Design Thinking: The Process Marginalization

Design thinking — as it’s termed — is, and has been, a very trendy school of thought. From designers collaborating with others to businesses implementing the methodology, design thinking is everywhere. The question is…why? As a student of scholastic philosophy who decided only once removed from college that design was going to be my career, I’ve found the term to be a bit odd. The reason being that design thinking, as it is currently understood, was completely devoid from my education.

Some claim Socrates as the first design thinker. He met in groups, went back to the original idea, and in so doing, developed some of the most influential and important ideas in the western world. But he wasn’t a design thinker. The design thinkers were those, in Plato’s Apology, of the assembly that put him to death for causing trouble. They empathized with the problem, discussed it, brain-stormed solutions without limitation, presented them, went back to the original idea, worked through the solution again, and then made one of the most illogical decisions to befall western thought.

Socrates’ story shows the single greatest flaw of design thinking: groups are fallible, are moved by fear, and are compelled to elevate the group over the individual. I tell my clients, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” because design and solutions are not easy. I tell my teams, “you’re going to hate me,” because I ask for solutions that sometimes do not yet exist. Groups can be helpful: great ideas can be gathered, but, vision and clear thought trump any group. As a group is only as good as its vision, it vision as clear as it’s thought, and its thought as good as its goal.

Paul Rand said, “any system… that separates the artist from his product, that fragments the work of the individual, or creates by committee, or makes mincemeat of the creative process will, in the long run, diminish not only the product but the maker as well. “ Never dilute an idea with the tyranny of the group, never make or formulate an idea and by so doing diminish it, and above all else, do not destroy designers. Design thinking is the French Revolution of design, full of its own virtue, attempting to unify, yet so confused that it fails to realize that it dissects the process in such a way that it results in the balkanization of its individuals. Alienation from one’s labor, intellect, or artistic ability destroys the organic, the original, and the individuals casting them off to the waste basket of design.

To find the organic, the original, and the individual we must look at visionaries, and the ideas that push design and the world forward. When we examine these visionaries, their histories and their work, we discover one thing — unwavering belief. Not an idea, but a belief about what the future can be. It is a system devoid of focus groups, as vision and belief are too novel, too complicated for the acceptance of and comprehension by the group. As examples, we can observe creations like Microsoft Windows; it was developed by a committee. Contrast that to Apple, the Mac and its operating system were created by a visionary. A committee copy/pastes a design — like HP — with their recent MacBook ripoff. An individual, Jony Ive, creates the thing others aspire to copy. The world looks at a problem and says we need to think about a solution, provide a system, and get feedback to solve it. Visionaries see a new future, see how we can do things differently, and design that future — and by so doing, solve problems.

To “think different”, as Apple once coined, one must understand that it is done alone. A group by its construction will by osmosis filter ideas to conform to the comprehension of the majority. The lack of vision by our weakest members will always pull down the accomplishments. Our solutions will be the most understandable ideas and occupy the mundane, only “good” but never great. Greatness comes from pushing the bounds of understanding, instructing, and developing ideas that only later a group can imitate. People desire guidance, so give it to them, people want to be led, so lead them, and people want a vision, so ignite them with a vision of the future.

Naturally people as rational animals come together for protection from families, the social contract and the formation of nations, to businesses, and all of the other groups we join, we come together for protection. We select a leader because the dangers ahead must be tackled, a group is needed but it can not lead. The fear of mistakes, the difference of opinions, and the slow action of consensus do not protect us but endanger all of our safety. A leader is not a god or an infallible figure, instead they are those who eat last so that the group can eat at all. They risk failure, they put themselves in the line of fire, and by so doing protect the group so that they can survive. Instead it is their taking on failures that enhance, inform, and create great a vision. Visionaries all have teams, all have, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “honest collaborators” but it is the unwavering belief of the few that inform a groups work.

Vision is informed by failure, Steve Jobs failures from those at Atari that informed early Apple to those at the end of his first stint at Apple that later made it what it is today, all are informed by failure. The Wright Brothers, Milton Hershey, Ray and Charles Eames, and countless others all failed only to later succeed in mystifying fashion. Today you can go to Target and see furniture constructed by a design group that steals the work of the Eames, or Best Buy and see blatant group created rip offs of Apple and the work of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive. The examples are boundless, the results are systematic, and all fail to be original.

The original comes from a belief, the system or approach may change, look at Steve Jobs and the difference between his two stints at Apple, but the belief never does. A group believes in finding a solution, a visionary believes in changing the world. By finding a solution we destroy the individual, steal the works of others, and dilute ourselves so much that we fail to ignite potential to satisfy a goal. By changing the world the visionary provides a solution and gives you a rubric that you will later steal. So rather than embracing design thinking embrace thinking and believe and dream of the world you want to create. The group will not save you, your design, or your business, bending to the whims and understanding of groups will destroy you. In the end you won’t change the world or design the future you will only change yourself through the systematic marginalizing dilution known as design thinking.