There’s So Little There There: A Response to the Stanford d.school’s Defense of Design Thinking
Last week, I awoke to find a funny message in my inbox. A colleague had forwarded me an email that a leader at the Stanford d.school apparently wrote about my recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Design Thinking is a Boondoggle.” Noting that “we’re watching this piece carefully”, the email provides “ready language” to members of the d.school in case they are asked about what I wrote.
The email delights in many ways. Its air of superiority and ad hominem elements are a gas. Yes, I am indeed an assistant professor at a university less elite than Stanford. Never mind me. I have no desire to take similar ad hominem potshots, however, so I have removed the author’s name from the email, which I paste at the bottom of this post. (I contacted the author to verify the reality of the email, but received no response.)
In my view, the email continues a long trend: the d.school and Design Thinkers more generally continue to dodge the core arguments of their critics, and it would be a shame if they did not address them more honestly and directly. So I am writing this post to nudge them. Moreover, the email itself is a fascinating historical document worth unpacking, not least because it contains the weak — often fallacious — reasoning that is driving current Design Thinking hype.
First, however, I think we should consider how we got here.
I agree with the d.school email that the path of my essay has been an “unusual” one. Last fall, I published a long piece on Medium called “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains.” With a title like that, you can bet my goal wasn’t to win over DT fans. The origins of the essay were simple: At the time, I felt like I was working too much for other people. I decided that I needed to write something for the sheer pleasure of writing and, most of all, to make my friends laugh. Overblown claims about Design Thinking, including the idea that it was the “new liberal arts” or that it could be used to reform all of higher education, had recently gotten up my nose. I felt it would be worth exploring where DT was coming from, why it was surrounded by such ridiculous hyperbole, and how it was connected to the worst current trends in higher education, which is the part that actually concerns me. I meant my analysis seriously, but mostly I hoped a few friends would find what I wrote cathartic.
I gave the essay a completely over-the-top and goofy title because I knew my colleagues would find it funny and because I didn’t expect anyone else to see it. But I was wrong there. I wrote the Medium post for about 5 friends, and, to date, 56,000 people have read it. I guess it struck some nerves. When editors at the Chronicle asked if they could publish an abbreviated version of the piece, I was all for it.
Since last fall, I’ve received many emails from readers, and with one or two exceptions, all of them have been positive. A recurring theme has been that I put words to what many others had been thinking and feeling for a long time, or as one note recently put it, “You’ve said so much that so many have been thinking in an incredibly trenchant and hilarious way.” Also rewarding are missives from administrators who have had individuals pitching DT to them, who felt uneasy about the vagueness of it all, and who now know they will turn the offers down. Success!
My favorite message of all, however, came from a member of the Stanford community, who wrote,
“I read your article, and it could not be more right on. I have had to endure the d.school since its inception, and I have worked with several student groups over the years that are exactly the ill-informed students you describe. It is the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ here, where if you disagree with their approach you’re not thinking out of the box. I respond that because I have not climbed into your box does not mean I don’t think outside the box.”
DT fans have been less enthusiastic about what I wrote. No surprises. A repeated experience I’ve had, however, especially on Twitter, is if you dig into the backgrounds of people who criticize what I’ve written, they are benefitting directly from DT in some way. Either they are business or education consultants selling DT, or they are introducing it within some organization and potentially winning prestige by doing so. I am not suggesting that most of these people are merely cynical hucksters. They are likely true believers. The point is this: of course people pushing DT are going to claim it works. The question is what the rest of us should think.
DT fanatics have criticized what I wrote in several ways, some of which I recognize as valid. For instance, several people have asserted that I did not describe Empathy Mode completely accurately. Fair, fair. Others have pointed out that I failed to describe an important part of DT’s origins: that it arose in response to real problems in design, which had become far too quantitative in its approaches and which failed to consider the needs of users/consumers/stakeholders.
That’s fair too, though I think this second point actually strengthens my argument. Design Thinking may have one time made sense in a specific context. The problem is that it is now being (over-)sold as a solution in so many other spaces, which leads to all kinds of ironies and silliness. The focus on stakeholders in decision-making (or “design”) is a great example. Science and Technology Studies has been pushing for and experimenting with ways of doing this at least since the 1970s. And, in government, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover brought interested parties together to solve problems in . . . the 1920s!
None of this is new; nearly all of it is commonsense; and yet DT adherents claim to have something novel and special.
This brings me to the d.school email.
