First commit: 2023-01-06

Last updated: 2023-03-05

Linked Notes

Notes on Design Methods

These are a number of notes about design methods.

The originial criticism by Jon Kolko is now unfortunately offline but still reachable via the wayback machine. (I also would extend this criticism to “innovation methods”)

These are the problems with design methods:

  1. Methods are watered down instruction, offering only the thinnest description of how design works. It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. It’s a profession, and it’s hard.
  2. Methods imply that experience doesn’t matter, and that anyone with a card can be a designer. Everyone should be able to benefit from the value of design. It should be a liberal art, one respected and taught with the same broad popularity as literature or philosophy. But as it’s an arduous process to become a competent writer, so too is it arduous to become “good” at design. Experience trumps method every single time.
  3. Methods are overly prescriptive. While some come with warning labels, most indicate that “design should be done like this” and students of the methods are taught that there is a right and wrong way to go about solving problems. I see this when I teach both graduate students and professionals. They are constantly looking for the right ways to do things, often asking questions as rudimentary as “what size post it note should we use?” – as if there’s an optimal way to design, and I have that answer and need to give it to them.
  4. And most importantly, methods make design seem scientific, when it is experimental. Design is not just a directed, purposeful activity. It is also reflexive, as is much creativity. We lose ourselves in the work, and the work talks back, and out of the creative process emerges magic. This is not a science of the artificial. It is an exploration of the artificial.

Maybe the best way of understanding methods is to take a page out of Georg Box‘ book: “All methods are wrong but some are usefull”.

That said there‘s a tendency of these methods to morph from tools to process. Meaning, the might have once been created as a tool to help guide the design of a product but have since come to dominate the process. They‘re seen as “the right way” to do certain things. This tendency may be more prevalent in “design thinking”. Are you actually being innovate if you haven‘t even dot-voted once?

The sociologist Tim Seitz wrote an insightful critique of design thinking as a “innovation method” that‘s also well worth considering. Since the book is only available in German I‘ve taken the liberty to translate the quotes here.

He mirrors Kolko‘s critique of design methods as something akin to recipes (i.e. overly prescriptive) blurring the boundaries between process and product:

In the same way that cooking recipes only require the ingredients to be processed together in the specified quantities according to the specified procedures, method cards are about enlivening the intended process with ideas or insights. And another similarity to recipes stands out: In everyday language, it is quite common to say that a recipe tastes good, although this obviously refers to the prepared dish. No distinction is made between recipe and dish — the recipe is the dish. Similarly, in Design Thinking, no distinction is made between the method maps, the methods, or their respective end products. An empathy map is the result of the method empathy map and if I want to know more about it, I should look in the method maps because everything relevant is in there. Over time, the method maps lose their importance in a certain way. Just as you learn a recipe by heart when you repeatedly (re)cook it, the actors also gradually memorize how to carry out the method. Accordingly, experienced design thinkers no longer need to rely on the method cards because they have internalized their guidelines.

Another interesting observation of Seitz is how design thinking workshops prescribe a role to its participants: they‘re encouraged to see themselves as “creatives” only. Criticism, discussion or a weighing of ideas are not part of the process.

[…] for the individuals in Design Thinking only the role of creatives is intended. There is no place for them as weighing, hesitating or judging individuals. Their ideas are explicitly not tested for feasibility at first — “Defer Judgement!” — and are given the status of provisional by working under time pressure and the instruction to produce as many ideas as possible — “Go for Quantity!” — are provided with the status of provisionality. The individuals are thus granted the possibility of a specifically framed self-development, while at the same time they are bound in a fixed structure in two respects: First, the temporal timing of the start and stop signals tells them exactly when their creative potential is to unfold.

Thus he describes “design thinking” as something akin to Taylorism. Every mental movement is not only prescribed by the process but also timed (“time boxed”).

Design Thinking extends the access from the body to the thoughts. The thought movements of the individuals are broken down into individual steps as sticky notes, thematically guided into paths and adapted to the rhythm of the process. The individual persons involved in the process are synchronized in their thought movements and thus connect to the human machine, which is kept going by the individual instead of through body movements through empathy and creativity. As a result of union resistance to Taylorism, the use of stopwatches was banned in U.S. state factories from 1912 to 1948 because they were considered its symbol. 100 years later, stopwatches are back — but now as a symbol of a labor process that promises liberation and emancipation.