January 27, 2010
While ruminating about the current vogue for "design thinking" and about how this trend is suddenly bothering me, I ran across this article by Peter Meholz, which ran in the Harvard Business Review last October.
I could not agree with him more.
Here's Meholz's post in its entirety:
Why Design Thinking Won't Save You
Whenever I see a business magazine glow about design thinking, as BusinessWeek has done recently with this special report, and which Harvard Business Review did last year it gets my dander up. Not because I don't see the value of design (I started a company dedicated to experience design), but because the discussion in such articles is inevitably so fetishistic, and sadly limited.
Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation. The idea is that the left-brained, MBA-trained, spreadsheet-driven crowd has squeezed all the value they can out of their methods. To fix things, all you need to do is apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing "creatives," "ideating" tons of concepts and creating new opportunities for value out of whole cloth.
The first thing that's distressing about this is the dismissal of the spreadsheet crowd. Should they be the sole voice? No. Can they contribute meaningfully? Hell, yeah. In the BusinessWeek piece there's a slide show identifying the 21 people who will change business. I'm thrilled that among the chosen is my colleague and co-author, Brandon Schauer. Brandon is an excellent designer, but it's important to recognize that key to his ability to identify innovations is that he has two master's degrees, and one of them is the now-dreaded MBA. Design thinking alone is not sufficient, but when mixed with solid business thinking, it can produce a combustible mixture.
But talking about only "design thinking" and "business thinking" is limiting. Me? My degree is in anthropology. And a not-so-secret truth about "design thinking" is that a big chunk of it is actually "social science thinking." Design thinkers talk about being "human-centered" and "empathic," and the tools they use to achieve that are methods borrowed from anthropology and sociology. Believe me, until very recently, they didn't teach customer research at design schools. In fact, when I began working in this field, the practice of design was remarkably solipsistic — I'd have to harangue designers to care about the person using what we created.
However, that's still not enough. Two of Adaptive Path's founders, Jesse James Garrett and Jeffrey Veen, were trained in journalism. And much of our company's success has been in utilizing journalistic approaches to gathering information, winnowing it down, finding the core narrative, and telling it concisely. So business can definitely benefit from such "journalism thinking."
But wait — there's more! We have librarians, and historians, and fine artists. All of these disciplinary backgrounds allow people to bring distinct perspectives to our work, allowing for insights that wouldn't be achieved if we were all cut from the same cloth. Do we need to espouse "library thinking," "history thinking," and "arts thinking?" Should we look at Steve Jobs' background, and say what business needs is more "calligraphic thinking?"
Obviously, this is getting absurd, but that's the point. The supposed dichotomy between "business thinking" and "design thinking" is foolish. It's like the line from The Blues Brothers, in response to the question "What kind of music do you usually have here?", the woman responds, "We got both kinds. We got country and western." Instead, what we must understand is that in this savagely complex world, we need to bring as broad a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives to bear on whatever challenges we have in front of us. While it's wise to question the supremacy of "business thinking," shifting the focus only to "design thinking" will mean you're missing out on countless possibilities.
January 22, 2010
I 've been in design my whole life. During this admittedly lengthening period, I've listened to many designers spend much energy fighting to be recognized, fighting to be heard by the people who make things happen in corporations, in NGOs, in government.
For years I have heard stirring arguments about how designers need "a place at the table" around which important systemic decisions are made. And still that place at the table is not an assured place. Why are designers still not really a part of things? Why are they not an assumed voice in high-level decision-making? Even today, when innovation and sustainability and green are the newest corporate cliches, it is rare to see a designer in the boardroom.
"And why is this?" I asked myself, walking back from teaching tonight. The answer came to me, borne on feathered wings, somewhere between Nordstrom's and the ferry.
The reason that designers have only a feeble grip on that chair at the table is not because design is not respected, it is because most designers cannot write. I don't mean they can't write like Faulkner. I don't mean they don't have a discernable prose style. I mean they cannot WRITE. They do not know where to put a subject and a verb and a capital and a period. They are functionally illiterate. Only the very top echelon of designers writes. And let me tell you, that top echelon writes like the wind: read Stefan Bucher, read Michael Rock, read Michael Bierut, read Jessica Helfand, read Sagmeister--these people are not only literate, they are wonderful writers and they get their ideas across in ways that inspire people to agree with them. It should be noted that two of these people are writing in a second language.
But below that level, it is very rare to find a really good writer in the pack. Oh, sure, there are one or two in every AIGA meeting. But to be blunt, the greater mass of designers is a mass of functioning illiterates. I know. I've edited them. The odd part is that these designers have convinced themselves that they CAN write. They think they are fairly good writers and that a little dust-off with Spellcheck will pretty much make them excellent writers. They have a totally unrealistic view of their own skills. They dress up their writing in the Emperor's new clothes, but those clothes don't fool anyone at the table.
Now. Why is writing important to getting and keeping said much-ballyhooed chair? For two reasons. The first is that no one trusts illiterate people to make decisions. If they did, all countries would be democracies.
The second is that the rest of the people at that table can write and they look down on people that can't. It's a class issue (though in America we would never say that) and it's an issue of the perception of judgement. Not being able to write-- thinking you can when you can't-- shows a willingness to believe in vague and untrue things, a willingness to obfuscate. It shows an inability to be clear, to be rational--to think. That's not something people want at the table.
Being unable to write well also shows a lack of understanding about the way corporate culture works. CEOs write. CFOs write. Marketing directors write. You can draw on a napkin all you want, but napkin-drawing is not the native problem-solving tool of most CEOs: Writing is. It is the stuff of which convincing arguments are made. It is the natural language of the boardroom. No matter how brilliant you are, if you don't know how to write well you will never be perceived by the rest of that table as anything but a window dresser wearing Prada.
January 15, 2010
This morning Brent and I found ourselves talking about the design merits and demerits of various West Coast cities. This is the kind of thing you find yourself talking about in the gloom of winter here-- daily dark clouds so low you could touch them if you stretched. We agreed on the basics: Portland: so vibrant! San Francisco: so romantic! L.A: sun drenched! Seattle.
"The problem with Seattle, " Brent said, "Is that it has never established its own color palette."
Now there's a line worth immortalizing.
Without a thought, you know L.A's palette: the blue of Hockney, warmth of terra cotta, pink of stucco and fuchsia of bouganvillea. Or San Francisco's: white skyline, blue ocean, white fog, warm hills, dark cypress. But Seattle?
Only a designer would see the world this way.
January 6, 2010
Today I found a lovely thick, letterpressed holiday greeting card in the mail from Pentagram, which made me feel included and cozy and like they haven't forgotten me and a bunch of other things that an ex-New Yorker feels.
It says, "While we would all love to be atypical, we all fit a type."
And then urges me to discover mine at:
The whole thing seems a bit slow until you get to the part where he holds out the little pad, and then it gets pretty cool.
Just so you know, I'm Plastica.
Which I can embrace. Though perhaps I was merely in a Plastica mood at the very moment I took the test, which concerns me. I'll need to repeat it when I'm feeling more outgoing.
January 1, 2010
The Bill Hill article is out!
It's in the Communication Arts Advertising Annual 50, which packs a punch.
Particularly a great article by Sagmeister on his year "off" in Bali.
Reminding me of my oft-repeated rant to students: smart designers write well.
Practice. Set yourself tasks.
Maybe we should have a "design write-off" essay-writing contest at Cornish. Students, professors and staff vie for large, attractive prize judged by panel of experts. How about deadline on April 15th? Seems appropriate.
(Write-off? Get it? Tax Day? Do I have to spell it out for you? Yeesh.)