You’re Doing It Wrong, Trust Us
I only take umbrage with a few statements in the email. My piece was fact-checked, thanks. (How would the author know one way or another?) Chronicle editors checked my quotations — and, indeed, found a few mistakes — and with the exception of one part where my correspondents chose to remain anonymous, my sources are clear.
We might ask if the email was fact-checked, though. Consider this core claim:
“Seeking to understand the people you’re designing for, finding inspiration beyond your own context, developing new perspectives, coming up with new ideas, trying them out with people… all of these things should be common sense. And yet, these methods are rarely employed when people are seeking new solutions to persistent problems in business, in government, in healthcare, and in education.”
Where is the evidence or support for the claim that these commonsense capacities are “rarely employed”? This argument that established actors in all kinds of fields are falling down, thereby creating space for a new solution, is central to the Design Thinking “movement.” Yet, there is no support for these kinds of claims, just assertions.
If you look, you’ll find instances of this unsupported rhetorical move over and over again in DT land. Here, for example, is d.school Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg making the old hoary argument that education hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Greenberg argues that students today are entering “an increasingly ambiguous world.” (What does this mean? Increasing by what measure?) Or as she says, “This is the most complex, ambiguous world we have ever known.” (What?) She asks, “Can the current system of higher education produce creative thinkers and problem solvers?” (Is there any evidence that universities of the past failed to educate imaginative individuals who solved problems? And is a university a system of production?)
This looming educational “crisis” sets up Greenberg’s solution(s): that we “redesign” universities to be “open loops.” She implies further that designers have special knowledge and skills that should make them central to the process of reforming education. Handy that someone from a design school happens to be making this self-interested claim.
In my essay, I argue that this form of reasoning — “You’re doing it wrong, and, trust me, I’ve got the solution.“— stems from the d.school’s and Design Thinking’s roots in business consulting. Consultants, too, must create the worry of problems and perceived crises to insert themselves in existing practices. Consider how Clayton Christensen has sold his consultancy InnoSight on the basis of his notion of “disruptive innovation,” which was seen as a great threat to incumbent businesses. But then the notion of disruptive innovation turned out to be based on faulty social science, to be nowhere near as common or as important to economies as Christensen had claimed. Perceived crises — especially ones related to a hyped product — are not necessarily real crises.
Since I posted my essay last fall, several people have contacted me with further stories Design Thinkers claiming that they had some special tools that trump established ways of doing things. An old friend recounted watching a panel in Washington, DC, during the Obama administration, where, she writes, Design Thinkers were “convinced they could fix everything.” She went on,
I was just aghast at how highly they thought of themselves and how lowly they thought of career public service people or government employees. They seemed to be sure that the way [government was] doing things had to be wrong . . . but [they made] very little effort to understand the history of things [while claiming] they could fix them. It reminded me of Zuckerberg’s failed attempts to fix education.
There is a Trumpian, drain-the-swamp mentality in the assertion that bureaucrats in all these different fields are doing it wrong and are in the way, or at least need to be trained up in the new, hot magic. We got some Bootcamps for your team!!!! One wonders how our society managed to create and move through the massive changes — both social and technological — that have taken place over the last 300 years without Design Thinking.
The fundamental problem, however, is that Design Thinkers do not provide real evidence that “these methods are rarely employed” beyond anecdata and casting shade on established orders. Nor do they ground their claims about “increasing ambiguity” or whatever. This lack of evidence is even more egregious when it comes to Design Thinkers trying — and failing — to demonstrate their method’s special powers.
“Countless Examples” and the Burden of Proof
The other claim in the email that bugs me is that I did not provide evidence for my claims. I’m not really sure what that means. In my essay, among other arguments, I demonstrate how Design Thinking is commonsense gussied up in vague, quasi-religious marketing-speak, and I show how extremely superficial IDEO’s and the d.school’s conception of innovation is.
In the meantime, while claiming that “we have seen many cases” and that there are “countless examples where thinking and acting like a designer has helped people create new, powerful solutions,” the d.school email itself does not provide evidence for its claims, and the d.school has never provided strong evidence to substantiate the hype it pushes around Design Thinking.
I follow other critics in asserting that the burden of proof lies with the d.schoolers themselves. Here, I am just following the graphic designer Natasha Jen who is the real . . . erm . . . thought leader and innovator in Design Thinking criticism. In her talk “Design Thinking is Bullshit,” Jen burrows into examples where Design Thinking was supposedly used and finds that there’s nothing special there, that most examples are obvious, sometimes even silly. She pushes Design Thinkers to make the case for their method. “Prove it,” she concludes.
