Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo
Why Design Thinking works
When you find two articles in one week, in the same respected publication, that make such different proclamations about the same thing, there’s something interesting going on.
How can design thinking both deserve accolades and apparently fall short at the same time? It’s not a case of good or bad, It’s a case of whether you are looking at it from the end of the Industrial/beginning of the Fusion era boundary, or whether you are thinking in New Economy, Fusion-era terms.
As “Why Design Thinking Works” lays out very nicely, design thinking (and its subsidiaries, like empathy-based or human-centered design) have marked a significant move away from traditional ways in which we have solved problems for other humans. As befitting our Enlightenment and Industrial Era teachers, our base problem solving method - in product design, urban planning, programs, you name it - has revolved around a pretty basic process:
Traditional problem solving =Identify, analyze, create and apply solution at top, apply down.
In traditional problem solving methods (think scientific method or conventional top-down management), the entire process - from identifying the problem through rolling out the solution - is done by, or under the direct control of, a Leader - an expert, a senior person, the boss. With the exception of any research that’s beyond one person’s capacity, the entire process springs fully-formed from the mind of one person, or a small group of like minded and like-authorized people: the Leaders, the Experts.
Part of the breakthrough of design thinking was the idea that an intellectual Leader-driven analysis doesn’t always generate the most appropriate solution, particularly when the people who need the solution are in any way different from the Leaders. Design thinking emphasizes a deep and multi-dimensional understanding of the person for whom the solution is being deployed.
Design thinking supplements - and sometimes replaces - the conventional abstract analytical methods with striving to empathize with the person who will use or be impacted by the solution. What do they encounter? What do they experience that won’t show up in words or numbers? How do they grip the device? What visual improvements will lessen the sense of stigma that’s preventing some of them from using it?
A designer coming from this tradition will use the tools of an ethnographer as much or more than an artist or a biologist. They’ll do the same physical work as the subject. They’ll dig deep into the family and community context that shapes that experience. They’ll closely observe body language and other non-verbalized tools. They’ll process the information using methods that put insights into the lived experience at the center, even if quantitative data couldn’t measure it. And they will share learnings and initial concepts with the people that they are designing for, repeatedly.
Design thinking= Embed/empathize, synthesize (different tool set that relies on intuitive sense of resonance and pattern more than data), designers create/apply solution.
It would be hard to say that this isn’t a more humane way to solve problems. The huge negative impacts, the unintended consequences and damage - caused by dangerous 19th-century industrial looms, 20th-century failed public policies for third world poverty, and everything in between - can trace its root back to the arrogant assumption that Leaders knew how to design the thing right, without understanding the experience of the people who would be using it.
So Design Thinking represents a significant step toward solutions that are more likely to work for the people who most need them to work. Design Thinking recognizes that the “experts” don’t have all the information necessary to create an optimal solution, and that lived experience, including the emotional and subjective, is important to whether a solution works or not. If we are perceiving that the Fusion Age will require greater reliance on human creative and integrative potential, and networked rather than exclusively top-down problem-solving, then Design Thinking represents a beneficial method for unlocking more beneficial human creativity.
But this is where the “Fundamentally Conservative and Protects the Status Quo” part comes in.
As the author of that article, Natasha Iskander, notes,
Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty — like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster.
In other words, Dr. Iskander asserts that traditional “expert-ness,” at its core, is ill-suited to solving high-uncertainty issues -- the kinds of issues that seem to be of paramount importance, certainly in this moment at the beginning of the Fusion Era. And that Design Thinking doesn’t do enough to change the equation. The thesis: even if you’re engaging more actively with the subjects of your design work than you would have in the Industrial Era, your status as the “expert” is blocking us off from some portion of the innovation thinking that we need. If we are truly going to figure out solutions to our most urgent and vexing problems, we have to engage the inherent expert-ness of the people closest to the problem -- even, and perhaps especially when, our cultural knee-jerk reactions prevent us from seeing them as Experts.
It’s an extension of the common critique levelled at Industrial Era top-down solution design: you don’t know what you don’t know, oh Expert, and you’re blocking us all from impactful solutions as a result.
Years ago, I wrote a rather emphatic piece on how one of the paradigms of the New Urbanist planning and design movement had made colossal mistakes because he relied on his own “genius” and only grudgingly included the required public feedback in his plans. He asserted that designs would be much better if (I’m paraphrasing) the public would just get out of the way and let The Master do his work.
This passage talks in terms of real estate development, but I think those words are still relevant to Dr. Iskander’s point, and to the crucial challenge of meaningfully engaging everyone - not just our conventional Experts:
We should have learned by now that our Grand Visionary Designers are not infallible. Our landscapes are littered with Grand Visionary Architecture that was supposed to fix something, or create Something Big. And so few of those grand visions ever came out the way they were promised, or managed not to create a new set of problems....
This history is exactly why Duany is wrong about the importance of public participation. Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns. When residents resist a new development – even when they supposedly “don’t like change” – it doesn’t take many questions or much effort to develop a real understanding of their concerns and their point of view.
We fail consistently to realize that the locals are there every day and we are not. Local residents have a level of detail and a critical perspective that can make the difference between whether a proposed project supports the health of the community or creates a new burden….
Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know. That is the real mark of wisdom.
If the people who live around a proposed development oppose a development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are already all around us.
So we need a new set of methods, a Design Thinking 2.0, that meaningfully engages the insights of the people who are closest to the challenge we are trying to solve, and engages them all the way through, not just at the beginning or at a few special feedback points.
But how do we do that? It will take new methods, new systems, that we are just starting to figure out. More on that soon.