• Lee-Sean Huang

Yes, Design Thinking Is Bullshit…And We Should Promote It Anyway

Our Guest blogger this week is my Parsons University colleague Lee-Sean Huang.

Design Thinking is indeed a buzzword, and it’s also a useful starting point for deeper understanding. In her recent talk at 99U’s Conference in New York, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen throws some provocative thought-bombs at Design Thinking.

I teach Design Thinking in places ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to universities. In some ways, I agree with Natasha: Design Thinking is (sometimes) bullshit. But I also think it’s useful bullshit.

Before we go any further, here’s my working definition of Design Thinking:Design Thinking: a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems. Natasha calls Design Thinking a “buzzword,” accuses it of being obsessed with a single tool (Post-It Notes), and claims that it lacks the rigor of expert “crit” (critique) and proof. Check out Natasha’s video yourself:Here’s Natasha’s definition of Design Thinking: Reading between the lines, I can see how expert designers like Natasha are concerned about the proliferation of Design Thinking. If anyone and everyone can “design think” to solve any problem, what makes professional designers special? (Besides our fancy design industry conferences, of course)

The tension is clear: serious, critical expert designers versus amateur design thinkers with their babbling buzzwords and bubbling positivity. A recipe is not a substitute for expert technique. Let’s think of Design Thinking as a recipe. Even if a Michelin-starred chef were to reveal their best recipes to us, we as amateur cooks would not have the capacity (skills, technique, craft, intuition, expertise) to be able to make the same quality of food.Think of it in terms of this equation:Recipe x Capacity = Results Multiply the method (the recipe) by your ability to deliver (capacity), and the results are the potential dent you make in solving a given problem.

Design Thinking may offer up some of the problem-solving recipes from the designer cookbook, but novices still have to take the time to develop their capacity to get the same results as an expert. Design Thinking is more than Post-Its Natasha did a Google Image Search for “Design Thinking” and saw a bunch of pictures of Post-It Notes. She doesn’t seem to like Post-Its and the audience chuckles in agreement. But Post-Its are just tools, not the sum total of Design Thinking. In the same way, Magritte’s painting of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe. It would be absurd to call out graphic designers for their singular obsession with tools from the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.). You can still practice graphic design even if you don’t use the most popular tools of the trade. Use of a certain tool does not define an entire discipline.Post-its are popular tools for transcribing and organizing ideas, but Design Thinking works with or without them. Use recycled paper instead. Write on papyrus, parchment, or cuneiform tablets even! Whatever works for you. Critique isn’t in a hexagon, but it’s baked into the process Natasha derided the hexagons (exhibit below) that are commonly used to visualize the Design Thinking process. The audience chuckled. There is no need to argue with one’s polygon preferences, so I’ll move on.One of Natasha’s principal points against Design Thinking is its perceived lack of crit (critique): “Crit is completely missing from this process”. — Natasha Jen“Critique” isn’t written in one of the hexagons below, but it is baked into the Design Thinking process every step of the way:

EMPATHIZE: Empathizing with people (“users” in Design Thinking parlance) requires open-minded and open-hearted listening and observation without judgement, but it also requires critical understanding of how to conduct user interviews and information. We need to be critical when deciding what user information is relevant, and which insights are useful and actionable.

DEFINE: Defining a problem requires critical discussions about what is the real problem to be solved, and how the problem should be framed.

IDEATE: Ideation involves open-ended “yes, and…” brainstorming (and yes, there are often Post-Its involved) as well as more critical periods of whittling down ideas into the best ones to move forward.

PROTOTYPE: Prototyping is the time to make something rough. Maybe it sucks the first time around. But whatever we make serves as a communications tool for receiving critique and feedback.

TEST: The testing phase embodies much of the spirit of design critique. This is where we actually get feedback from our peers, fellow designers/design thinkers, as well as from our target users. From there we go back to the drawing board or the drafting table and continue until we get it right.

There is space for critique and feedback throughout the entire Design Thinking process, even if it’s not written in a hexagon. When we teach design thinking to beginners in our workshops, we pair students with expert coaches to provide critique and guidance when necessary. But coaches also know when to hang back when the time is right for students to foster their own creativity and to learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again. Design Thinking is a method and a mindset of shifting between open-ended “yes, and” and more critical “no, but” thinking and doing.

When Design Thinking is done right, critique is baked in along the way. Design Thinking is a means, not an end As the Buddha teaches, “the raft is not the shore.”Design Thinking is a starting point, a tool, a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. Design Thinking may be bullshit, but it can be useful bullshit.

The article first appeared in Linkedin. You may read the full article here: