It’s 2020, and Design Thinking is showing no signs of slowing down. Today, it’s still commonly known for its sleek 5-step process that’s often packaged into workshops or training sold to businesses and C-suite executives, claiming to help them understand design better.
There’s a fair amount of criticism towards it from within the design community. According to Marty Neumeier, there’s plenty of crap flying around1. Andy Budd alluded2 to bullshit workshops running in the wild in a recent tweet. Some of the criticism of Design Thinking is also about how prescriptive and linear the process is, which runs counter to designers' lived experiences.
Indeed, rigidity has no place in the creative process.
Be like water
Design is often described as fluid and messy, but to talk about it this way to newbies is unhelpful. I struggled to understand design early on in art school, because nobody could articulate an overview of the practice. This is where Design Thinking could have been helpful—a scaffold for making sense of things. And as with scaffolds, they should eventually be taken off to facilitate deeper and stronger understanding of more complex material.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most people who go through Design Thinking training. Its simplistic and reductive packaging is a double-edged sword; its gentle learning curve makes it palatable to a wide target audience, yet it also lulls them into thinking that this is all there is to it.
In my opinion, the missing ingredient is The Dance.
In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero perfectly captures the quintessential quality of the creative process:
The creative process, in essence, is an individual in dialogue with themselves and the work. The painter, when at a distance from the easel, can assess and analyze the whole of the work from this vantage. He scrutinizes and listens, chooses the next stroke to make, then approaches the canvas to do it. Then, he steps back again to see what he’s done in relation to the whole. It is a dance of switching contexts, a pitter-patter pacing across the studio floor that produces a tight feedback loop between mark-making and mark-assessing.
The artist, when near, is concerned with production; when far, he enters a mode of criticism where he judges the degree of benefit (or detriment) the previous choice has had on the full arrangement.
Note for now that 1) it is a tight feedback loop between the designer and the work, toggling between near and far, and 2) the absence of a “user” in this process.
This pattern of zooming in and out, is a common technique used by creatives who understand gestalt psychology, often summarised as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Typographers understand this principle intuitively. Tweaking the axis of the ‘o’ counter alone can set off a chain reaction of having to tweak many other letterforms, so as to maintain a tight and consistent kerning across the entire typeface.
Observe a designer negotiating this relationship through a mark-making craft:
At a certain proficiency level, this behaviour manifests in the designer’s subconscious. This is why it can be mistaken for a mere act of convenience—zooming in for fine-grained control of the brush. Sure, but it’s more than that. The designer is sizing up proportions and assessing the overall composition each time he zooms out. That’s the equivalent of stepping back from the canvas, as in the case of the painter in Frank Chimero’s depiction.
This dance applies also to creating more complex things like mobile apps. Here, zooming out helps the designer ensure a coherent interaction flow across the entire product:
The missing piece
Design Thinking learners are encouraged to not fall in love with their ideas or designs, and to quickly produce low fidelity prototypes that are meant to be thrown away. Craft is alluded to in the abstract, and learners never reach the step of finessing and refining a design. By the end of a Design Thinking workshop, participants walk away with the illusion that they’ve understood design, when all they’ve learned is to dance alone.
The closest the consultant or trainer can get to, is to emphasise testing prototypes with real users—which is a truly wonderful thing—but what’s left out is still the dialogue between the designer and their work.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a time and place for rapid prototyping where the main objective is to test concepts in a low-risk manner. That’s where you don’t want to get too engrossed in fine details. But you can’t be testing concepts forever, and you gotta move on eventually!
Design is a practice built upon making things for people. Any kind of design education or training which omits this step is frankly speaking, a sham. Of course, Design Thinking is about design thinking, so in a way it’s true to its purpose. For what it’s worth, it has elevated the importance of talking to users to non-designers, and I’m grateful for that. Perhaps we can do better by incorporating its missing companion: Design Doing.
Design is the method of putting form and content together.—Paul Rand
In one interview, Marty Neumeir defines design thinking as thinking by making. ↩︎