Design Thinking controversy

By Martijn Ros - November 28, 2018

Last month, Natasha Iskander, associate professor of Urban Planning and Public Service at New York University, published an article on Harvard Business Review’s website titled “Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo”.

In April of this year, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen argued against “the cult of design thinking” in a talk that was later featured in a FastCompany-article called “Design Thinking Is B.S.”. Following this much-shared piece, Natasha Iskander’s article also stirred quite some controversy amongst fans and haters of the much-talked-about design thinking methodology.

Because I strongly feel progress is made fastest when we try to “read between the lines” of what people say, find reasonable nuance, delete potential bias, distill real insights and then build on these findings with new statements (that others will then hopefully break apart and put back together stronger), I will share my thoughts on Dr. Iskander’s article here.

Should designers gatekeep the design thinking process?

I think the strongest point Iskander makes, is that the biggest flaw in design thinking is in the fact that designers are in charge of most design thinking processes. This introduces some major potential biases in a process that is meant to strive for balanced, and democratically amassed and prioritized solutions. That’s where things get interesting!

As Dr. Iskander justly explains: “When the designer acts as a gatekeeper for the meanings that are included in the design process, the potential for connections becomes limited not only to what the designer views as significant but also to the relationships she can imagine.”

The importance of framing a project

I’d like to bring in another paragraph of Iskander’s piece: “The political dimensions of design thinking are problematic enough on their own, but the method is particularly ill-suited to problems in rapidly changing areas or with lots of uncertainty since once a design is complete the space that the method opens for ambiguity and new alternatives is shut down.”

This introduces a second fascinating point, for which it’s important to keep in mind that design thinking is used in many different places and situations. The author proceeds hereafter with an example in a “social design” context, which proves her point strongly for at least the most part. But when applied to a business context, in service-, or product design, or in similar projects where commercial incentives have to eventually balance out the quest for innovation, ambiguity and the introduction of new alternatives can eventually become nails in the coffin of potentially good ideas.

At some point, ideas need to materialize in business- and many other settings. Which doesn’t mean one can’t experiment, iterate, test and build on ideas based on new learnings and real-life experiences (which was incorporated in most design thinking processes we were involved in), but to say completing designs means shutting down the process of improving ideas, feels unfair. Projects just need reasonable framing, something we should always strive for.

Inchoate messiness

Finally, in the article, Iskander introduces an alternative method she calls “Interpretive Engagement”. Ironically, the case that proves the author’s point, and that might offer an alternative to design thinking, is the result of an initiative introduced as a design thinking project. It was a competition launched by the Obama administration called Rebuild by Design. Set up to generate new solutions for reconstruction that would rehabilitate devastated infrastructure and protect the region from the fierce storms that Hurricane Sandy.

The Living Breakwaters proposal Iskander mentions “illustrates a design process where the designer is dethroned and where design is less a step-by-step march through a set of stages and more of a space where people can come together and interpret the ways that changing conditions challenge the meanings, patterns, and relationships that they had long taken for granted.”

“But it is precisely this inchoate messiness that makes interpretation generative: the insights people stumble upon by accident or patch together on the fly not only provide the basis for innovative solutions. They also allow a complete re-imagination of what counts as a solution, to begin with.”

The evolvement of design thinking

In her last paragraph, Dr. Iskander draws roughly the same conclusion I arrived at:

“For companies, social innovators, and political actors, the recommendation to embrace a messy, inclusive process of interpretative engagement, to say nothing of championing open solutions that sustain and encourage participatory creativity with their design, may seem unworkable or profligate. But, as New Yorkers may discover, perhaps sooner than expected, the barricades that neat design thinking steps produce are no match for changes that we cannot yet imagine or fully comprehend.”

This to me feels more like the beginning of a new chapter, than a satisfying end of a strong account. I think the author has some powerful arguments for improving a method many organizations worldwide now see as their go-to way of setting up innovation-projects that businesses, communities and sometimes societies rely upon. Still, the answer to date only applies to a fraction of projects. Only those in which it’s possible to introduce radically open processes “of collaborative and wide-ranging interpretation, where participants revisit the understandings they have about themselves and others, as well as about the changing world they live in.”

The quest for answers continues

So… How do we evolve this into a setup in which we stay clear of the biases of designers that blur our view on the real insights we need, to build innovative solutions on? And how do we incorporate dynamics to find brilliant solutions in the messiness of iterating on learnings? How do we allow for re-imagination of what counts as a solution to begin with, in a process that also eliminates risks and leads to some form of a prototype of a solution, before funds have dried up, and nothing is made to improve?

At our strategic design venture dim-sum, we’re always looking for these answers.

For one, we think -just like Dr. Iskander- that designers shouldn’t gatekeep innovation. We should facilitate and drive solutions, not limit them. That is why we firmly believe people of very different background, with different perspectives and varying stakes, should get involved in finding innovative solutions. As a result of democratizing this process, it becomes even more important to facilitate and manage it well. While we need designers skills to drive solutions, facilitation and process management are not necessarily designers’ responsibility nor their skills.

We definitely don’t have it all figured out yet, which makes it all the more interesting. You are very much invited to join the discussion via and to follow us in our quest to find out more.

By Martijn Ros - November 28, 2018

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