The posters for A Better World By Design (ABWxD)—a conference at Brown University—were red and full of promises: “Eat bugs. Draw Everywhere. Hear colors. Change the world.” I drove there last weekend with a few friends to find out if the event would live up to its lofty poster.
“I could talk about the projects I’ve worked on,” said Michael Ben-Eli, the first presenter I saw at ABWxD, “but I’d rather talk about the universe.” He stood behind a podium in an auditorium full of undergrads and preached for an hour about the cosmic significance of design and the history of the universe. Ben-Eli’s slides were filled with solar systems and galaxies, providing an extraterrestrial backdrop for his sermon. His graying hair matched the texture of the stardust behind him.
Ben-Eli’s session was just one of many like it at A Better World By Design. The conference’s mission is to encourage entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, policy makers, academics, and students to form lasting connections that lead to real-world change. To them, design is about more than pretty pictures or luxurious clothes. Instead, ABWxD focuses on a trendy approach to problem-solving called Design Thinking. The ABWxD attendees want to use design to effect social change.
Ask ten designers to define Design Thinking, and you’ll get ten different answers. But at its core, the philosophy advocates for a more non-linear, empathetic, and interdisciplinary approach to product design. Design Thinkers are encouraged to move their research from focus groups to the field. Instead of designing for people, they design with them. They use ethnographic observation to understand end-users in their “natural habitats” and to gain first-hand experience with the problem they’re trying to solve. Designers may study the habits of doctors in hospitals, for example, if they’re hoping to create a product that reduces hospital-acquired infections.
Design Thinking was popularized by two brothers named David and Tom Kelly. Together they founded IDEO, a consultancy which helps corporations design products, services, and environments. The firm has packaged and sold its design process in a how-to look books to students and professionals.
But for many of the attendees at ABWxD, Design Thinking is more than just a process. It’s a gospel.
I know a religious movement when I see one. For nine years, I attended Christian Heritage Academy and sang Christian rock songs to Jesus and listened to sermons on the creation of the universe. I evangelized. The Bible was for me a collection of divine words that held the answer to all of life’s problems. When I got anxious, I turned to Psalms or Proverbs for comfort. I thought I could make a positive impact on the world by sharing my faith.
The spirit of the conference reminded me of the churches from my childhood. Speakers talked about believing in Design Thinking, and some called themselves “design evangelists.” Their role was to spread the good news about the power of Design Thinking and the omniscience of the Design Process. They remind worried designers that they can always open IDEO’s guide for reassurance.
The disciples sell Design Thinking as a plausible solution to the world’s most “wicked” problems: hunger, healthcare, crime, homelessness. The list goes on. There’s almost nothing that Design Thinking can’t help solve. And any ABWxD presenter who dared doubt the power of Design Thinking did so with extreme care.
Their intentions are good, but the Design Thinkers at ABWxD and beyond have caused students more confusion than inspiration. Design Thinking is pitched as something you can do for a living. It’s packaged and commoditized as a product when in fact it is nothing more than an abstract way of thinking. Even the d.school—Stanford’s school of design—doesn’t offer a degree in design. Students can only take classes at the d.school if they’re enrolled in another department in the university.
The zealousness of the Design Thinking movement has led me and other students to ask a dead-end question: “How can I become a Design Thinker?” There is no good answer. Design Thinking is an ideology that’s being disguised as a career path. And so, we should instead ask, “Which principles of Design Thinking can I use to inspire my other endeavors?”
The Design Thinkers need to do away with the halo, the pew seats, the sermons, the high priests. Their methodology won’t solve all the world’s problems. It’s just one of many ways to encourage creativity, and that’s ok.