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The Dark Side of Design Thinking

While there is much good in design thinking, I think we have to not get carried away about designers’ power. In my experience, I’ve seen many negative qualities of design thinking, qualities that have proven a detriment on projects and to the profession as a whole.

Overbearing control
Dirk Knemeyer exposes the dark essence of design thinking when stating, in the comments section of an article he wrote, “we need to begin controlling the environments that our work is being experienced in.”

Long ago, designers attempted to “control” the Web by determining, with pixel precision, presentation, leading to massive .GIFs and JPGs with excessive download times. The designer believed that HE knew how things should look, and did everything in his power to make it happen. And while that was going on, sites exhibiting what would be concerned poor design (Yahoo, Amazon, eBay) took over — because such overbearing control is not only unwarranted, but is detrimental to quality experiences.

Designers often hate the idea that their designs most live on in the hands of the users. They obsess over every detail as they plot a world of what should be. Stewart Brand wrote a whole book with this as its theme — How Buildings Learn deals a lot with overbearing signature architects and their determination of what the experience should be, and the struggle of the people in those buildings to adapt the experience to their actual needs.

This leads me to another negative aspect of design thinking…

Arrogance/condescension towards users
While designers have been attempting to corner the market on empathy, the truth is that that shift is a remarkably recent one. When I began working with design firms (with Studio Archetype, in 1996), designers never attempted to appreciate the user perspective and provide the appropriate service. They instead designed what THEY liked, and assumed that users would appreciate their brilliance.

Oftentimes, the user, with their idiosyncratic needs and wants, is seen as an obstacle by the designer seeking truth and beauty. Or that the user isn’t clever enough to understand what they want, so they should shut up and appreciate what the designer, the expert, is giving them.

Sadly, user-centered designers are perhaps only marginally better about this. While at least they are attempting to understand and assist the user in their goals, they often do so from a similarly arrogant, and expert perch. I wrote about this in my post “Pity the Poor User,” which reviews a book that calls into question the view of users as victims of their own circumstances, in need of saving by the brilliant user-centered designer.

Weakness for styling
Designers like the shiny-shiny. That’s often why they got into design.

Look at any interactive design annual, anything judged by a panel of designers, and you will see a stupefying weakness for styling. It doesn’t matter that after using any of the winners for 2 minutes, you’re pretty much done (if you could figure out how to use it in the first place).

Until designers fully, truly, and deeply realize that style, while necessary, is perhaps the least important aspect of successful interactive design, “design thinking” will be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

This is hardly complete (I hope others will add more in the comments). And, to be upfront, I suffer from every one of these in one way or another. The point is to have that self-awareness in order to appreciate when the bad habits are kicking in, and deal with them head on.

  1. All of these are true. I believe a large part of the reason why they are true is because most designers have bachelors degrees in (graphic|industrial|digital) design. These programs, for the most part in the States, come out of fine arts programs. In fact most designers spend their freshman years in fine arts foundation programs.

    Somehow this needs to change. It’s not as simple as you might think, mainly because a 17 year old high school student doesn’t understand what design is about, and fine arts is usually the bait that gets them into design programs.

    Computers have also done a great deal to dilute the number of designers who actually ‘design’ in the way you are speaking. In the past if someone was very skilled in making things look good, they would wind up doing production and finishing (and be highly valued for it). Today so much of finish and production work is handled within the computer, by the designer, that all those people destine for production work are now designing.

  2. I think this post is right on. I was also a little taken aback at Dirk’s “we need to begin controlling” comment. It reminds me of so many other people who have written things about “HTML’s dead, time to move on” or “the Back button is a problem to be dealt with.”

    But I wonder if these aren’t exlusively design thinking problems, but simply human nature. I’ve certainly known CEOs, programmers, product marketers, writers, and others who exhibit at least the first two of your three symptoms, sometimes pretty seriously. I think a lot of people have a weakness for styling, even if they aren’t themselves the ones doing the styling.

  3. I think you make some excellent observations, Peter. It makes me wonder: is there a difference between ‘design thinking’ and ‘designer thinking’, between the intellectual tradition of a field and the habits of practice to those working under the rubric of that field? Can we say there is such a thing as ‘design thinking’ though its tenets may not always be best upheld by professional designers? Or is that just silly? We do, for example, sometimes distinguish between ‘good principles of writing’ and what professional writers produce (which sometimes adheres to those principles, sometimes doesn’t, sometimes to good effect and sometimes to bad)…

  4. Wow. You must have worked with some crappy ux designers over the years. Or are you referring to graphic designers that are now self-titled “web designers?” If so, I’ll bet the house that a majority of them have yet to have stumbled upon “Design Thinking” anyway.

