Why Design Thinking is bullshit

23 February 2018

For the fifth consecutive year, It’s Nice That has media partnered with Design Indaba. We will be delivering news, interviews and insight live and direct from each day of the three-day conference in Cape Town. The event will be live broadcast via simulcast to a number of South African cities allowing each presentation to resonate around the country.

Natasha Jen needs no introduction, but for those of you not fully immersed in the world of design, here goes. An award-winning designer and educator, Natasha has worked as a partner at Pentagram since joining the company’s New York office in 2012. This afternoon, Natasha will take to the stage at Design Indaba with a radical proposition: that design thinking is bullshit. Intrigued, we asked Natasha to expand on her idea exclusively for It’s Nice That.

We live in a world that’s constantly hungry for the new. From inventions to content to experiences, we’re consuming and demanding novelty at rapid speeds. Desperately looking for quick remedies that cater to society’s insatiable obsession with newness, industries are turning to the fad of design thinking for a cure.

Originally design thinking was created to teach engineers the methods of designers. Over the years, it has garnered into a cult that naively believes that it can create impactful change in larger systems via a reductive method. As other professions began to see the value of design’s cross-pollination, design thinking quickly grew into an exciting workshopped trend among C-suites. Although design thinking has now been relegated to a buzzword, the concepts of design thinking are not to be blamed. The real culprits are the practitioners exploiting the popularity of the movement by advertising design thinking as a panacea for stagnation.

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 realised that design thinking is nothing new. It’s a rudimentary problem-solving framework masquerading as a scientific method. A phase called “empathise” tells us to put humans first. It’s a reminder of society’s golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Flip through a thesaurus for the word “define” and you’ll find every other term used to identify, comprehend, discover, explore, clarify or establish this step in thinking. Ideating, prototyping and testing are paraphrased from science’s’ “hypothesise, experiment, and analyse.” However, the salesmen of design thinking courses have managed to trick industries that the act of thinking is something brand new.

Design thinking is now being presented as a means to innovation, but poorly constructed courses only offer a shallow preface of the rigour in the design field. Falling to the ranks of instant weight-loss pills or books promising overnight wealth after reading, design thinking salesmen sell empty pledges to innocent companies looking for a quick fix. Two-day boot camps, hackathons and online courses vow to help generate product ideas like the iPhone. Pictures always show climatic brainstorming session giving participants the chance to let loose with their imagination on infamous rainbow post-its. Sometimes they show prototyping sessions with hot glue and Legos to visualise the next big thing to deliver on that ROI. But if the course ends with lingering confusion, disillusioned attendees will fail to see the true value that design can bring.

Design thinking marketing needs to stop enchanting industries with a diluted design process. The reduction of a complex creative problem-solving mindset into five steps makes design seem easy when it’s not. A certificate for the completion of a design thinking course is not enough to transform a business into the next Apple. So don’t be deceived by the demystification of the design process or the chance to workshop out million-dollar ideas over post-its. There’s more to design than what design thinking dealers are preaching.

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