The d.schoolers and Design Thinkers more generally don’t make such a case, however. They just list anecdotes. (Prediction: if the d.school ever responds to critics, prepare for sentimental anecdote upon sentimental anecdote, but no real justification for why DT is better than any other way of thinking.)
The d.school email states, for instance, “It is truly powerful to see the impact of how students and alumni have brought their design thinking skills into fields as diverse as healthcare, law, engineering, and education (just to name a few).”
Here’s the deal: We get to make these kinds of statements if we are educators. We will have students who are successful, who do big things, who write to thank us for all we’ve done for them. These messages feel genuinely great and are part of why we do our jobs. And if our university has a competent PR department, they will track such alumni down, take their photos, and post stories about them on the university website with language implying, “This, dear reader, could be you.” But you can’t make an argument for the special power of Design Thinking in this way. It’s an experience and phenomenon common to education generally, including education in the traditional disciplines that d.schoolers and their ilk mock as “silos.”
Moreover, there is often tautological form to arguments for DT: Design Thinking is a process for creating solutions, and when I get to the end of the process, I have something I dub a “solution” or even an “innovation,” and so, wow, it’s a big success. Wins, like, almost every time. The most powerful method in history. This, too, is no argument.
There are many reasonable individuals in this world — I’ve met plenty — who believe that Design Thinking is a sometimes helpful framework for getting things done in certain circumstances. They know its strengths and limits and make no special claim for it. Such people will tell you that DT is swirling with flatulent claims today, and some will be the first to admit that the d.school is a significant source of the gas. There are other less reasonable characters who spin hyperbole around the DTs, but then retreat to this position if pushed. This helpful framework stance is perfectly fine, as long as people who take it acknowledge that the DTs are not a unique way to order workflow and that similar systems have been around for a long time. For example, in a comment on my original essay, Alan Levine asks, “Didn’t they just unclip a segment of the old ADDIE circle [which goes back to the 1970s], and string it out on a line?”
But this reasonable “helpful framework” position undermines Design Thinkers’ claims to specialness and assertion that their ideas should be taken up in every field. It also makes Stanford leaders’ assertion that all of undergraduate education should be reformed around a “core” of Design Thinking sound totally ridiculous.
The d.school does not hold this sensible position, however. When it makes claims about Design Thinking, it shoots for the moon, and this, in a dialectical way, is the d.school’s big problem: its evidence cannot possibly live up to its hype. As I note in my essay, for instance, d.school materials claim that Design Thinking equips students “with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.” Or note the quotation in this example, a screenshot I recently took from a Stanford page.
Think about it for a second: What on Earth could this line from Kelley even possibly fucking mean? No, I mean, really, what? The list of “great innovators” who took approaches that have nothing to do with Design Thinking and its philosophy is long. Steve Jobs, for example, had no great love or even respect for users, but his consumer gadgets have done OK. Moreover, many fundamental innovations — like electricity, for example — did not respond to users’ needs; if anything, they created “needs.” Consumers, for instance, often had to be convinced to use electricity; it’s value wasn’t obvious.
Furthermore, most innovation is incremental and arises from individuals paying attention, taking care, and doing their jobs. What would Design Thinking have done for the workers described in the economist Nathan Rosenberg’s classic article, “Learning by Using,” who greatly improved practices in the airline industry, significantly dropping costs? Nothing at all. Yet, this is actual innovation and is the kind of thing that has undergirded the technological transformations of the last three hundred years. (Poor Nathan Rosenberg. The longtime Stanford professor twists in his grave every time the d.school makes another outlandish claim about innovation.) The sheer diversity of sources of innovation is seemingly endless, and to pretend that anyone can identify core skills lying behind all of that change is absurd. Things get even more grotesque if we think through the history of (good) leaders, many of whom have taken approaches antithetical to Design Thinking. Again, would Design Thinking have helped Rosa Parks “design” the Montgomery Bus Boycott? It would have been great if she “empathized” with stakeholders like city leaders and bus owners, huh?
This Kelley quotation will only resonate with you if you are completely ignorant about the history of innovation — including both business model creation and technological change — and leadership. Moreover, the historian and critic of innovation John Pat Leary also points out that the quotation is simply vapid.
The d.school should put up or shut up. It needs to make a systematic case to substantiate its exaggerated claims about Design Thinking, including that the DTs lead to results not reachable by other means, such as the older method simply known as thinking. But the d.school has not made such a case. Like other critics, I believe it has not made that argument because it cannot make it. And if it cannot make it, the d.school needs to retreat to a more reasonable position and, most important of all, take responsibility for its part in overselling and hyping Design Thinking.
But, given that criticisms like mine have been around for a long time, why hasn’t the d.school already cooled its rhetoric?
