Design DNA: The Perils of Design Thinking

By Scott Henderson, IDSA

Jul 30 2019 - 6:08pm


Is it a good idea to empathize with the user? Sure. Define problems based on their needs? Why not. Target design concepts toward solutions for them? Yep. Prototype and test? Obviously. Will this process guarantee innovation? No. Can it rob your design of soul? Yes!

Design thinking attempts to explain a design process to non-designers before their attention span runs out. It takes too long to include an explanation of the other influ­ences that make a great design, and designers—let alone anyone—have a hard time articulating such nuances, especially before the audience is lost. We look at a good design and say it has that certain je ne sais quoi (translated from French as “I don’t know what”). We just can’t put our finger on why we like it, meaning the attributes that give the product its deeper meaning, its inner world, its soul are nontangible and our inability to define them is notorious. 

Design thinking’s virtues have been heralded by all walks of the industry from the Harvard Business Review to Core 77. As a defined process though, is design thinking all that innovative? Or in fact even original? Hearken back to the sixth grade and your first lesson on the scientific method. In the 1500s, Sir Francis Bacon pushed for an empirical process that coincidentally starts with five oddly familiar steps. The first is to observe nature (akin to interviewing/observing users). Secondly, you define statements called hypotheses (just like creating a problem statement in design thinking). Next you conduct experiments and track results (like prototyping and testing in design thinking), and then you form conclusions. Repeat as necessary. Sound familiar? Uncanny. 

The hype around design thinking’s new clothes now allows anyone to become a crackerjack designer through online crash courses—and starting at $199 they certainly are a bargain. After clicking the “Learn More” buttons for these courses on my Instagram, the algorithms of Big Brother flooded my feed with similar promises of achieving design prowess fast, unleashing my creativity! “Become a Designer in 24 Weeks!” one of many said. Selling design education on the cheap is big business these days—to our peril. I have to wonder how the holder of a Master in Design degree from Cranbrook or Domus Academy feels about this new competition. 


“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” —Albert Einstein, 1929 


The War on Art and Beauty 

Designers don’t like being called artists. It makes their hair stand up on end. Your friend who might be a banker, doc­tor or insurance salesperson—who doesn’t know anything about the design profession—says to you at a cocktail party, “I hear you are very artistic.” “Sound the trumpets—I am not an artist!” you say. 

What is it about being called an artist that designers hate so much? Is it because we have spent decades hon­ing a process that we like to think is based more in science than in art, because we think science has more value than art? Is it because to do design well not only do you have to understand the markets, the user’s habits and needs, and the relevant materials, manufacturing and engineering but you also must possess a serious skill set reserved only for black-bag operations?

All of this must come together in perfect synchroniza­tion to deliver world-class results—factors and knowledge that go far beyond an individual’s selfish need for artistic expression. Is this why? 

In parallel, have a look at the music industry. A life dedicated to mastering a musical instrument, or many instruments, a deep understanding of culture in the now, the ability to read music and an understanding of musical theory—all coming together in an end result that can gen­erate billions of dollars and cross any international border. These masters of their craft actually prefer to be called artists. They also never refer to their process because their customers don’t care—it’s assumed they have command over their instruments. These artists only refer to their state­ment—the end result—which will either work or not, break new ground or not. 

In the 1970s, American automakers found that it was too expensive to holistically redesign completely unique cars for every model in their lineups, so they used the same chassis, wheels and engines over and over—changing only the body to differentiate between models. The designers responsible for these superfluous exteriors were not even called designers; they were called stylists. The design profession as a whole didn’t like this. The grand stage of the auto industry was setting a bad example that was per­meating other areas of design—and causing designers to be thought of as pretty-picture drawers or, worse, artists. Creating style for style’s sake ran against the principles of form following function, and a pile of sketches, especially when the gauge of their value is based on je ne sais quoi, is hard to invoice for. 

So, what do you do in the 1970s when you are frustrated by being labeled a product stylist? You turn to science! One ’70s car specifi­cally stands out as contrary to the period’s boxy boats as an early example of user-centered design. A team of designers in 1971 set out to design a car for the human— a car with an interior as spacious as any full-size car but with an exterior as small, easy to park and fuel efficient as a compact car. A car with 37 percent glass on its exterior for maximum visibility. A car with asymmetrical doors—the passenger side door four-inches longer than the driver’s to help passengers get in and out of the back seat. Road & Track magazine heralded the design as “fresh, bold and functional looking.” Car and Driver magazine praised the car as the first ever to be designed “from the inside out”— the first “Cab-Forward” design. 

