Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The limits of design (thinking)

Last week I attended a think tank entitled Design in Our Times organised by Andrea Siodmok and her team at DOTT Cornwall, a year-long project that brings a design approach to (re)designing Cornwall's future to be more sustainable and more inclusive, and University College Falmouth. Two days on a lovely clifftop with some leading UK and international designers, researchers and educators was a chance to assess what is happening in design and its ambitions for world-changing. With keynotes from architect Nabeel Hamdi (Housing without Houses), design researcher Ezio Manzini, Mat Hunter (now at the Design Council, UK) and workshops on day two by people such as ThinkPublic, UsCreates, Asier Perez (I love agitación para la innovación), and Andy Polaine, this was a whistlestop tour through emerging design practice with a focus on co-design and participation and the application of design thinking to complex social and economic issues such as long-term unemployment and transport in the UK's poorest county. (See DOTT Cornwall's event website here). This DOTT project follows a similar project directed by John Thackara in the north east of England in 2007.

These were some of the key things I heard (partly cribbed from an excellent summary by Jeremy Myerson of the RCA of an academic conversation I was involved in):
  1. Design practice is changing and it needs to change.
  2. Some designers are shifting from designing for to designing with, raising questions of authorship, which some others are not so comfortable with.
  3. Design education should teach both design knowledge (or craft skills) and design thinking, the latter which is not the preserve only of designers. But no one was defining what design thinking was. One speaker, Mat Hunter, warned that talk about design thinking as a process that anyone can try tended to miss out the messy, difficult bits which are part of design and which are important.
  4. Public service managers and policymakers are ready to hear what design can offer them (but they are desperate in the face of budget cuts and a lack of trust in the political class).

Now that I dabble in the social sciences and in management, it was strange to be back in a room that was mostly design people talking to other design people about design - and by design people I mean art-school design rather than engineering. I found myself skeptical about a number of things that I heard. I noted:
  1. A lack of interest in reading or referring to literatures outside of design that are extremely relevant to the DOTT agenda, for example within innovation studies, the social sciences and management and organisation studies.
  2. Not much interest among design practitioners in understanding theories of design that are enacted in their work, while some of them struggle with saying what they do and why it matters.
  3. A reluctance to question the values embedded in current design practices - as if being nice people creating collaborative processes to enable co-design gets designers (and policymakers and managers) out of asking themselves challenging questions about power.
  4. An avoidance of recent and less recent design history, as if the turn to co-design and the application of design to social problems means we can forget how implicated design practices are in the styling and branding of ecologically destructive mass consumption, as Tony Fry and others argue.
  5. Not much effort being invested in critically assessing whether, in fact, we can just apply design practices/thinking/methods to social and economic issues. Are the tacit knowledge and methods developed for developing consumer insights really directly applicable to such contexts without much new thought?
  6. An unwillingness to acknowledge the bits that designers do well and the bits they don't. One conversation thread was about how designers are good at scaling. They are not. Management is all about scaling, by replicating products and services globally through standardisation. From Adam Smith to FW Taylor to Henry Ford, increasing operational effectiveness and efficiency is a core activity in management but I can't think of a designer or design writer who has much to say on this.
The Design Council's DOTT programme, and the specific year of projects in Cornwall, is important. There has been a huge effort to mobilise local and regional organisations to engage with the possibility of design and designers helping shape Cornwall's future. It's just that the current framing of the project needs further scrutiny, so that those of us interested in it can make better sense of it, but - more importantly - so that non-designers can understand, question and assess it. John Thackara made the point that design is not known for being self-reflective and critical. We all know that design on its own is not going to save the world - so why do designers in a room on their own still seem to think it can?

Image: Village life by Steven Coombe on Flickr for DOTTshot.


Andrea said...

You have made a great list of the numerous blind spots in the design community! Thanks for sharing them. I doubt there is no other way to move forward than to recognize what needs to be changed :)

Sibren said...

Innovation in earning models and flow of an organisations only takes place when do agree that their "design-products" are just tools to reach the client's goal.

I believe in crossing borders with several disciplines: innovations do come from other perspectives commenting on the same client-issue.


Erik E. Byström said...

Interesting insights indeed. I was pointed to this post by @segelstrom with whom I've recently discussed how I think the service design agenda miserably lacks business thinking though that should be an integral part. "Mostly design people talking to other design people about design" and "a lack of interest" is my general experience as well.

