In a slightly cheeky talk with which she’s been making the design conference rounds, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen calls bullshit on design thinking. But the zippy headline does little to recommend the much more nuanced argument laid out in the piece itself: design thinking is not bad per se, but it’s become a crude substitute for rigour — a crutch made of post-its and Ticky-tack that promises innovation, in whatever fashion you seek it. Writes Jen:
Proclamations like “foundational creative tools to tackle complex challenges,” or “ways to dramatically improve the success rate for innovation” lure hungry industries into design thinking’s process. They’re drawn to the promise of taming the irrational and unpredictable beast that is creativity. But it must be realized that design thinking is nothing new. It’s a rudimentary problem-solving framework masquerading as a scientific method.
The Process of Identity
In our strategy and design work at Pilot, we feel a constant pressure to identify ourselves — as design thinkers, service designers, human-centered designers, sandwich designers. These appellations confer some special status, both to the designers themselves and to the clients, who come in search of process with a capital P. We no doubt practiced service design when we created the branding and way-finding for Toronto Public Library children’s services, but something about the classification feels amorphously unnecessary. We very much use the tools of all of these emerging disciplines, but subscription to classifications and subclassifications feels more and more like marketing positioning.
Subscription to classifications and subclassifications feels more and more like marketing positioning
These new typologies also speak to an insecurity in a profession that wants, rather reasonably, to defend against vagary. And also perhaps to defend their turf against the throngs of MBAs who now purport to speak the language of design. Process and hyperpresciptive design exercises lend validity to design when it’s occupying the portion of the Venn diagram that overlaps with “Business and Innovation Experts.” And it’s much easier to explain design to a non-designer when you can use a handful of icons and labels like “Empathize.”
Just Let Business Be Creative, Too
But why bother chafing at the increasing fine-slicing of the design landscape? Because it adds layers, and befuddles clients. And layers are what we try to do away with in our quest to get at the substance of things. Pilot recently created a new name and identity for a richly complex service organization. We sought to get rid of their unmemorable acronym because it was occupying their most prime piece of verbal real-estate with zero meaning. We want to do the same thing with design.
There will be those who think creativity can be distilled to an algorithm, but good design, like good strategy, is about finding the perfect alchemy of science and art
What’s more, instead of viewing business encroaching into design space as a threat to be met with a phalanx of diagrams, we should welcome this interest as a desire to understand, support, and explain what it is designers do. Certainly, there will be those who think creativity can be distilled to an algorithm, but good design, like good strategy, is about finding the perfect alchemy of science and art.
You Got Your Thinking In My Doing
In an ALL CAPS-sprinkled LinkedIn manifesto called “Do Not Kill Design Thinking,” Pepsico Chief Design Officer Mauro Porcini posits that design thinking is NOT A PROCESS. Instead, he writes:
“DESIGN THINKING” is nothing more than our way of “thinking” + “doing” (“Doing” is the “Design” part of Design Thinking) as designers and it’s a definition that FINALLY has given our design community the credibility deserved for many years and mostly a seat at the table to play a real strategic role in driving innovation and business growth. That innovation and business growth that BY THE WAY will give us also — and mostly — the opportunity to positively touch the life of millions of people with our work and finally build a better society.
Never mind the design will save the world argument that immediately negates all seriousness, it’s the admission that design thinking IS really just thinking + doing. In saying as much, Porcini admits that Design Thinking is, rather frequently, little more than a bid for credibility.
Our clients come to us for deep and thoughtful design — but there’s no magic formula, or reverse-engineered pedagogy
Our clients come to us for deep and thoughtful design — but there’s no magic formula, or reverse-engineered pedagogy. It really is just about thinking + doing. And it’s in those two arenas that we believe that we excel. Clients should choose to work with agencies for their thinking + doing, the unfancy math for the hard work of getting things done. And clients should look for agencies who think and do in the way that best suits the needs of their challenge. That’s it.
And Yet … Do You Have a Chart, Tweet, or Five-Step Plan that Explains What You Do?
We follow a process not dissimilar to every design concern — we discover, we position, we create. But though we love process, we are not beholden to it. It isn’t a thing to be parsed — it’s the loose framework. It’s the faint blue pencil guideline that we erase before you ever see it. And the process we create for each project is bespoke/artisanal/ small-batch/insert-other-pretentious-words-for-finely-crafted, because every project is a little bit different. (And if you’re thinking this means it costs more — it doesn’t. A few hours of ironing out the right way to do something is much more cost-effective than slapping boilerplate process onto a problem.)
We look for clients who want to have deep conversations about how to get to where they want to go
We look for clients who want to have deep conversations about how to get to where they want to go. Together, we create a path. Sometimes the path comes with bedazzled icons, and sometimes it doesn’t. The important part is that we think + do our way to the right solution.
BUT PROCESS? A CHART? SOMETHING?
Oh fine. We have a zippy term for what we do. It’s called Story Design, because everything we think + do is in the service of the story we’re creating. Story Design is the foundational structure of everything we build for our clients.