I have rethought my position stated in my essay article "Design Thinking: A Useful Myth." I still stand by the major points of the earlier essay, but I have changed the conclusion. As a result, the essay should really be titled: "Design Thinking: An Essential Tool." Let me explain.
When What Is Natural For Some Is Not for Others: Culture and Design. I was in Asia, giving a talk. I was given a remote controller for advancing my slides. This one had with two buttons, one above the other. When I pushed the upper button to advance to the slide, I was flustered: I went backwards through my slide set, not forward. "How could this happen?" I wondered. To me, top obviously means forward, bottom backwards. I decided to ask the audience what they thought: To my great surprise, the audience was split in their responses. Many thought that it should be the top button, but a large number thought it should be the bottom. But there is more. This is a point of view question, one that has plagued designers for years (which moves? The text or the window?) Different cultures have very different points of view. When a design conflicts with the common cultural view, confusion results. (Article posted at core77.com and jnd.org. bit.ly/NZckqz )
Like many of you, I live in the 21st century, a time when society is recognizing the damage done to the environment through our inattention to the side effects of our technologies. But one specialized niche of the world still lives in the 20th century: those who write the automobile reviews for magazines and newspapers. Why do automobile reviewers still emphasize appearance (styling), speed, and performance at high speed, often to the exclusion of all else? It is time for a change. Let's have reviewers who do not dwell on the latest exterior design details, horsepower, or acceleration. Let's have reviews addressed to real people and families, reviews that emphasize the environment and the health and safety of both drivers and passengers. Time to enter the 21st Century.
Does culture matter for product design? For the world of mass-produced products, that is, for the world of industrial design, culture might be far less important than we might have expected. Is this really true, and if so, is this a positive or negative finding?
We are now in the 21st century, but design curricula seem stuck in the mid 20th century. In the 21st century, design has broadened to include interaction and experience, services and strategies. The technologies are more sophisticated, involving advanced materials, computation, communication, sensors, and actuators. The products and services have complex interactions that have to be self-explanatory, sometimes involving other people separated by time or distance. Traditional design activities have to be supplemented with an understanding of technology, business, and human psychology. With all these changes, one would expect major changes in design education. Nope. Design education is led by craftspeople who are proud of their skills and they see no reason to change. Design education is mired in the past.
At the start of almost every technology transition, chaos rules. Competing competitors create confusion, often quite deliberate, as they develop their own unique way of doing things incompatible with all others. Today, the long-established, well-learned model of scrolling is being changed by one vendor, but not by others. Gestures proliferate, with no standards, no easy way of being reminded of them, new easy way to learn. Change is important, for it is how we make progress. Some confusion is to be expected. But many of the changes and the resulting confusions of today seem arbitrary and capricious.
Think before acting. Sounds right, doesn't it? Think before starting to design. Yup. Do some research, learn more about the requirements, the people, the activities. Then design. It all makes sense. Which is precisely why I wish to challenge it. Sometimes it makes sense to act first, think afterwards.
I frequently find myself in a state of simultaneous dismay and delightful admiration about the end product of designers. This state can be described by contrasting the way a designer and an engineer would solve the same problem. Designers evoke great delight in their work. Engineers provide utilitarian value. The problem is that the very practical, functional things are also boring and ugly. Good designers would never allow boring and ugly to describe their work: they strive to produce delight. But sometimes that delightful result is not very practical, difficult to use, and not completely functional. Practical versus delightful: Which do you prefer? Designers approach the world with charming naiveté, coupled with artistic elegance and the art of examining issues in novel, unconstrained ways. Their solutions provide a graceful elegance and new insight, perhaps because of their lack of knowledge, their naiveté. Designers are trained as craftspeople, without any substantive knowledge of the content areas in which they do their work. This very lack of knowledge can produce profound insights that lead to advances in understanding, hence my delight. Having too much knowledge can lead to following the failed footsteps of those who preceded you.
I have seen the future, and if it turns out the way it is headed, I am opposed. I fear our free and continual access to information and services is doomed to be replaced by tightly controlled gardens of exclusivity. It is time to rethink the present, for it determines the future.
I am forced to read a lot of crap. As a reviewer of submissions to design journals and conferences, as a juror of design contests, and as a mentor and advisor to design students and faculty, I read outrageous claims made by designers who have little understanding of the complexity of the problems they are attempting to solve or of the standards of evidence required to make claims. Oftentimes the crap comes from brilliant and talented people, with good ideas and wonderful instantiations of physical products, concepts, or simulations. The crap is in the claims. In the early days of industrial design, the work was primarily focused upon physical products. Today, however, designers work on organizational structure and social problems, on interaction, service, and experience design. Many problems involve complex social and political issues. As a result, designers have become applied behavioral scientists, but they are woefully undereducated for the task. Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable. Designers often lack the requisite understanding. Design schools do not train students about these complex issues, about the interlocking complexities of human and social behavior, about the behavioral sciences, technology, and business. There is little or no training in science, the scientific method, and experimental design.
There is a trend to eliminate designers. Who needs them when we can simply test our way to success? The excitement of powerful, captivating design is defined as irrelevant. Worse, the nature of design is in danger. Design by comparison of competing alternatives is design by hill climbing. It will get you to the top of the current hill. It will never get you to the highest hill.
Designers are proud of their ability to innovate, to think outside the box, to develop creative, powerful ideas for their clients. Sometimes these ideas win design prizes. However, the rate at which these ideas achieve commercial success is low. Many of the ideas die within the companies, never becoming a product. Among those that become products, a good number never reach commercial success. Ideas are just the starting point toward product realization. New product ideas have to fit the competencies of the corporation. They have to fit within the existing family or products, or at least the product strategy. The purchasers of new products have to be prepared. The costs must be contained. The technology must be up to it. The same people who the new ideas are intended to supplant and go around are now responsible for executing the ideas. No wonder so many good ideas fail.
Every year the world holds many contests for industrial designers. Lots of submissions, lots of time spent by jurors reviewing them, lots of pretty pictures afterwards. Fun to read, wonderful for the winners. What's the problem? I have been a juror for a number of contests, including the major American yearly contest sponsored by the Industrial Design Society of America, IDSA, and BusinessWeek. Although I always enjoyed the experience and the interaction with talented, hard-working fellow jurors, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the results. Why are shows bad? Shouldn't we reward good design? Sure, if that's what the shows accomplish, but they don't. In fact, I believe they do harm to the profession. (Opening sentences of my Core77 column.)
Design thinking is not special to design. Great artists, great engineers, great scientists all break out of the boundaries. Great designers are no different. Why perpetuate the myth of design thinking if it is so clearly false? Because it is useful. Design thinking is a powerful public relations term that changes the way in which design firms are viewed. So, long live the phrase "design thinking." It will help in the transformation of design from the world of form and style to that of function and structure. It will help spread the word that designers can add value to almost any problem, from healthcare to pollution, business strategy and company organization.
- All Books
- The Design of Everyday Things, Revised and Expanded Edition
- Living with complexity
- The Design of Future Things
- Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things
- The invisible computer
- Things That Make us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine
- Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles
- The Design of Everyday Things