Why is the d.school in this Pickle?
The short answer is that the d.school’s business model depends on this hype, but why this is the case is complex. After I published my essay, I learned about many critical writings— most by designers — that I’d wished I’d had a chance to read as I was researching. The piece I most wish I had read, though, only came out a few months ago. In “‘Design Thinking’: Defending Silicon Valley at the Apex of Global Labor Hierarchies,” Professor Lilly Irani argues that Design Thinking “articulates a racialized understanding of labor, judgment, and the subject, emerging as a defense of North American design in the face of global competition from Asia.” It was a way to defend American cognitive capitalism against encroaching Asian contenders. I found Irani’s essay helpful in several ways, but most helpful of all was her history of changes within IDEO.
In the mid-2000s, Irani reports, IDEO “de-emphasized the design of things” in large part because competition from Asia was cutting into its profits. The company increasingly turned to consulting, modeling itself on firms like McKinsey. Internally, employees referred to this shift as “IDEO 2.0.” While Irani found IDEOers reticent to talk about this change, two former employees of the the company’s machine shop discussed it openly. As one machinist put it to Irani, “There’s been a shift to less mechanical and to more mystical.” The mystical element was Design Thinking, which more and more became its own product.
The d.school—which became a center of Design Thinking Bootcamps — has traded on this mysticism as well as on cults of personality around IDEO co-founder David Kelley and others such as Bill Burnett. It is important that the quotation about innovation above came from Kelley. The d.school sells his guru-ism. It is difficult for the organization to retreat to a reasonable position when overblown claims are baked into its DNA, when its very business model involves taking commonsense and wrapping it in an aura of mystique.
Along these lines, the true gem in the d.school email may be tucked away at the bottom (in what was the author’s signature), in a bit of hyperlinked text that reads “Read why we think 2018 is the Year of the Intangibles.” The link takes you to an essay written by two d.schoolers for Bright Magazine. It’s a classic work in d.school reasoning. It argues that we live today in a special, risky time of “incessant murkiness,” and that we have entered a “peculiar moment in history . . . the age of ambiguity.” Again . . . got any evidence? (Of course, the phrase “age of ambiguity” has also been used to describe the years between the 15th and 17th centuries and the late 1960s, and the writers might want to check in with Simone de Beauvoir’s 1947 book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, before arguing that we have any special claim on ambiguity. For sure, in US history, the Civil War was perhaps more ambiguous period for some people; on the global stage, World War I was . . . complicated.)
Don’t worry, though, the authors have a solution. They explain that Design Thinking can be boiled down to eight abilities: four “tangible” ones and four “intangible” ones. The intangible abilities are the answer to the year 2018, the age of ambiguity. So check it out, folks: this is the year of the four intangibles: “Move Between Concrete and Abstract, Communicate Deliberately, Design your Design Work, and Navigate Ambiguity.” If you dive in and move beyond the mumbo jumbo and the meaningless diagrams that would make even L. Ron Hubbard blush, you’ll find once again that these four “intangibles” are commonsense put in DT-jargon. “Communicate Deliberately” means just what it sounds like: being clear. Not new, not a special possession of designers, not a response to an ill-defined special moment.
Do you know what else was intangible? The Emperor’s New Clothes. Spoiler alert: Because he wasn’t wearing any. Marketing commonsense as something novel is central to the d.school’s identity. When education, business, and mystical cults of personality are combined in this way, one of the first victims is the pursuit of truth, the core tradition of universities, which will always be pushed aside by the question of what is most rhetorically effective for creating more profit. I encourage you to read, “2018 is the Year of the Intangibles,” with this question in mind, “What upside down world have we entered where university leaders — at elite Stanford, no less —could be promoting this kind of hollow bullshit?”
Moreover, some d.schoolers blur the line between their external work as self-help and consulting gurus (which, of course, pays handsomely) and their work at Stanford (which probably does, too, despite the lack of scholarly credentials and heft). Here, for instance, are screenshots of Bill Burnett’s Stanford Life Design Lab (d.life) and external, proprietary website for Designing Your Life workshops. The latter rake in a cool $799 a pop; Stanford DT Bootcamps can go for $13k or more. No wonder Stanford loves this business model.
Indeed, a few members of the Stanford faculty wrote me with serious concerns about the conclusion of my essay: I ended both the Medium and Chronicle versions of my essay by lampooning Bill Burnett and his co-authored self-help book, Designing Your Life, pretending that Burnett had seen through the boondoggle and become a standup comedian on a mission to ridicule DT and his former self out of existence. My point is that the only world in which Burnett’s words could possibly make sense is one in which he is the ultimate prankster.
