David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, and Mike Nuttall, brought design thinking to the wider business world by popularizing the “process” of their design. They popularized not just physical designs (like the apple mouse), but also design processes (like starting with empathy, ideating, and so on). Once design thinking, as a process, caught on in the business world, it began to spread into popular consciousness. Some uses became bastarizations (See a fascinating blog post by Don Norman here), but others became refinements and extensions on the idea (See a fascinating retraction three years later by Don Norman here). But, regardless of the uses, it seemed like everyone talked and laid some claim to design thinking. 

The IDEO design of Apple’s mouse really clicked with consumers.[1]
To test my theory, I typed “design thinking” into google news (this is how research is done, take notes). These were my top five results:

  • “A Liberal Arts Approach to Design Thinking” in Inside Higher Ed2
  • “How to Successfully Adopt Design Thinking” in Forbes3
  • “’Design thinking’ or how to promote innovation in social enterprises” in BBVA4
  • “The Power of Design Thinking to Improve Your Team’s Legal Services” in Lexology5
  • “Commentary: Innovative Mindset is Key to Design Thinking” in techwire.net6 

In the first five results I have hits from education, business, law, and tech; I have hits from practitioner journals, magazines, blogs, and corporate websites; but mostly I have proof that design thinking is a term that does not reside in one or two academic silos, but rather that it has made it into public consciousness. Everyone is talking about design.

This is not a bad thing. Richard Buchanan said, “ Design has no subject matter. We MAKE our subject matter”7 Design thinking, like a neighbor’s wandering vine, is acting in its nature when it creeps into neighborly disciplines, finding holes in the fences that typically separate one discipline from another. Like our team of writers which is made up of mostly academics in the field of Education (not design), so too should each discipline have people talking about design. From business to basket weaving, it does not matter. But, as the vine of design thinking grows, there will be some growing pains. 

Even now, among those in design schools, or academics who study design thinking, there is a tension between “real” design thinking and design thinking as a marketing or branding tool. There is tension between design thinking as a true discipline and design thinking as simply another name for generic problem solving too. See, for example, from an earlier blog post, a quote by Bill Buxton: “If everyone is a designer because they change the color of their walls, then everyone is a mathematician because they count change at the grocery store.”8  

Some of these tensions are not just gripes for gripes sakes. This is not just the “old money” heirs muttering slander about the unsophisticated “new money” (and yes, that was a Titanic reference, sorry). These are legitimate criticisms. Natasha Jen, a partner at the design firm Pentagram in New York City and general design bad*ss (google her work please), for example, in a talk entitled Design thinking is bullshi* states that “design thinking … ha[s] become this kind of thing where other adjacent design fields began to opportunistically latch onto it in order to fulfill their own needs.”9 She continues by stating that design thinking, in the most current and popular form is too linear and missing the element of “crit” or criticism of some hard tangible form. She’s right. Design thinking, as it becomes democratized, it often misused or misidentified. But, importantly, Jen is not saying that design does not belong in those adjacent fields. Rather, she is saying that it should not be employed lightly, like taking on an IKEA assembly project for the afternoon. Designing something good, something worth putting out in the world, is less like an IKEA project and more like designing the Titanic (OK, sorry, I’m done now).

Even more so, Don Norman, one of the influencers of design that I mentioned earlier, emphasizes that design is not about some special process, but about having expertise in the particular subject or discipline of a design as well as expertise with the process of designing. “Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable,” says Norman10. He emphasizes the need for particular expertise, particular knowledge, and particular practices. And that is a fundamental tension in the design world. IDEO made design exportable, by emphasizing a universal approach. But some designers argue that so much of design cannot be exported. They argue that design lies in the particular. They argue that “the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable.”

So the question “who is talking about design?” actually leads to other better questions. The question is not: Who is talking about design? These days, it’s everyone, at least in some form or another. Design thinking has become democratized and so too has design along with it. The question is: What version of design is everyone talking about? And will that version produce designs that are worth putting out in the world? 

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