Engagement and Sustainability in the Design Thinking Process
This world is not black and white; clear answers do not always exist, and prevalent disparities, unfortunately, contaminate society. In a state that can seem rather grim at times, it can feel overwhelming to approach social issues. Thus, design thinking helps alleviate some of that anxiety. Design thinking is a 5 step human-centered design process that heavily incorporates consumer-based feedback. This linear process is separated into five steps: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution. Although linear, this process is to be repeated based on feedback from consumers. Design thinking is fluid based on the solution orchestrated. Thus, human-centered designs are not the only approach to design thinking. Other models include system-centered approaches and life-centered approaches. However, despite the selection of the model, three common themes prevail: understanding a lack or need, designing around the problem, and testing the solution. Design thinking relies heavily on constant feedback and input from others. The critical component is designing with people rather than for people.
This crucial distinction differentiates the successful Design thinking processes from the
unsuccessful. For starters, the lack of collaboration and feedback will ultimately lead to a narrow visioned project. A common error of design thinking is designing from a point of privilege (Harrington, 2019). Often, this behavior can come off as saviorism, and in many cases, white saviorism. To combat this interpretation, designers must understand the roots of all problems and wholeheartedly listen to the beneficiaries. Empathy is a pivotal stage of the process. Additionally, a designer must acknowledge the long-lasting remnants of colonization on the design thinking process, especially since many designs work at the institutional level (Harrington, 2019).
Design thinking — if done correctly — has the ability to enact sustainable changes in society. However, according to designer Natasha Jen, as design thinking has evolved, it has metamorphosized into more of a buzzword than anything else. She thus refers to the practice as “Bullsh*t.” In her opinion, design thinking lacks “crit” (Jen, 2020). To design brilliance, one must receive proper design criticism. She goes on to state that all true designers require criticism to fully form a prototype (Jen, 2020). Furthermore, she credits human intuition over the 5 phases for many designs that have cited the design process. I, too, believe that design thinking should not be this structured and instead be more dependent on the basis of each case. Depending on the situation, steps may need to be added, subtracted, or repeated. Nonetheless, the notion of research, ideation, and testing still remains. Many other designers have found flaws in this linear process as well. Of its critiques, squashing long-term creativity ranks high (Ersoy, 2018). The rapid pace and overly collaborative environment with non-designers debilitate the creative processes over time (Ersoy, 2018). However, this article specifically notes that collaboration is important to the design process but should only take place “in-between flow sessions” (Ersoy, 2018). I have mixed opinions on this perspective. In one sense, I understand the problem of overly collaborative environments of stakeholders and community members. Projects ultimately lack depth and proper development due to the rush to produce. Stakeholders long for results immediately after the discovery due to the cost and time research takes up (Ersoy, 2018). This predicament is what designers call the Tip of the Iceberg dilemma (Ersoy, 2018). However, collaboration is crucial to the design process and should not be minimized.
Another critique of the design thinking process is its prevalent human-centered approach. However, in my opinion, the human-centered approach is a principle testament to design thinking. Critiques say human-centered design is superficial and does not pay enough attention to things not related to the human experience (Joffres, 2020). In Kal Joffres “Design thinking isn’t the problem — here’s what it takes to do good design,” the author rebuttals these cases. My views align with that of these arguments. First, Joffrees notes that designing is not superficial because a designer needs to understand the problem and the demographic to execute a solution (Joffres, 2020). Alternatively, designers’ capacity for empathy, brainstorm wanted and needed design solutions. Designers can not just design based on what they think someone wants; rather they need to design based on what someone expresses they need or want. Although the human-centered approach lacks the big idea requirements, Joffres highlights that designers — regardless of their methods — should constantly be questioning everything (Joffres, 2020). Designing oozes curiosity and a quench for knowledge. Overall, when done in full, the design thinking process does a great job centering the recipients’ voices.
In my opinion, if there is to be a standard design process, there need to be additions to the 5 step assessment. When I went through these steps recently, I found myself struggling with too broad of concepts. I was too far into the design process with the idea that needed to be drastically consolidated. Thus, if needed, I believe there should be a refinement and a scaling step. This stage would occur after the initial or secondary feedback period. This place for refinement would be for professional designers to critique the design itself. Coupled with the consistent feedback from community members, this step would enable even more human engagement and opportunities for tangible criticism. Designer Tsai Lu Liu emphasizes the importance of human engagement and designing for people. Lu Liu goes on to say, “We design keeping other people’s needs in mind.” This additional step would echo Tsai Lu Liu’s advice on the importance of empathy and multiple perspectives.
Furthermore, I do not see a strong emphasis on sustainability within the current design model. Yes, these processes are cyclical because of the constant evolution of the world, and thus so is the product or service. However, design thinking does not necessarily account for that sustainable element. Designer Mari De Mater O’Neill discusses the importance of using design thinking to create sustainable systems due to their ability to create. O’ Neill believes that designers need to truly engage with the community to make sustainable and impactful systemic change. I echo this sentiment by inserting an element of sustainability into the end of my design process. Sustainability is not just about creating a lasting design but rather instilling in others skills that will aid them instrumentally. Designer Tania Anaissee discusses this through her Liberatory Design Process. This process includes a reflection piece intended to recognize and work to break down oppressive systems. Anaissee states that a much more sustainable design thinking method is providing individuals with those necessary skills to solve problems in the future. Overall, design thinking allows room for innovation and exploration. With subtle tweaks, this process could enable much more long-term and further encompassing solutions.
Ersoy, L. A. (2018, July 10). Why Design Thinking is failing and what we should be doing
differently. Medium. https://uxdesign.cc/why-design-thinking-is--failing-c8844.
Harrington, C. N. (2019, September 24). Towards Equitable Design When We Design with Marginalized
Communities. Medium. https://medium.com/acm-cscw/towards-equitable- design-when-we-design-with-marginalized-communities-c2f447f21568
Joffres, K. (2020, January 1). Design thinking isn’t the problem — but here’s what it takes to do good
design. Medium. https://uxdesign.cc/design-thinking-isnt-the-problemeb4cf4278c63.
Natasha Jen: Design Thinking Is Bullsh*t. (2020). Adobe 99U.