The AMC Pacer now holds the esteemed ranking of being first on many of the top-10 lists of the ugliest cars ever made—and one of the most catastrophic business failures in automotive history to boot. How could such a serious effort to produce a design that would benefit the end user’s unspoken needs fall so short on soul? Was there something more missing from the design process that was undervalued and dismissed by the designers as fluff, and is still being dismissed as unnecessary even today? 


Devaluing Soul 

Design thinking explains how design is so much more than styling, and how it adds value to the bottom line because it yields innovation. It can, but perhaps the real cash ship is sailing away because we have devalued what design thinking leaves out. 

Design thinking talks a lot about selfless design— jettisoning your ego and dumping your assumptions. Abandoning your preconceived notions and opening your mind to groundbreaking observations you never expected to see in your user interviews. Doing so literally strips away the value inherent to a designer’s life—one dedicated to observing the human condition, sensitizing yourself to the visual, honing your ability to see what others overlook, appreciating art and design history, understand­ing cultural change and knowing where the industry’s bar is set. Dismissing these influences is to guarantee mediocrity.

I recently watched a CNN special called The Nineties. The artist Alanis Morissette said she struggled for years with her songwriting, always attempting to write about other people’s experiences. She attributes her shining moment of success to the minute she started writing about her own personal experiences. Suddenly everyone started listening. We are all starving to feel the human experience expressed authentically. 

Writers also often channel what is called episodic memory (an account of their own personal life experiences) in their prose over semantic memory (common knowledge), because primary-source human information is universally relatable and all human beings are hard-wired the same way. 

Writers use one of two basic processes. There are the outliners, those who carefully plan plot lines before writing a single word, and pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. James Joyce, a famous pantser, said, “A book should form itself, subject to the constant emotional prompt­ings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain, another famous pant­ser, said, “The minute that the book tries to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, I put it away.” Pantser extraordinaire Ernest Hemmingway believed in simply pour­ing out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty and resuming the next. Stephen King, one of the most successful contemporary pantsers who has written over 50 New York Times best-sellers, goes as far as to say it is “dishonest” to predetermine a plot. Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread into a liquid solution of sugar.” What starts out as thin begins to settle and thicken. 

How do they do this? How does the subconscious mind produce unplanned words on a page? How do writers surprise even themselves as their own sentences appear, as if their subconscious mind has possessed them? Science studies the sleep-wake cycle as a possible link. Our brain’s prefrontal cortex is responsible for outlandish creative notions while we sleep. While we are awake, however, it is coupled with other areas of the brain responsible for logic and reasoning. Is it possible that as writers allow their own dormant experiences to drive an unplanned work, they are able to uncouple their brain’s default mode network while they are awake? Is it possible designers can too, explain­ing leaps of creativity and moments of brilliance? The many examples of best-selling and famously influential works by pantser-style writers suggests that an individual’s mind, especially if they are a designer who has chosen to exist as a creative practitioner and collector of observations, is not something to dismiss as selfish and vain, but rather some­thing to celebrate as miraculous. 


Trust Your Brain 

I find the idea of pantser-style writing akin to the design process we now disavow in favor of a hypothetically more valuable pseudoscientific process involving thousands of Post-it notes. I refer to the idea of starting a design project by sketching as a first step. 

Designers have come to believe that starting a project cold by immediately sketching is bad because no research has yet been conducted. Again, this devalues the designer’s dedication to observing potential design influences as an engrained part of their 24-7 daily habits. Just as text emerges on the writer’s page in unfiltered and unplanned spontaneity from tapping long-stored information in the far reaches of the mind, sketching provides the same stimulus to bring forth subconsciously recorded information. The act of placing ink on a page may spark the idea of using a metaphor that is universally familiar and can strip away complexity from new technology. Sketching can inspire a fresh spin on a stayed tradition that can bridge from the unfamiliar and difficult to the delightful and easy. Sketching can conjure references to the earth’s geometry and elegant new ways to configure it. 

Designers don’t start out being able to see, record and then wield information like this, even after a crash $199 online course in design thinking. It takes years of practice and experience to become good at it. Why modify the 500-year-old scientific method and rename it design thinking to quantify design and then be ashamed of any ties to art and beauty when a large chunk of the value might lie precisely there? Instead of saying that anyone can be a designer by using a process dangerously accepted as uncontested gospel, perhaps we should be saying that design has tremendous value because it’s so hard to do well. 


—Scott Henderson, IDSA
Principal, Scott Henderson Inc.