Critiques Help Us Think Critically About Design Thinking

There are always new critics of design thinking popping up. Should a librarian-advocate for design thinking pay these critics no mind – or pay attention to what they have to say? There may be more value in the latter option.

Confirmation bias is a real problem.

We create our own filter bubbles in which we expose ourselves only to those ideas that support what we already believe. We may do this subconsciously in choosing what newspapers, magazines and programs to follow – as well as who we follow on social media. When we expose ourselves to content that challenges what we think or believe we simply, our biases cause us to ignore or dismiss it.

Those who believe in the value of design thinking may be inclined to write off its critics as jaded, thin skinned designers who are angry that non-design professionals now think they too can be designers if they just know of and practice design thinking.

Would you watch Natasha Jen’s video titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit? Or would you just move on to the next piece of content, writing that video off as just another disgruntled designer out to dismiss design thinking.

If we take the time to dig deeper into these critiques, beyond the point where they talk about the weaknesses of design thinking, we might actually learn something useful. For example, I found it helpful to listen to Jen discuss the role of “crit” in design professions. How might librarians who want to practice design thinking explore the need to have their solutions subjected to some version of the design crit?

The Problem With Design Thinking is That I Still Don’t Know What Design Thinking Is” shares another common refrain from critics, which is that design thinking is too vague, no one really gets what it is and that it’s too much about thinking and too little about doing (hence the term “design doing“). This blog post is a good read with some realistic concerns about design thinking, coming from someone who’s organization had adopted design thinking. There is a good argument here for why it needs to be more actionable.

Then you have a sarcastic, hostile takedown of design thinking in Lee Vinsel’s “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains“. Well, if I had said nothing, the title would have told you all you need to know. It’s a long read that rehashes previous takedowns of design thinking. These posts can be helpful for the comments (there are many), from both those who agree and disagree. Have a look.

Critiques of design thinking are hardly new. For as long as non-designers have adopted design thinking as a positive force for their work, someone has found something negative to say about design thinking.

In the post-design thinking toolkit environment, I think most of the critics overlook how practical, actionable and concrete design thinking has become for many non-designers. I would agree that prior to the toolkit, design thinking was somewhat vague. With the toolkit in hand, you don’t need to be a designer to get closer to working and thinking like one. What would the critics have to say about it? Would it change their thinking?

It would help if we could all get over this designer vs. non-designer conflict. I think I speak for most librarians who practice design thinking when I say we would never think we’re on the same level as a professional designer. Most of us simply see it as a practical tool that is sometimes applicable in a particular situation.

When encountering critiques of design thinking, no matter how hostile an approach the critic may take, it is best to avoid becoming defensive – or simply writing off the piece as unworthy of your time. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to change your overall perspective on the value of design thinking for problem identification and solution development. So why not go ahead and take a closer look at what’s being said.

It matters little what subject we’re talking about. It could be libraries. The important point is that advocates need to be aware of and understand the naysayers and critics. We avoid them at our own risk. The more we know about the critics’ arguments the better prepared we are to counter it and prepare ourselves for the inevitable attack on our thinking.

Imagine you’re in a meeting to discuss organizing a design challenge and an adversarial colleague says “I heard that real designers are calling bullshit on design thinking. They say it’s just business jargon that librarians adopt so they can make pretend they know something about design”. Your turn to respond. What do you say?

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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