September’s edition of that venerable and elite journal of contemporary capitalism, the Harvard Business Review, is devoted to the evolution of something called “design thinking” and its role in current business practices. We are all likely familiar with the way in which design has come to play a central role in the viability of almost all consumer products, but perhaps less familiar with the way in which “design” has also recently become identified with an entire system of thinking and approaching problems. Design is no longer merely a necessary department in a corporate structure (a partner to “marketing” and “human resources”), but instead is rapidly playing an increasingly central role in management practices. So what is design thinking, and how might we respond to its uptake by corporate culture?
Briefly, design thinking simply means bringing methodologies, principles, and strategies that have evolved in the process of designing objects to bear on larger issues that do not necessarily involve objects at all. For example, when good designers approach a new project, they typically conduct considerable research in the field, looking at how objects are currently used and trying to empathize strongly with the needs and desires of users. “Solutions” are in some sense generated initially as a kind of wish list, and designers begin imagining ways in which these dreams can be realized (which is why it is sometimes called “solution focused” rather than “problem focused”). Wild “brainstorming” is one hallmark of a good design team, performed with a spirit of “anything goes,” even and including things that might go beyond the parameters of the original mission brief. Rapid prototyping is another central component, getting beta-test models into people’s hands and adapting quickly to feedback. Overall, the model is highly organic, venerating the ideas of mutation, iteration, and adaptation rather than efficiency and the discovery of a single correct solution. Instead of steadily, logically isolating all factors of a problem to arrive at a single inexorable answer (akin to a more “scientific” method), good designers iterate relentlessly, proceeding in multiple directions simultaneously and allowing accidents, chances, and unexpected combinations of previous ideas to appear. The object is constantly mutating, shedding or adding buttons and cables, adopting new inputs, growing, shrinking, changing color, or becoming more easily rechargeable.
Design thinking, then, brings something like this process to problems and issues beyond the creation of sleek objects or physical spaces. Designers today are also asked to design more abstract things such as “systems” and “experiences.” How, for example, might a visit to a hospital emergency room be designed so as to provide a minimally traumatic experience? How might school programs be designed to reduce childhood obesity? How might the development of electric-car infrastructure be designed so as to serve government, business, and consumer interests simultaneously? Even further removed, designers today must sometimes help design the systematic contexts in which their designs are ultimately to be realized, as the HBR cover story “Design for Action” explains. Because innovative products and ideas can “encounter stiff resistance from their intended beneficiaries” (Brown & Martin, p. 59), particularly in contexts in which various stakeholders have a vested interest in traditional ways of doing things, designers must now design ways to lessen this resistance and allow innovation to happen more fluidly. If a corporate structure is part of what holds a corporation back from producing innovative solutions, then its structure might be in need of redesign, or if traditional advertising strategies fail to win consumer approval, new ways in which companies and consumers relate to one another might be reimagined. What, then, are we to make of these recent developments?
On the one hand, it is quite easy to celebrate the many well-publicized success stories of design thinking and see in them considerable hope for the future. David Kelly, founder of design powerhouse IDEO, gave a Ted Talk in 2007 on the subject of “human-centered design,” and used as an illustration the tremendous work of ApproTec (today operating as “Kickstart”), which designed inexpensive irrigation pumps to increase the income of very poor African farmers. Or consider the extraordinarily ambitious work of Participle, whose “objective is to transform the way public services are designed and delivered, laying the foundation for a new kind of welfare state that starts with people: their everyday lives, hopes and dreams.” Even more ambitiously, the HBR article details the complex strategy of Carlos Rodríguez-Pastor, the CEO of Peru’s Intercorp Group, for “designing a new Peru,” one that has a better distribution of wealth and a more developed middle class.
Many of the examples available, and the general tenor of the rhetoric, suggest that design thinking leads to a world in which creative people are using their imaginations to make the world, actively and practically, a better place. Its pioneers, people such as Tim Brown (current CEO of IDEO and likely the most well-known figure in the area), are encouraging designers to “think big” and reject the idea that design is merely a tool for fabricating consumer goods. If this is what design thinking is all about, and if it is indeed enjoying a golden age, it is not hard to imagine in the future a small army of intelligent, imaginative, empathetic problem solvers tackling difficult real-world problems. This is what makes the image of design thinking so attractive — it is placed squarely between the efficient but generally amoral, rigid, and ponderous activity of the sciences and the idealistic, but generally impractical, abstract, and ineffective activities of the humanities. Through this lens, the adoption of design thinking by the business community might well be seen as indicating the possibility of a more creative, empathetic, imaginative spirit of capitalism around the corner.
