The “Design Thinking” Delusion

Tim Seitz
Adam Baltner

A corporate management technique called "design thinking" promises a frictionless path to saving the world, one brilliant idea at a time. It's a neoliberal dream — but it’s making its way into politics.

Participants in the NoTosh and ISV Design Thinking Incubator discuss ideas using the design thinking model in Melbourne, Australia. Ewan McIntosh / Flickr

A smattering of corporate employees huddles excitedly around standing tables. If everything goes according to plan, ideas will start coming to them at any moment — guaranteed. After all, they’re participating in a “design thinking” workshop, and that’s what happens at these events.

As an organizational method and management technique, design thinking focuses on bringing people together in small groups to brainstorm solutions to problems. At the same time, it sees all kinds of problems as resulting from a lack of creativity and innovation — rather than any sort of, say, underlying social structures. Ultimately, design thinking reduces the horizon of social possibility to fit the objectives of corporate product development and marketing.

Design thinking first emerged as an innovation method or problem-solving concept around the global consulting firm “IDEO.” Since 2005, supplementary courses in design thinking have been offered to recent graduates by so-called “d.schools” hosted at Stanford University, the University of Potsdam in Germany since 2007, and the University of Cape Town, South Africa since 2016. Courses teach participants to “think creatively,” graduating from the schools as so-called “innovation consultants” and carrying with them into the world a mindset that thinks not in terms of problems but rather in terms of challenges and speedy solutions.

Design thinking is now in high demand as a corporate workshop format and service, marketed to companies large and small seeking to boost employee “innovation.” Yet increasingly, the concept is moving beyond the confines of the business world and into the realm of politics, where it promises to make political engagement an entertaining and effortless endeavor that changes things, rather than one characterized by difficult, protracted struggles or conflicts.

“You’re Just Too Good to Be True…”

Design thinking is so popular precisely because it responds directly to people’s feelings of disorientation and powerlessness caused by the intractable complexity of modern societies, as well as by existential threats such as climate change. But while design thinking may claim to enable people to “effectively navigate the complex tasks of our times,” these workshops actually radically erase levels of complexity in order to make challenges of all sizes appear compartmentalizable and manageable.

This approach motivates participants and encourages them to believe in the power of their own ideas. This aspect is important in the context of design thinking workshops, as each workshop — regardless whether its stated goal is to develop an innovative toothbrush or to combat global poverty — culminates in the presentation of a concrete idea. This gives participants a sense of closure, not to mention something tangible to point to as evidence of the effectiveness of their work. The idea serves as a symbol of their capacity to act — as long as it isn’t subjected to too much scrutiny.

Design thinking workshops have a strongly improvisational character. Work takes place under time constraints that preclude breaks or reflection. The evaluation of ideas is outsourced via tests to potential users who make recommendations for improvements according to the “I Like, I Wish, What If” format associated with the Stanford d.school. This information then flows back into the process, which moves forward without ever allowing for the ideas being fleshed out to be subjected to a more fundamental interrogation.

The task of the design thinkers is limited to noting thoughts on post-it notes as they pop into the thinkers’ heads. The thinkers themselves are seen as endlessly gushing springs of new, innovative ideas; their creative potential as something to be unleashed by design thinking. The design thinking process thus appears as a dynamic data-processing machine that transforms creativity and permanent feedback into ideas for solving real-world problems.

 

Saving the World the Easy Way

The problems addressed in design thinking workshops are inevitably presented as easily solvable puzzles, because they have to function as molds into which corresponding solutions can be cast. This is the only way that a fit between problem and solution can be generated, and hence, that design thinking can gain its veneer of sophistication as a way of thinking.

One example of this can be seen in a project carried out at the Potsdam d.school for the ostensible purpose of improving the situations of homeless people. This project resulted in the creation of the “Who am I” card, a tool to assist homeless people with advertising their knowledge and skills, thereby ostensibly empowering them to help themselves.

Through the lens of the solution proffered by the “Who am I” card, the problem of homelessness appears as the consequence of individual shortcomings that can be compensated for by spurring those affected into action. That this reduces the social problem of homelessness in grotesque fashion, effectively depicting homeless people as entirely at fault for their situation and doing nothing to alleviate the myriad social problems that produce homelessness, should be obvious.

Yet as long as people do not fundamentally question the solutions generated in these workshops, design thinking can present itself as a means for improving the world. Since actually putting these ideas into practice is not part of the design thinking concept, there’s no moment of truth in which design thinking can be effectively measured by its output. As long as compelling stories about the “solutions” it generates sound impressive, the trick works, and design thinking maintains its aura of legitimacy as an approach to problem solving.

To those who’ve bought into the hype, it’s only logical that design thinking shouldn’t be limited to use in commercial organizations and product development. After all, if design thinking’s problem-solving potential is real, why not apply it to pressing social issues? As one common refrain in design thinking circles goes, rather than simply attending a protest every once in a whole, wouldn’t it be better to spend one’s time and energy doing something that actually effects change?

Here, design thinking’s propensity to systematically erase structures of social and political power becomes painfully clear. As a conceptual framework, it is simply incapable of analyzing social issues as the result of exploitative relations or conflicts of interest. Disagreements, lengthy disputes, and difficult compromises are not an option in design thinking, as acknowledging their existence would necessitate addressing their underlying structures. However, this in turn would conflict with design thinking’s ideal, according to which problems are solved by creative individuals blurting out clever ideas.

Politics Without All the Hard Work

Design thinking’s self-image is displayed prominently in a workshop series organized by the alumni network of the Potsdam d.school that seeks to use the method to foster political engagement. Redesign Democracy describes itself as “a workshop for people who want to do something but don’t know exactly what and how.” During its sessions, participants set out in search of one of the world’s many problems to adopt as their focus. In this configuration, participants appear as privileged, empathetic beings devoid of self-interest who enter the political stage only to unleash the power of design thinking when other people have problems.

The goal of Redesign Democracy is to move participants from “talking to doing,” to help them get the ball rolling on things which society has chosen to neglect. Yet experiencing this approach as the immediate empowerment it claims to be necessitates a worldview that promises easy solutions and actively disdains dealing with “bureaucracy and calcified structures.” Of course, not everyone can afford such a carefree worldview.

Redesign Democracy will appeal above all to people who enjoy indulging in fantasies of omnipotence and are themselves not personally affected by the problems they seek to “solve.” It is a means by which the self-image of a creative elite is cultivated, an elite that fancies itself as standing above the fray, improving society from its privileged position without getting its hands dirty. But who decided that design thinkers should serve as society’s innovation department?

Addressing social ills in this way is like doing politics to a soundtrack filled with the soulless, affirmational pop music of German slam-poet-cum-singer-songwriter Julia Engelmann, who exhorts in her current single: “Don’t wait, just go forward, never backward” and “Nothing good exists unless you go out and do it!” According to this logic, social misery and suffering arise — without exception — from the downtrodden’s overly pessimistic outlook.

Design thinking workshops leave participants feeling like they’ve done their part to make the world a little bit better for the day, and can now turn their attention to other things. So much for politics as the “slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber once described it — design thinking and Redesign Democracy have abandoned this notion entirely. Preferring to avoid boring altogether, design thinkers instead like to imagine themselves as gliding effortlessly through these boards, while simultaneously chanting in unison: “This board is not hard. This board is not hard. This. Board. Is. Not. Hard.”