I’ve been attending the conference A Better World by Design at Brown the past few days and have been struggling with a bit of frustration. The people are fantastic, a lot of the panels and workshops are interesting, but I have a few problems with some of the discussions taking place and I wanted to clear up a few things with the help of my friend, All Caps. Say hi, All Caps. HI GUYS. Okay, cool, let’s do this.
WHAT IS DESIGN THINKING?
Critical thinking skills* applied to situations where the data gathered is a mix of anthropological/ethnographic information and aesthetic information, and that data is then used to fashion solutions to problems found within that situation.
I would postulate that the main difference between design thinking and scientific thinking is the type of data which is gathered about the situation.
*what I mean by critical thinking skills: knowing what about a given situation needs deconstruction/definition/clarification. So think Socrates.
WHY IS EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT DESIGN THINKING?
Visual, interactive media has reached saturation levels, bringing the link between seeing (visual), doing (interactivity), and understanding into shared realization. We’re also in the midst of a big shift in the scale of problems it is necessary for a human being to be aware of and create problems for; This visual interactive media is a tool we can use to understand a world that is beyond our scale of the personal and therefore beyond any natural and easy understanding.
I would say a parallel could be drawn to the 18th century rise and idolization of the scientific method where old ways of understanding the world -religion, myth- were becoming insufficient to solve the problems of the time. (Not to discredit spirituality and narrative as valid ways of sensemaking: just that they were insufficient.)
Design thinking is one of the growths of a new kind of sensemaking (there are others), one which takes into account what was often previously discredited as unimportant or subjective.
WELL WHAT’S ‘INNOVATION’? ISN’T THAT WHAT DESIGN THINKING IS ALL ABOUT?
Innovation is to make a large change. That’s it. That’s all it means. To say “a company needs constant innovation in order to stay relevant” is a thank you Captain Obvious statement. Yes, you need to change in order to evolve. We’re treating that statement as revelatory because the rate of change in the world feels so fast from the individual’s perspective (aka the amount of information we are ‘required’ to absorb every day is overwhelming), that it feels necessary to put the responsibility of one’s own evolution on these Qualified Changemakers: Designers.
Yet that doesn’t answer the question that I see All Caps bubbling to ask: BUT DESIGNERS COME UP WITH SUCH COOL STUFF. THERE MUST BE SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT HOW THEY THINK WHICH MAKES THEM MORE LIKELY TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING INNOVATIVE.
Here’s my swing: Designers make it their job to hone their critical thinking skills so that they’re thinking about the flow of information (usually in the high-tech urban western/western-influenced areas, where you’ll find most of those who identify themselves as designers to be). So to give a marketing example: designers are thinking about how word gets out about a product -twitter, facebook, posters, post-its, videos- and they’re thinking about what it is about the packaging of that content, from the colors and typefaces to the humorous inside-jokes, that makes the idea spread.
So when you hire a designer to solve a problem for you, you are hiring a person who is up-to-date on the way information flows through the world to find a way to make the information you have flow through the world in a more efficient, focused manner. If that makes them Qualified Changemakers, then cool beans. But we can take the pedestal out of the room because they’re not the only ones who are qualified to do so.
So can we stop asking these basic define-your-term questions already? Design thinking is critical thinking that gathers different kinds of observational data than one would through the scientific method, and applies it in ways that are relevant to a culture’s flow of information, making it appear innovational or unconventional because most people don’t keep up with that kind of relevancy. That’s it. So let’s stop talking about how designers have unique snowflake brains and start asking some real questions about the discipline, shall we?
OKAY THEN, OH OPINIONATED ONE, WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING?
Why has the issue of ethics in design fallen out of commonplace discussion among designers? In a consumerism-driven, capitalistic society, has it become taboo to talk openly about the way artists and designers are playing off of people’s biological/psychological and personal vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to get people to want shit they don’t need? Outside of design communities, I see a great deal of vilification of the way advertising takes advantage of people; yet among designers, I see only back-slapping congratulation. What’s with that?
Or let me phrase it in a simpler manner: At what point do designers take responsibility for both the methods they are using to promote content and the content itself which they are promoting?
Is the dominance of western design the new kind of imperialism? After all, dominance over the design of information is the dominance over the information that is presented. And what pantheon of color theories, compositional treatments, film editing styles, and textual narratives compose this dominant western design approach?
How are the technologies we are creating revealing only parts, never the wholes, of the information available? Take an obvious example: social media doesn’t reveal the full personhood of an individual, but encourages by its very design the process of crafting (/falsifying) an online persona to be given as a substitute for one’s self. It encourages shallow interaction and quick passage of small, three-minute ideas. There is an iceberg of personhood beneath that one crafted veneer that the technology reveals: what effect does this have on the information itself? On our ideas of it? On our assumptions about that information?