It turns out, however, that rank-and-file faculty who now must live in such a world begged me to make it clear to my readers that Burnett is no joke, but rather as earnest an evangelist of DT as they come, including preaching the idea that you can literally use DT to design your life. In short, they worried that my satire would prove too subtle for those unacquainted with Burnett or the Stanford environment. Indeed, the faculty regard Burnett’s antics and the university’s love affair with DT as a serious threat to Stanford’s culture of learning.
As one faculty member wrote to me, “What Burnett is up to is no joke and he’s no comedian. As I read your Chronicle essay, I kept waiting for the punchline at the end to let slip that’s he’s dead serious. This is the world I live in at Stanford: people and trends quickly become caricatures of themselves without even realizing it. Administrators and even faculty who should know better drink the Kool-Aid and peddle DT as if it belongs to a real education. It’s embarrassing and demoralizing.”
As a historian, I typically try to avoid making predictions, but in this case, I feel a few are safe enough: In time, Design Thinking will fade away like so many other management fads and so much ephemeral business bullshit. Individuals in the design world already report that the Design Thinking brand has gotten so watered down its increasingly difficult to profit from, and the chances that lightning will strike twice and IDEO/d.school will make another PowerPoint presentation that will rake in millions of dollars are exceedingly slim. All of this will blow away.
Meanwhile, Design Thinking gurus will enrich themselves, even though, like Clayton Christensen, Richard Florida, and other innovation “experts,” their claims don’t check out. In the interval, the thing that will suffer the most — beyond the suckers talked out of their money — is our higher education system. To the degree that higher ed Design Thinkers are successful, they will make our universities more like corporations and our curricula more like shoddy, shallow forms of business schooling. And saddest of all, some members of the higher education community will have pretended or been deluded into believing that the emperor was wearing new, fetching clothes, when, in fact, all of his ugly realities were hanging out there for everyone to see.
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— — — — — Forwarded message — — — — -
Date: Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 8:08 PM
Subject: [dschool-teachingteams] FYI — negative piece on design thinking in the Chronicle of Higher Ed
Hi d.school friends and family,
I want to give you a quick heads up that there is an article in the current print and online edition of the Chronicle of Higher Ed that takes aim at the d.school and design thinking more generally.
The article is written by an assistant professor at Virginia Tech. It’s quite an unusual choice for the Chronicle: the piece was originally posted a few months ago on Medium under the title “Design Thinking is Like Syphilis: It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brain.” It’s not fact checked, and doesn’t use much clear evidence to support the author’s thinking. The Chronicle posted a slightly amended version online last week, with a more family friendly title.
I wanted you to have some ready language (see below) in case you are asked about this directly. A number of faculty from Stanford and other schools have reached out to see if we wanted them to rebut any of the content, so the language is crafted with that audience in mind. But please feel free to adapt it to suit your own voice or style if you find it useful.
Happy to hear any thoughts you have on this.
We’re watching this piece carefully and so far it is only getting a small amount of traction. Most interesting, many comments to the piece on the Chronicle site, including this letter to the editor, are quite articulate and nuanced.
We are currently holding off responding publicly, because we think if we respond directly it may actually give him more attention. At this point I think it makes sense to hold off on direct rebuttal, but if things change and he picks up momentum, weighing in might be the right approach.
We have seen many cases in which thinking and acting like a designer have helped students grow and evolve, in both measurable and immeasurable ways. It is truly powerful to see the impact of how students and alumni have brought their design thinking skills into fields as diverse as healthcare, law, engineering, and education (just to name a few).
In his article the author refers to different steps of design thinking and follows it up by saying that there is nothing new here… that it is “common sense tarted up in mumbo jumbo.” Seeking to understand the people you’re designing for, finding inspiration beyond your own context, developing new perspectives, coming up with new ideas, trying them out with people… all of these things should be common sense. And yet, these methods are rarely employed when people are seeking new solutions to persistent problems in business, in government, in healthcare, and in education.
We certainly agree that design thinking applied in shallow ways is not productive. And we recognize that because design thinking has become so widespread it is being interpreted in many ways, to varying degrees of effectiveness. But overall, we are sorry to see that the issue he has with design thinking has distracted him from the countless examples where thinking and acting like a designer has helped people create new, powerful solutions to improve outcomes for the people they are serving.
I’m happy to discuss this further — we absolutely welcome rigorous discussion and critique about the efficacy of what we do, and the goals we are trying to achieve.
Read why we think 2018 is the Year of the Intangibles