My thoughts on Design Thinking

The slideshow below is a Pecha Kucha I presented in October 2018 during Why the World Needs Anthropologists conference in Lisbon. The format (20 slides / images, 20 seconds per slide = 6 minutes and 40 seconds!) required the content to be super punchy and having text on the slides was a no-no. The trick was to get my timing right and to do so I think I rehearsed the talk over 30 times! I’m gutted I can’t show you the video from the talk, but apparently the files didn’t save properly during the live stream of the conference. Anyhow, the event was a success, I met a great number of interesting people with a background in both design and social sciences. The theme of the conference was ‘Designing the Future’ which perfectly fit with my back then current line of research and exploration around the use of Design Thinking as a method for non-designer to uncover otherwise unattainable insights. As many other designers I’m highly sceptical when it comes to applying one-size-fits-all methods to processes that require creativity, inspiration and critical reflection. Scroll down to see what I believe are the alternatives to a superficial, feel-good commercial business ethnography, and how could we improve it to turn it into a meaningful and mutually (researcher – researched) beneficial process exploring more distant future scenarios.

Prior to my research career as a designer I’ve never heard the term design thinking. None of my teachers, colleagues, employers and employees ever used it. And only when I started to work on strategy and innovation projects I realised that design thinking is a thing, and how come I’ve never heard about it before?

And I quickly discovered why. The first reason was because the method was initially developed for non-designers in mind and secondly – because that’s actually not the way designers work, as one of the most important things I always tell people about design is that it’s not only about problem-solving.

The beauty and power of design lies in experimentation, challenging the status quo and being critical. As a designer and a researcher, I’m more interested in design that asks good questions rather than provides mediocre answers. And that’s where I noticed design thinking falls short.

When looking at the diagrams associated with the design thinking it becomes obvious that the process is too structured. The 5 or 6 simple steps make it dangerously easy to focus solely on problem-solving and producing repetitive and unchallenging results – and that is true in spite of what shape the diagram takes.

One of the things that’s missing in design thinking is what good design process prides itself on – critical reflection and invitation to discussion that facilitates the emergence of insights. Current design thinking process is too goal oriented to allow for alternative insights interpretations and development.

What it means in practice, is that design thinking solutions often only end up repackaging existing products or adding unnecessary features. What I’m trying to say is yes, we can keep on redesigning the good old radiator, but how about thinking how else can we keep people warm?

Asking a question that starts with ‘how else?’ opens up a whole new arena of exploration going beyond here and now. Why is it important you may ask? And the answer is simple: because we’re making and consuming products and services faster than ever before.

We are able to come up with a product concept today, test it tomorrow and produce it the day after. The length of that process has decreased to such timeframe, that thinking about the near future is almost the same as thinking about the past.

What it simply means is that we have to put more focus on designing for more distant futures. Firstly, because we have to address the issues of sustainability of all sorts, and secondly, in order to affect more positive change we have to start exploring the future that’s beyond current socio-political and economic structures.

One way of exploring more distant futures is to use design fictions as an idea generation tool. Design fiction is about investigating how larger, external factors will impact the world as well as specific groups of people within it, for example product users or consumers.

Unfortunately, the insights supporting the design thinking as we know it are solely rooted in the commercial ethnography that severely limits how far ahead we can look, because naturally the signals from the present become weaker and weaker the further we try to look into the future.

Taking current trends and extending or superimposing them onto our visions of the future worlds is embedded in our human nature and restricts us from thinking really creatively. But using design fictions can stimulate us to think differently and more innovatively.

Doing so is much easier than you might expect. If you think about it for a second, you realise we are virtually surrounded by vast amounts of fictional storytelling and a lot of it is actually worth analysing. Let me show you a few examples.

Films: Good storytelling – makes it easy for us to believe what’s on the screen is true – is a great source of insights that opens up a space for discussion. The story that’s often hard to recreate and prototype in real life but carries the same sense of credibility and emotional investment forces us to think reflectively.

Another source of design fiction are exhibitions and artefacts: My favourite example is of Sedric – Volkswagen’s driverless car displayed recently at the V&A. As a visitor I was not only able to sit in the car but also experience and understand its possibilities and potential impact through pre-recorded scenarios.

And the third from my favourite sources of design fiction are speculative games that use scenario thinking that forces the audience to make informed choices about the present that will lead to the preferable future in 20 or even 50 years’ time. It’s a great tool helping us understand the larger factors that are at play.

What all these three examples have in common is that they’re all highly visual and auditory, engaging and evoking  emotional responses. All of them provide valid use case scenarios, personas and their journeys at once, which should not be thought of as solutions but stimuli.

Design fictions challenge us and aim to leave us thinking about the world differently. Their superpower lies in providing prompts which can make design thinking more applicable and the whole process more engaging and effective going beyond post-its and PowerPoints.