A few of us service design interested business consultants discussed this in a thread on WENOVSKI that I invite you all to participate in: http://wenovski.ning.com/forum/topics/traditional-management. You can also follow me on Twitter at @eebystrom if you like.

I already apply "design thinking" (or whatever the academics want to call it) in my profession though I strictly deal with business strategy consulting. It's not my only tool however and I do apply many other analysis frameworks. It is still surprising to see how little sharing there is between the growing service design community and established "traditional" business/strategy design.

Noah said...

Nice post and very important observations. I agree in particular with your assessment that the design community is often reluctant to study its intellectual roots, yet all to eager to claim credit for innovation in other fields.

"Service designers", UX designers, industrial design, all tend to conflate design ability in one realm with design relevance in another.

The challenge is that complex, higher level challenges involve a fundamentally different set of skills and competencies than product or software design. A degree in product design does not translate into good policy maker, in the same way that a degree in carpentry does not an architect make.

I make this point in A DJ is Not A Conductor: Different design skills for different levels of complexity".

Most designers still hold an anti-intellectual relationship to theory, largely because of how design education is taught. Thankfully this is changing somewhat, but I'm afraid we're in for at least 5 years of "design thinking" boom and bust before the discipline integrates these lessons.

StationeryMad said...

Thank you for this meaningful post. On point 6 about scalability, Herbert Simon, and to some extent, C.W. Churchman, made an attempt to shed some light on this issue. It is rather interesting how their deliberate attempts to sequester the language of management/organizational studies tend to end up converging with those who tried to understand design from a structural and rational perspective, i.e. Alexander. Could they all be talking on the same 'design'?

Where there are no easy solutions, a simple one--i.e., design thinking--is often elected to answer to some of the pressing needs of the moment. I agree that design thinking is limited; but I also think that there are places where design thinking is not being pushed sufficiently to the edge, for example, merely stagnating at the (developmental) way of thought to convert needs into (innovative) solutions.

If design thinking can be a public discourse meaningfully deliberating on how and why we make this world as design, then we are on to something.

AL Fayard said...

Hi Lucy,

thanks for once again many interesting reflections and insights which are opening the door to a healthy and needed discussion.
Here are few thoughts that came up to my mind as I read your post.

"Some designers are shifting from designing for to designing with, raising questions of authorship, which some others are not so comfortable with.": It's interesting as it's something that emerges clearly from the research work with doing with Ileana Stigliani at Design London, Imperial College, on service design. What is even more interesting is that this was already a point heavily discussed among researchers and designers doing participatory design, esp. in the HCI / CSCW in the 1980's- 1990'' (Bødker, Kyng, Austin Henderson, Lucy Suchman, Wendy McKay). It does not seem to me that new but I guess it is a big shift.

I like Mat Hunter's point about the messiness of design and the risk of losing it by trying to formalize too much the process. It resonates to me with the need / request from reviewers for formalizing qualitative inductive research and the difficulty to do so without risking to miss an important element of "intuition" in it.

On your reflections from a social sciences / management perspective:
I am not surprised by the lack of knowledge of other disciplines but I think that it is also the case in social sciences, organization studies and management and that's the reason like yours while very relevant is not always acknowledge in that field.
Some of these difficulties to be open to other fields is the nature itself of disciplines, fields (understood as paradigms in a Kuhnian sense). This is an ongoing discussion that we have been having for a while and that we also had this winter in the workshop on multidisciplinary research (see http://blogs.poly.edu/bsww/2010/01/16/multidisciplinary-research-challenging-and-rewarding-or-too-damn-difficult/ and your post http://designleadership.blogspot.com/2010/01/investigatio-workshop-at-design.html )
It seems to me that also some of your points are raising the issue of "isn't there a risk to move again to a hegemony or homogeneity of thinking by considering that design thinking is the new "paradigm" even if it claims that it is holistic and inclusive of other disciplines?"

Thanks again for raising these questions.



Young Schumacher said...

Hi Lucy,

"We all know that design on its own is not going to save the world - so why do designers in a room on their own still seem to think it can?"

I completely agree. Designing improvements to a public service needn't be the sole domain of designers - of course. Then again, no "creative" input can make matters worse.

If you would like to chat to me about our Dott Project New Work, I will be happy to provide some real and practical examples of how design is playing a role in addressing a very real issue of employment in Cornwall, and how a lack of creativity has creates barriers.