On the other hand, or perhaps through another lens, the proximity of creative designers and corporate management can be seen in a more sinister light. Rather than rebelling against the status quo and providing some measure of countercultural resistance (one of the roles traditionally associated with certain corners of creative practice), part of me cannot help but feel that today’s most creative minds are being channeled into serving the interests of big business and that this recent development is nothing more than the capstone on a history of the institutionalization of creative practice.
Supporting this claim requires a brief detour into the history of this institutionalization. I acknowledge that creative practice, at least in the form of capital-A “Art,” has long been associated with institutions of one sort of another, from, say, the academies in which artists were trained to the salons in which their work was exhibited. At the same time, since at least the creation of the Salon des Refusés in 1863, Western art has also been associated with the idea of challenging mainstream conventions. During the height of avant-garde practice, for example, manifestos were written damning to various hells the perceived banality of the bourgeoisie and demanding the generation of new, authentic cultural practices. This critical spirit of resistance is very evident at least up to the activity of Guy Debord and the Situationist International and can be seen lingering in various forms today (in artists as diverse as Barbara Kruger, Tracey Emin, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano). Art, in such circles, challenges “middle-class values,” opposes mass conformism, and demands the recognition of values outside those of the commercial sphere.
In fairness, this idea of the artist as outsider, as singular genius-rebel tearing apart the status quo, has its fair share of critics, especially now. Certainly not all artists fit this bill (for every Emily Carr we can likely find a Thomas Kinkade), and many who attempt to claim this mantle of rebelliousness can perhaps be exposed as hypocrites, failures, or generators of mere “arty-bollocks.” Nevertheless, the association of artistic activity with a spirit of non-conformity and resistance to the mainstream (particularly in the form of rampant consumerism) remains one of the animating forces of contemporary culture. Myths need not be entirely true to be powerful.
Yet, in the midst of the turbulent history of post-World War II art and its rebellious spirit, new institutional models emerged. The most important of these were the new conception of art education and the expanded adoption of the fine arts by universities. Obviously there were art schools before the 1950s (the “academy” was, after all, what Manet and his pals were rebelling against), but in this postwar period, art became increasingly accepted as part of post-secondary curriculum, similar to the incorporation of linguistics or comparative literature. Of even more significance, graduate programs began appearing all over North America. The path to artisthood, once a rather mysterious and alchemical business of “finding one’s voice,” became increasingly clear and well trodden. If you wanted to be a banker, you did an MBA at Harvard, and if you wanted to be an artist, you did an MFA at Yale. Different job title, but same institutional script. Today the MFA degree is ubiquitous, and students (no longer “aspiring artists,” but “students” like all others) compete aggressively as does everyone else for the honor of obtaining degrees from the “highest-ranked” departments. As a further by-product, with the professionalization of “the artist” through post-secondary education, educational institutions invented a cornucopia of multidisciplinary degrees to create licensed curators, critics, managers, advisors, and all the myriad titles of art “professionals,” such that now one can hardly hang an IKEA print in one’s living room without considering a degree in “art handling” from somewhere or other.
The spectacular rise of the MFA degree and its role in transforming the conception of the artist is worthy of extended reflection, but here I want to draw attention to another, equally significant moment in the institutionalization of creative practice. At some point in the 1990s, the tendency of art schools to recognize the importance of “design education” reached a high point, and art schools that had not already done so in the 1960s suddenly added the letter “D” to their acronyms. The Such-and-Such College of Art became the Such-and-Such College of Art and Design. Incoming creative spirits could now choose between “fine” art (real art?) and the more practical alternative of something called “design.” I was fortunate enough to be teaching at one such college at precisely this time and encountered many students who were torn by the dichotomy with which they were suddenly presented. What, exactly, was the difference between art and design, except that one led to better job prospects? Why was “illustration” venerated in one studio while lambasted in another? Frequently, students opted for the “safer” design stream, operating on the reasoning that through it they would likely be more employable but could still be just as creative. Even though they might have had green hair or other outward expressions of rejecting the normalcy of middle-class values, young creative types now aspired, essentially, to cater to those same values by making cool teapots, mouse pads, logos, fonts, and computer games. Creative youths had their energies channeled from foolish, self-directed, perhaps grandiose and ephemeral activities (such as painting or installation art) to practical, valuable contributions for the economic marketplace (such as making funkier webcams and designing rounder toasters).
In my version of the story so far, we see a textbook example of the manner in which “capitalism” is able to absorb critique. Creative energy in the form of art, once perceived as a key domain of resistance, became professionalized and normalized through educational institutionalization and then transformed at least partially into more practical “design,” much of which then became nothing other than “the creation of elaborate Christmas gifts,” to use the apologetic phrase of design superstar Philippe Starck.
