Design Stinking


Thank you, Helen Walters, for your thoughtful piece on Design Thinking in FastCompany. In contrast, I will take a shorter, more scatological path to explaining why I think we need to stop this “exciting new phenomenon” before it kills its host.

First, it’s pretentious and unable to withstand scrutiny. How did all the invention that took place before this trope was born occur? What was Leonardo using as a method? Years ago, Jerry Mann, then president of Seagrams, told me that a new tequila I was helping them launch was a “Barbie Doll Tequila”. That it needed credentials and that our job was to develop them. This is what Design Thinking feels like to me.

Second, it barely hides the insecurity that inspired it, which is usually the case with pretension. Isn’t design supposed to be thinking in the first place? What’s the need for redundancy if we didn’t have to be for sure for sure that people know there is a legitimate process behind it? For me, this falls into the same category as “Quality Inn” and “Dependable Dry Cleaners”; flagging a weakness by denying it before people have a chance to figure it out for themselves.

Third, it’s dangerous in several ways. Instead of making design a more integral, universal and respected part of business, it creates another silo, another separation. Another category of specialists that builds one more barrier to the kind of real systems thinking we need to survive.

It lulls people into thinking they are being creative when they are not. It harbors procrastination and stereotypical thinking, substitutes process for real invention. It robs design of dimension by placing it solely in the world of the brain when design is much more than rational thinking – it is emotion and intuition and sensing and gut. When does a process become dogma? And why is our culture so afraid of the feminine energy? (Don’t answer that, I already know.)

It becomes another bit of ideology that makes it even harder for business to embrace a truly original thinker.
I do not believe, with Helen, that there are only a few designers who have earned the trust of business leaders, I believe there are many. I just don’t think these people call themselves designers any more. Perhaps this is a more relevant problem to look at, and to solve.

I like design stinking better than design thinking because when you stink at something, you at least admit there is much more to learn.


8 Responses to “Design Stinking”

  1. 1 Gregor

    hey – love the topic…

    we frame “design” through the frame, the epistemology, most common. We have been entrenched in the Baconian (Francis Bacon) mechanistic “design-epistemology” for centuries. It was once said (J. Rifkin) had we not bought the Bacon and had found Goethean epistemology (Goethe’s science) we would be “designing” from a frame that would probably not be leading to absolute poverty of earth systems, rather be “designing” for higher and higher levels of consciousness which if you are trying to frame in your Baconian riff will only get you nothing – and if you were designing from a Goethean frame would…

    So the question about design is for naught if design is still within the frame that designed it…

  2. Two words, thank you.

  3. 3 Matthew Holloway

    Hello Cheryl,
    I found your post via Core77… While I can see both sides of the Design Thinking argument–and in fact once felt pretty much the same as you regarding the concept–I wish you had some examples to back your post.

    Personally, while I also had serious doubts about Design Thinking when I initially encountered it, I dove in with both feet and as a result I have a very different experience with it regarding silos, scrutiny, and innovation. Having successfully achieved the removal of silos, increased executive understanding of design its and strategic role with in the organization and worked with diverse teams achieve a high degree of systems and integrative thinking–basically teams that by all outward appearance should not be creative, transform into highly creative teams.

    My experience with Design Thinking may have been unique, in my experience Design Thinking was never meant to replace Design (as in IDSA/AIGA/DMI/Core77 kind of design) rather it was meant as a communication/training tools making Design accessible to the organization by showing HOW the artifacts/brands/experiences that Designers create came to be and to provide a framework for assessing its position with the larger corporate strategy. In short it allowed Design’s value to be better understood.


  4. Couple of years ago I thought I could offer design think services in my work until I realised its just a new name for the creative process that is part of Design. Design Thinking now stands for me for a movement that thinks that creativity can be applied on all aspects of business, the golden nugget to play the game consultants used to play. But following it closely I see not the design thinking delivering quality but good designers who use design thinking to come up with great products, services, business models and more…. Unfortunatly I also see a lot of people who talk a lot but have not been able to show me something tangable they created. Talk talk talk…. Benjamin Franklin said it wisely: “judge people not for what they say but for what they do”

    Cheers, Ron

  5. Thanks. I agree so much.

  6. 6 Robert

    Thank you for verbalizing all of my thoughts on this matter, and for doing it so well.

  7. I hear you, it does sound pretentious.

    I hated it from the get go.

    Isn’t design already a thinking practice? *sigh*

    But why try to kill a good conversation?

    The back lash from Design against design thinking smacks more of insecurity from the status quo then anything else. Sure, designers who really understand the power of design don’t need the term, but perhaps it has its uses, no?

    Design thinking, a poorly defined marketing message from IDEO gone viral, has generated some pretty great discussions about how design plays a role in innovation, business and interdisciplinary team work. That is what it was always meant to do.

    Design itself already has a pretty bad case of pretention so I am not sure that design thinking can hurt its image with business folks.

    Design thinking, as I know it, is about combining design, business and social science in a way that helps create a powerful chain of logic to build a better design case and business case.

    As a graduate of SVA’s graphic design program I never heard anything close to that being presented. I think it is getting better and was assuredly different in other institutions but there was no discussion of how design solves business problems other than animating market research.

    I would suggest there is room for more and design thinking seems to be a really nice olive branch to business leaders. Design thinkers that I know actively seek to combine business and design languages and creates a space for conversation rather than expertise and hand holding from designers.

    I would argue that it needs more discussion, not less.

    People are doing great work will always overcome the popular language of the day. They will shine and be able to present in the language that gets them where they want to go.

    That said, almost by definition truly original thinkers will always be misunderstood.

  1. 1 Design Stinking « larry b's as of today

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