Design Needs To Be Its Own Thing

design thinking

I think therefore I design

On 19 March, BusinessWeek published a piece by Bruce Nussbaum on the future of design, in which the author previewed a talk he gave to a group of design thinkers.  While I agree with some of his points, I really wince at the thought that Nussbaum’s vision might be the future of design.

He sets the stage with a one paragraph summary of his point of view, which I quote here in its entirety (cuz I could’ve never written this).

“The creation of a new belief system—Innovation Arts—to replace the prevailing Liberal Arts paradigm should be the next stage in the evolution of Design/Thinking. A world of constant, cascading change and the failure of existing social organizations requires a shift from the prevailing Liberal Arts paradigm that trains individuals how to make sense of an existing world based on past knowledge and reifying society to a new paradigm that trains people how to build new social systems based on deep knowledge of current cultural rituals and behaviors while embedding action in social, economic and political context. An Innovation Arts paradigm would also form the foundation of a post-Neo-Liberal economic theory that reconnects elites to real business context rather than the quantified financialization of business functions, focuses on value in network relationships and group social behavior and educates people to make rather than consume.”

Let’s start with the language itself.  It is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Since when was Liberal Arts a “belief system” or a “paradigm?”  (And while we’re at it, can we choose one of the two and stick to it, please?)  What does “reifying society” mean?  I’ve heard of design thinking – but what in tarnations1 is “Design/Thinking?”  And “post-Neo-Liberal?” “Financialization?”  Come on!  Indeed, I have submitted this paragraph to the weasel words web site as a great example of horrible communication.

I draw the reader’s attention to a 2005 study by D.M. Oppenheimer that showed an inverse proportion between language complexity and perceived intelligence of the author.  In other words, the fancier the language you use, the dumber your readers will think you are.  ‘Nuf said.

The content itself is questionable. It’s full of bald assertions (e.g. that existing social organizations are failing, or that those failures somehow connect to Liberal Arts, or that the “Liberal Arts paradigm” is the prevailing paradigm….) and doesn’t bother defining key terms – like “innovation.”  Nussbaum’s “position” seems nothing more than a highfalutin sound byte.

Not that the whole piece is gone bad, but there’s nothing here to write home about.

Nussbaum advises – and I agree – that design needs to develop a culture of criticism.  Sure it does, just as so many other parts of modern society.  Nussbaum also suggests providing human-centred design “tool kits” for policy makers.  While the implication that design can be important to policy-making is sound, providing tool kits misses the point entirely.  One of the missing bits in policy is the design perspective.  Perspective lives in the mind.  Tool kits won’t cut it.  We need actual designers to be intimately involved in policy making. Nussbaum also suggests that people in their 30’s can advise “us.”  That too is hardly surprising, as people in their 30’s are both young enough to have not yet had a chance to influence society much, but are old enough to start having good ideas.  Again, no rocket science here.

What really burns my toast, though, is the implication that design is an art, and that it must be treated as one.  This is even evident from (some of) the comments posted after Nussbaum’s piece – like Anne Leemans’ comment “Design is visual and linked to the senses.”

Design is, I maintain, not an art.  Nor is it a science.  I’m with Nigel Cross on this: design may draw from the sciences and the arts, but it is also distinct in that in provides an entirely different way to look at things.  This is why “design thinking” is so interesting to so many people.

And the technical design disciplines – such as engineering design – could make a huge contribution exactly because these kinds of designing are more rooted in objective and quantitative methods than are the design disciplines descended from the arts.

This is not to say that design must only be objective and quantitative, but that design is at its best when it covers both the objective and the subjective, the quantitative and the qualitative.

Design needs to be its own thing.  Conflating it with “innovation arts” or any such thing does it a serious disservice.

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3 thoughts on “Design Needs To Be Its Own Thing

  1. what I meant by design – at large – is visual and linked to the senses is that design, indeed is in essence functional but good design goes beyond that, it appeals to us, to our senses and can even be a trigger to stimulate certain behaviour. In our pratice we have developed a methodology – SPIN-UP (Security Perception in Urban Public transport – that assesses the quality of Public space from a users’ point of view. As passengers/users we observe through our senses. Having observed we rationalise, conclude and behave, some more or better than others.
    Anne Leemans

  2. Hi
    What I meant by design – at large – is visual and linked to the senses is that design, indeed is in essence functional but good design goes beyond that, it appeals to us, to our senses and can even be a trigger to stimulate certain behaviour. In our pratice we have developed a methodology – SPIN-UP (Security Perception in Urban Public transport – that assesses the quality of Public space from a users’ point of view. As passengers/users we observe through our senses. Having observed we rationalise, conclude and behave, some more or better than others.
    Anne Leemans

    • Absolutely. A well-designed product must hit a “balance” between all kinds of factors, including the aesthetics of the thing. (I love Apple products – mostly because they work so well, but also cuz they’re so *cool*.) But, in my experience, all the aesthetics in the worlds won’t make up for poor function – which includes usability, etc, not just the inner workings of the thing.

      I know people will buy something that looks good to the senses even if it sucks functionally, but I think as designers we’re being negligent if we intentionally create such things. On the other hand, a highly functional product that doesn’t appeal to the senses will at least get the job done. We shouldn’t settle for such products, but sometimes we have to, and they’re better than the alternative.

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