Design Thinking

Or, how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t.

Or, how to waste time and money without making progress.

I’m glad Lee Vinsel wrote this post Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains. While it takes a rather extreme view the further in you go – eventually equating it with the Hitler Youth (does that count as Godwin’s Law?) – it does include a relatively detailed critique of many of the problems that the cult of Design Thinking has caused.

To start – I am a Graphic Designer. I trained in multimedia and graphic design and worked in a variety of roles doing design work over the last 20 years. I’m pretty familiar with the design process, but also the skill of the designer. This is a profession, an art and a craft and it requires a diverse set of skills. Not everyone has them, not everyone has them all, and so you can quickly start to recognise what your capabilities are, what your strengths and weakness are and how to manage them. So for me Natasha Jen’s video really struck a chord with me. Lee returns to her ideas again and again throughout his piece too because they are a really strong critique of the methodology and ideology that sits behind Design Thinking.


The main problem that I have with Design Thinking is the fact that it’s hostile to an actual Designer. If you practice design then the linear nature of the process, the toolkit, the ideas, the lack of evidence, iteration or improvement is worrying. What is fundamentally flawed is the lack of “crit” – not just the critical engagement within the process, but the lack of change that occurs because of criticism.

As a Designer one of the key lessons from my years of study is critique – how to do it, what to take from it, how to handle it and what to do with it. And it’s that last one that makes a designer (and hence the whole design process). Being able to comprehend, understand and make (or not) the right changes based on criticism is the most important skill of a designer and the process as a whole. Design is iteration. It is fluid. It is changeable and the form is malleable and adaptable and you do that as part of the process. You don’t just prototype as a singular, you constantly change and adapt to feedback and intuition. Yes, intuition – the tacit knowledge and skill of the designer that is built up through years of practice, success and failure. Design Thinking does none of this. Skill isn’t just missing – its completely absent. The process actively discounts it and instead relies on the supposed meritocracy of the Post It note. Anyone with knowledge or skill can’t really exercise it in the process – they’re just along for the ride.

Absent Friends

Critique isn’t just missing from Design Thinking – its completely absent – and so when it becomes the method for change, for generating innovation, for defining the future you don’t get Design or Creativity. You get…. well nothing but a bunch of half-cocked ideas. You get the same old solutions to the same old problems. You get a vision that is so unimaginative and uncreative it looks like yet another rerun of yesteryear, because it is.

At it’s heart Design Thinking isn’t really about developing a creative or novel solutions to a problem, it’s about involvement. It’s about bringing people together to think about the problem, which is good, but not to actually solve it. Not to actually participate in change. Not to be the change themselves. Because Design Thinking isn’t about doing the work – you know, designing, that happens after the fact when someone actually has to process Post It notes and turn it into something tangible. To take a wireframe and make it real. To take a half-cocked idea and translate it into something actionable. And that isn’t design at all! Design isn’t something that’s tacked onto the end, it is the process. Design Thinking is a poor substitute and I think Lee’s article does a good job of what’s wrong when it is.

Design Thinking is how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t. It’s like a long meeting, with more activity, discussion and Post It’s but the outcome is the same. Nothing actually gets done. No change gets made. You just think about it instead.

The other absentee is history and evidence. Design Thinking assumes a clean slate and it’s dismissal of prior skill and knowledge leads to a process of simplification that wipes away history, complications, systemic issues, even legal, moral and ethical considerations. When you set the scene as a “what if” you remove context from the problem you’re trying to solve, which is the absolute opposite of Design. This really stuck out for me in Jen’s talk:

You bring forth evidence and then everybody crits the heck out of it. And that’s when you can make improvements, right? That’s when you can begin to really evaluate if something is valuable, is good, at all.

When was the last time this happened in Ed Tech?

When was the last time this happened in Higher Education?

This ignorance of history and evidence is perhaps Design Thinking’s most critical flaw. And it’s led to an unprecedented waste of time, money and labour without making much progress. How much change has really happened? How widespread are the changes of MOOCs? How has the lives of students improved because of Ed Tech? If you don’t critique, you don’t improve. If you don’t change what you’re doing then you keep making the same mistakes.

I’ve written before about critique, and more importantly the lack of it in Ed Tech, and more broadly in Higher Education.

the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.

I wrote that in 2015. I haven’t seen much change since then. In fact after 10 years working in Ed Tech I’m seeing the conversations come full circle. The same stuff we were discussing a decade ago are coming around again. We haven’t learnt. We haven’t listened. We haven’t critiqued.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s