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.
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