From this point of view, my claim that design thinking represents just one more chapter in this history of the institutionalization of creative practice should be more comprehensible. Not only have artsy-types turned from gestures of critique to designing expensive toilet brushes, in this most recent development they are even being invited to help change the minds of those “intended beneficiaries” who might put up some “stiff resistance” to new business practices. Rather than their traditional role of providing resistance, “artists” (now in the guise of “designers”) are asked to help reduce it. In spite of the numerous examples of tremendously laudable projects embarked on by visionary design thinkers, it seems to me that emphasizing such examples obscures the reasons big businesses are interested in design and its practices. General Electric and IBM (two companies cited by the HBR as exemplars of design-centric thinking — IBM alone plans on hiring a staggering 1,000 new designers) are not first and foremost out to make the world a kinder, cleaner, gentler place, but to deliver rewards to shareholders. In this sense, the uptake of design thinking by big business represents a distasteful instrumentalization: playfulness, creativity, imagination — all are now just as much seen as new tools to further corporate interests as historic approaches to tackle pressing human problems.
Furthermore, design thinking, in so far is it is concerned with designing “experiences” and “systems,” is at least in part about developing competency in rendering currently unpleasant experiences more palatable. When it comes to things such as emergency room visits, this must be seen as a generally positive development. Yet in some cases, a negative response to something is entirely appropriate, and attempts to redesign our responses are at the very least morally ambiguous. The prison system in the United States is most certainly in need of reform, but I hope we remain resistant to the idea of for-profit prisons, no matter how imaginatively they are designed, or how ingeniously designed is the “system” for assuring their eventual public acceptance. To put the point even more succinctly: death row needs to be abolished, not redesigned.
It is important to note that these criticisms (or concerns) are not so much about design thinking per se, as they are about its uptake into broader cultural and commercial spheres. My point, put most straightforwardly, is that design thinking as practiced in certain forms can evidently be seen as a force of positive change, yet we must also see that is just as easily a tool for advancing mundane corporate interests in profit, power, market share, and so forth. But even if I acknowledge that to some large extent an evaluation of design thinking depends on the purpose for which it is used, a more contentious worry remains, one that in a sense goes back to the general historical tension between art and design.
The ongoing recognition by commercial interests of the value of design (and its mode of thinking) is further recognition of the idea that value is to be ultimately equated with utility. Imagination, creativity, and playfulness are no longer valuable in and of themselves, but rather considered valuable because they can streamline, enhance, and possibly monetize our systems of living. I am reminded of newspaper articles that appear from time to time explaining how students of philosophy or the humanities in general always score the highest in business exams and are generally in great demand by wise headhunters in the business sector (for a recent example, see Gerry Turcotte in the Calgary Herald). But the fact remains that most people who get seriously into something such as philosophy do so not because it might get them a good job in the oil industry, but because they see it as intrinsically valuable and rewarding.
The same holds true of creative practices. Manifestations of creative impulses are valuable even (perhaps especially) when they are useless, and it is this sense more than any other that disturbs me by the HBR cover. I cannot get over my sense that activity singularly defined by its ultimate uselessness, its inefficient excess, its foundational impracticality has been so thoroughly transmuted into its opposite, in which it is not merely made to serve commercial interests (which, admittedly, has always been part of its nature), but now is coming to form the heart and soul of those interests in manufacturing smoother systems of exchange.
Now, arguing for the benefits of creative uselessness is a complex task with a long history, one I cannot here satisfactorily undertake. Suffice it to say that the expenditure of creative energies can lead to activities and experiences valuable not because they increase profits, overcome the resistance of stubborn beneficiaries, or even improve water quality, but because they enliven us. The growing closeness between the cultures of corporate management and innovate design might well lead to some wonderful new calculations of overall utility (at least some of the time), but there is a risk that it may also lead to a narrowing of vision for aspiring visionaries and the creation of a talent pipeline funneling future genius into zones of mere practicality.
Without question, we need skilled design thinkers, philanthropists, and conscientious capitalists to turn their thoughts to practical solutions for the world’s toughest problems. Also without question, we need to be wary of any and all strategies designed to overcome our stiff resistance to various changes, even (especially) when they are loudly argued to be “in our best interests.” Yet, I like to hope that we do not yet entirely doubt the value of encouraging people, even through our institutional structures, to engage in thoroughly impractical activities, at least some of the time. The great insight of design thinking might be simply summarized: “Playfulness can be useful.” Well and good, but let us not forget the more important insight — it can also be totally, marvelously, joyfully useless.
Brown, Tim and Roger Martin. 2015. Design for Action. Harvard Business Review Sept.:58-64.
Kolko, Jon. 2015. Design Thinking Comes of Age. Harvard Business Review Sept.:68-71.