Which leads us to the next question: what critical thinking skills do designers need to develop in order to think about the impact of that which they create on the quality of mind, quality of body, and quality of life of those who come into contact with their creations?
Those are a few of the conversations which I wouldn’t mind having.
SIDENOTE: Many of you make comments in the facebook comments section. Please put your comments here in the blog so everyone can read the discussion!
Okay, I woke up to this article in my Facebook news feed and it pissed me off enough to have me gnacking an irritated response to it while making breakfast. So I figured I’d throw my bone into the vast sea of opinions about this topic, if only to get it off my chest.
Summary of the article if you don’t feel like reading it: “Gen Y’s are entitled, unhappy, and self-centered.”
1. Everyone is the hero of their own story. That’s a fact. We are not being selfish a-holes because we believe we’re the center of our own universe. You believe the same thing. (unless you have children or a very close family/friend circle, and in that case your center of the universe may encompass multiple immediate individuals.)
2. I’m just wondering… In the previous eras of 20-somethings, have older generations so obsessively measured and re-measured and hashed and re-hashed and bickered and debated over how happy young adults are and how happy they have the right to be? I’m sure parents have always obsessed over the happiness of their next generation, but did the internet always provide SCIENTIFIC DATA to measure their child’s success and their child’s happiness by? Have anthropologists and sociologists always gotten such press with their studies on happiness and success metrics? Is our generation really that uniquely self-centered and miserable, or is it just that you’re paying so much attention to 20-somethings now than you did 50 years ago?
3. Is the generation before us REALLY that much happier than we are? The divorce rates, the unemployment, the sluggish recovery after 2008- are you really so sure that the 30-40-somethings are that much happier than we are? It doesn’t really look like it.
4. Why would you vilify us for expecting what our parents expected: that is, to do better than they did? Laden by student loans from having to get graduate degrees to flip burgers, the international competition for the jobs we were promised, and the looming financial burden of paying for aging baby boomers, we’re not going to be doing better. And when every American generation has done better than the one previous, and we’re not, we’re going to feel like failures.
5. Where are we supposed to look for examples of being happy with less than everything? A common situation I’ve been finding myself in:
“So, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I don’t need to be a statistic of female CEOs and have a Mercedes and live in Berkeley and wear business casual to a little gray office every day in order to feel validated that I’m not a waste of space.”
“No shit, dude. You can be whoever the hell you want to be. Now hold on, I’m having this great Twitter conversation with this amazing startup guy, and can we talk about this later because I have a ton of emails to respond to.”
There’s this strange dichotomy of “obviously you should be okay with a life that’s not crazy ambitious but just happy” and “but if you are okay with that, you’re not really going to be a cool ‘successful’ kid, just fyi”. How do you validate your own sense of what you need when everyone is telling you that you shouldn’t be happy with anything less than what everyone else has?
6.You raised us this way, bitches. You were the ones who fought to get us into the bilingual elementary schools. You were the ones who sent us to SAT cram courses, who heaped medals on us and made the word ‘achievement’ meaningless, who pushed us to get that GPA so we could get into the best possible colleges, all to reflect on what a fuck-yeah parent you were. And you told us that someday we could spend our lives in the idleness that we wanted when we were children, someday after school and grad school and that career we were promised we should have. Someday we could actually have time to do whatever it was that we did as kids that we were too busy being validation for your parenting techniques to do. So now you want us to stop moaning over how we’re scratching our heads and trying to figure out how to validate our lives when we’re failing the American Dream, how to still make a difference in the world, and find a way to be happy outside of all your little strict metrics? Just shut up. Seriously. Go back in your minivan, drive away, and let us kids be kids.
And I’d like to end on a general comment, a plea if you will: Stop talking about us. Stop measuring us. Stop worrying about us. Stop pointing fingers and whispering about what selfish a-holes we are. Because you know what, there’s Syria, there’s women getting stoned and beaten to death, there’s widening class gaps, there’s global warming and mass extinctions, there’s a shitload of problems that ACTUALLY need to be dealt with. One of the nice things about my generation is that I see many of my peers (if they can afford to) go into non-profit work or turn down cushy office jobs to try and make a difference. We’re bumbling at it, but so were you. My generation is more keenly aware of the world’s state than you give us credit for, and we’re going to do our best to clean up the mess your generation left behind. It’s just that posting too many depressing news articles in our facebook feed makes us look like total party-poopers.
So lay off. And talk about something that matters.