    Personally speaking, I’d stay away from framing designer’s motivation or intent through the lens of a single persona. Case in point, I have a BFA in Ad Design, but I didn’t enter communication design because of the “shiny-shiny.” As a matter of fact, I went to art school to be a political cartoonist. I just got cold feet when I looked at the job prospects.

    Interaction designers/information architects/information designers, etc. come from all walks of like. You and I both worked for a company (Organic) that accepted anthropology experience as an IA candidate, when IA was a big IA, more akin to an interactive designer or ux designer nowadays.

    “Design Thinking” is a good point, but retarded nomenclature. Let’s not attack “designers” (in general) because of the “stickness” of terminology.

  5. spcoon–

    This is not directed at any particular designers. Everything I’ve written about I’ve seen with nearly all designers I’ve worked with (and I use the word “designer” broadly). I think they might be qualities inherent in those who design for a living. As I made clear, I know I’ve been guilty of all of them at one point or another.

  6. You’re spotlighting the worse aspects of how designers could produce and then represent in the “design thinking” conversation. That’s what the Vader image is supposed to represent, right?

    Well, I still feel that the designers who would even concern themselves with, or partake in the conversation about “design thinking” aren’t the designers you speak of. You, Jeff, Dan and hundreds of other “designers” from San Fran to NYC to Austin to Seattle in the present day, don’t fit the “shiny” description we’ve tossed about. These are the designers that are pressing the importance of design in this ongoing conversation with business.

    I would agree that when “shiny” designers represent design within a particular domain, with their (un)know agenda of gloss or design in a vacuum, they implicitly affect the mental model of experience design in the minds of their business owners and colleagues. But that’s where public discourse is important; whether it’s panel discussions, conferences, books, articles or blog posts. This extra-work helps to offset the work of designers who have yet to “get it,” as business people always have their ears tuned into potential value adds.

    Along the lines of your self-criticism, I’m not pointing at designers pretentiously. We’ve all progressed over time on the “get it” continuum, so there will always be someone at the base of that scale, while we’ll always slip on the ever changing slippery slope of designing for technology. We just need to keep an arm out to mentor and continue our own learning process.

    In the end, business does need design at the table, as we have different focuses, responsibilities, experiences, etc. to draw upon when solving problems. I think Dan did a great job in trying to verbalize those traits outside of just snagging Cooper’s emphasis on empathy.


  7. Hi Peter,

    I’m tempted to jump in with some observations from the other side of the coin. I took a look at Dan Saffer’s design thinking post and that is one of the most comprehensive explanations that I’ve read till date, more so when you know how much the term “design thinking” gets bandied about where I hang out. Up until now, everyone has been referring to design thinking as something designers bring to the table, or should bring to the table as the case may be. Dan points out that this isn’t necessarily the case, it applies to people with backgrounds in business, engineering, marketing etc as well.

    I’m not a designer by the traditional definition of the word, in that I have chosen not to practice in the tangible manifestation of artifacts and their details. On the other hand, I have had significant education in design, both classical styling and skills based at and of course, strategic planning approach at – but I also have a degree in industrial engineering and an mba in strategy, while the majority of my work experience has been in marketing. From this perspective, I’d like to say that design is one element of a business proposition. The decision to invest in design is a business decision. While the ROI for design includes a significant intangible portion, any business owner needs to evaluate the value addition that his investment in design will bring before making this decision. The degree to which design is seen as a means to add value, whether shareholder value or price of a product value, would be my addition to the concept of design thinking. When we say lets bring design thinking to the table, it should imply “let’s bring a healthy appreciation of the value that design can bring to the table”. I’ve recently heard someone say “oh, I don’t think much of design, it’s just packaging, when we look at future investments, we look at the technology”. My argument would be, there is no point in having good technology if it isn’t presented in a way that a consumer can use it. Which is where design comes into play.

    Your post is from the viewpoint of the designer and his thinking re: design thinking, whereas I believe that design thinking’s true value will emerge when it, as a problem solving approach, so well articulated by dan, is embraced by the rest of the business community.

    And as spcoon says in the previous comment, “In the end, business does need design at the table, as we have different focuses, responsibilities, experiences, etc. to draw upon when solving problems.”

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