Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

The danger of design thinking

Seyi Ogunyemi has an interesting post about writing as design. Go read it.

Now, I have a story.

When I went to secondary school, they taught us “food technology”. Not home economics. Food technology. We had two different women who taught us food technology: one was a 50-something lady who liked to say ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘cone’ rather than to rhyme with ‘gone’. Eventually she was supplemented for a blonde lady who many of the lads thought was exceptionally attractive and was subject to numerous jokes about “I’d take her buns out of the oven any day” etc. etc.

I tell you this because that is about all I remember from the years spent in the food technology classroom. Food technology was one of the tracks of design and technology. You could do textile design, graphic design, food technology, electronics or plain old design and technology type design: woodwork and all that. Food is a design process, and we’d have to “design” meals in order to fit into a “designed” menu, to match a “design brief” of an imagined restaurant.

Quite what the point of this was eludes me. Cooking and food preparation seems like a pretty useful skill that everyone ought to have. If you are particularly good at it, perhaps you have a career awaiting you in the food business, working in restaurants or designing prepared meals to sell in supermarkets.

Coming up with the range of sandwiches for sale in a national supermarket chain would require considerable design skills: knowing what the customer wants and dealing with the difficulties and economics of large-scale manufacturing and distribution. I can see that as a design challenge, and an innovative solution to a design challenge could potentially save the company money, increase the quality of the product, and maybe the savings could be passed onto the consumer. There’s a whole lot of design thinking going on there. And if you want to teach kids about design thinking, getting them to contemplate something like mass food manufacturing is a good way to ensure they aren’t just thinking of design as being about pixels and typefaces or ink on paper or sewing bits of cloth together, or whatever the medium is that they need to design in.

But, what the design thinking misses is that it is essentially a secondary thing here. When I wake up and want to prepare myself some breakfast, it’s not a “design” issue. It’s cracking an egg, whisking it, frying it and pouring some ketchup on it. Food comes first, design comes second. In a school environment, there’s absolutely no reason why we should be asking children to “design” food when they haven’t yet worked out how to boil an egg or bake a loaf of bread. If I haven’t even got the most basic skills and competence at handling the “medium”, thinking how to “design” in the “medium” is ridiculous (and, really, calling food a medium seems on a very basic level to be a category mistake given the important biological role that eating plays compared to, say, Photoshop).

A similar thing occurs in sex education. When I was in school, sex education was delivered primarily as part of biology. Remember being a teenager: the primary questions one had about sex couldn’t be answered by writing labels on photocopied diagrams of penises and vaginas. Hey, you’ve never been told about the importance of being open and communicative with your partner, and perhaps your school made gay or lesbian relationships basically invisible (thank you, Section 28!), and perhaps you don’t know enough about safe sex… but at least you know where to locate the vas deferens on a diagram. A huge chunk of the problem with education comes from trying to fit them into the curriculum box. When practical education goes wrong, it is treated as academic: knowing how to cook and knowing how to have sex in a responsible and safe way aren’t academic skills, they aren’t things you should get marks for on GCSEs, and shouldn’t be loaded into the “science” box or the “technology” box or the “art and design” box. It’s a category mistake in the same way as people who think that moral philosophy is about how to be moral rather than critical discussions of the concept of morality (cue the usual complaint about the distinct lack of saintliness of certain professors of moral philosophy).

Design thinking is about making decisions, making tradeoffs and trying to find ingenious solutions so you can reduce the tension between competing goals. But if you don’t know what the possible things you can decide are, where the tradeoffs are made, the nature of the goals, the solutions that have gone before, you can’t do design thinking. Design thinking is a luxury of those who already know how to do the thing in question. I’d like to think I can write reasonably well, perhaps to the point where I can appreciate and use a reasonably wide range of literary devices. Certain words can be used to lighten the mood, or to build up tension, or to gently mock the people who use them, or as a form of reappropriation. A particular speciality of mine is surreal introductions to throw people off their guard a bit.1 Obviously, I’m pretty well-trained on the whole expressing righteous anger and bile.

Is writing a form of design thinking? Sure. Do I think of it as design thinking? Not really, but I’m not going to deny it if someone like Seyi challenges me on it. Is it a good way to teach people to think of it as such? Hell no.

The ability to “design words” is something you get when you get good. When you start writing, you shouldn’t—in my opinion anyway—worry too much about what effect you are trying to bring about. You don’t need emotional engineering, you need to just pootle around in your writingmobile, exploring how the thing works, shifting gears and experimenting. You need to burn through words and paragraphs, really just following your natural intuition. Then you get to the ruthless sentence massacre stage that people like Stephen King talk about: cutting out all the crap, self-editing hard. Eventually, you can start thinking of your words as design, but first think of them as words damnit.

"Om nom nom, this design tastes as magical and revolutionary as an iPad."

To have people thinking about “designing” words before they are able to really write is as silly as expecting people to “design” pizzas before they have been taught, well, the basic grammar: to grate the mozzarella, to knead the dough, to slice the peppers and salami and so on.

I suppose I should elaborate this as some kind of theory. Okay then. Here’s a first grasp towards one. Heidegger and Gadamer have written of the hermeneutic circle: this is basically an acknowledgment that when you are trying to understand something, bring yourself and your ‘world’ to understanding the world constructed in the thing you are trying to understand. This takes place at multiple levels. Think of trying to understand a religious text: you come at it with certain prejudgments, and you can’t really take it at face value. Each time you re-read it, you understand a little more. You understand a small aspect of the work, which informs your understanding of the larger work it is contained in. As you understand the larger work, it helps you make sense of the confusing bits of the smaller aspects.

This kind of dynamic, this cycle of understanding and involvement recurs through all sorts of things. Particularly well-written drama is a cycle between you understanding the characters and then understanding yourself through the characters. There’s a cycle of interpretation: you understand the dialogue and the plot through what it is the character is representing, and you understand the point of the character through the dialogue and the plot.

There is something similar going on with design: you need the basic competence to do design, and you need design to understand the point of the basic competence. You need to try and solve some design-like problems, but thinking about it all as design means you miss developing the basic competence. All the design thinking in the world can’t let you transcend the limitations of the medium you are working in, and you need to learn the medium, not some generic idea of “design thinking”. Design thinking risks becoming all consuming at the expense of the actual reality derived from practice.

I once heard a woman on the train saying to someone “If you can design a dress, you can design a house”. As someone whose grandfather spent years studying to become an architect, I felt like standing up and saying “no, you can’t”. My grandfather designed prisons: ensuring murderers can’t roam the streets is rather a different design challenge than getting on the front cover of Vogue or GQ. However much shared “design thinking” exists between the fashion designer and the architect, the Home Office won’t be recruiting the next prison architect from the catwalks of the London Fashion Week.

  1. I never bought into the whole “you need a beginning, a middle and an end” nonsense. Because, “duh, obvious”. Unless the work is infinite, it will begin and end at some point. Often the beginning is some variation on “Well, I’m going to discuss X”. Then the middle comes and it consists of them discussing X. And then the end is “Well, I’ve discussed X.” I think this is completely redundant. Imagine a romantic scene in a movie, and the lead informs the partner “I’m about to kiss you.” Then his kisses them. Then he says “In conclusion, I have just kissed you.” This is why introductions are so much more fun if they are a bit more like introductions in real life: messy and imperfect.