Jarrett Fuller


What if design isn’t problem solving?

In Fast Company, Suzanne Labarre has a fascinating piece called “Why Corporate America Broke Up With Design.” Here’s the passage that intrigued me, which I think is worth quoting at length:

If Apple under Jobs was the unattainable ideal for companies, design thinking was its more accessible counterpart. A process popularly associated with the Silicon Valley-born design firm Ideo, design thinking helped businesses do what designers have always done: understand who customers are and what they need. Crucially, it introduced elements of the scientific method—devise solutions, test those solutions—to the unscientific pursuit of lucrative new ideas, and “it spread like wildfire in corporate America because it’s easy,” says Gadi Amit, founder of the San Francisco firm NewDealDesign.

During its ascendance, Ideo was being hired to come up with everything from needle-free vaccines to better Pringles. Clients in the 2000s included Anheuser-Busch, Gap, HBO, Kodak, Marriott, Pepsi, PNC, the Mayo Clinic, and, yes, P&G—Ideo helped the company come up with the Mr. Clean Magic Reach. The fabled image of sneaker-clad creatives sticking Post-it Notes all over the wall is a result of Ideo’s imprint on a corporate world that spent decades in a shirt and tie, scrutinizing spreadsheets.

But for all of design thinking’s appeal, it didn’t always produce exhilarating results. “People were like, ‘We did the process, why doesn’t our business transform?’” says Cliff Kuang, a UX designer and coauthor of User Friendly (and a former Fast Company editor). He points to PepsiCo, which in 2012 hired its first chief design officer and opened an in-house design studio. The investment has not yielded a string of blockbusters (and certainly no iPhone for soda). One widely promoted product, Drinkfinity, attempted to respond to diminishing soft-drink sales with K-Cup-style pods and a reusable water bottle. The design process was meticulous, with extensive prototyping and testing. But Drinkfinity had a short shelf life, discontinued within two years of its 2018 release.

“Design is rarely the thing that determines whether something succeeds in the market,” Kuang says.

This is one of those essays I want to immediately assign to all my students, not because I necessarily agree with all of it (though there is a lot I think she gets exactly right) but moreso because it challenges the dominant narrative in design today. Below are a few things this strikes in me, that I’m admittedly still working out for myself.

In the broader landscape of corporate America, design thinking was the balancing between art and commerce. When Tim Brown wrote about design thinking in the Harvard Business Review almost twenty-years ago, it was a sales pitch for how design can help businesses make more money. This was when Apple was on the rise and companies wanted in on design. Design Thinking gave the impression it could replicate Apple’s success. But twenty years later, design thinking has finally seen some backlash, from Natasha Iskander in her Harvard Business Review piece Design Thinking is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo to Darin Buzon’s forceful Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy to Maggie Gram’s n+1 essay On Design Thinking. (Even I joined the fun in my 2019 piece for Design Observer, Against Design?.)

What each of these pieces exposes, I think, is that Design Thinking™, at the end of the day, is nothing more than marketing speak. It doesn’t really work. Design Thinking, as a standardized process, consistently produces “solutions” that just actually aren’t that innovative, exciting, culturally-significant. What design thinking does is pad the pockets of the corporations employing these processes.

What design thinking calls “user-centered design” should really be called “corporation-centered design” because most of the “problems” design thinking is “solving” is how to increase the bottom-line.

A few days before Labarre’s essay, I was listening to this fantastic interview with Dan Hill. In it, Dan complains about the “design as problem solving” trope. “We’re not that good at problem-solving, to be honest,” he says. “What designers are actually doing is cultural invention. They are inventing new things, which is different than problem-solving.” (italics mine).

I like this definition of the designer as a cultural inventor; cultural invention seems to me to be much more interesting than problem solver. But what I really like about it is that it gives space back for the designer’s point of view. It makes space for radical decisions, unexpected innovation, and cultural significance.

This is not a call to return to ‘design as author’ or the myth of the designer-genius. The best design, of course, as always, respects its user, audience. But that doesn’t mean we can’t show our work. I think often to this (now-not-online) blog post from Frank Chimero (retrieved via archive.org):

Design doesn’t need to be showy to prove its value, but it shouldn’t be invisible, either. Designers mistake invisibility for elegance and simplicity for clarity at their peril. The best design speaks not only so it can be understood, but also in a way it can be admired by those that use it. What if you were inspired by the things that you used, simply because they were impressive in a way that was evident to you? And why is it bad to try to build things like that?

Under Steve Jobs, Apple famously didn’t do user testing. Designers came to the project with a point of view: ideas about a new interaction, goals for what a product should do or how it should feel. And those ideas manifested themselves in the products themselves. Jony Ive, Apple’s longtime design chief, often cribbed the Dieter Rams maxim that design should be invisible, but, in actuality, the designers in Apple’s products were very visible. Radical decisions from removing drives and buttons to changing ports and chargers, to creating new interaction models or ways of working — these decisions, for better and for worse, did not emerge from a rigorous design thinking process but from designers with strong opinions and the will to bake those into the products.

Think what you want of Apple and Steve Jobs but the products they released are iconic in ways few are: the candy-colored iMacs, the iPod with their white headphone cords, the iPhone, even AirPods. Design Thinking doesn’t produce culturally-defining products like that. Cliff Kuang, in Labarre’s piece, uses the Kindle, as an example of a product with the potential for cultural significance that continually falls short.

I’m sure design thinking has a place somewhere, in some forms of design. I’m not saying we forget it wholesale. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that when design becomes too much like engineering — problem solvers and not cultural inventors — we risk losing the skills the made us interested in design in the first place.

In his book, After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, Tripp Mickle writes about the tension between design and operations — or art and commerce, more broadly — that emerged within Apple following Steve Jobs’s death. The picture Mickle paints is that Jobs was uniquely situated at this intersection, able to understand and work towards strong design decisions without ever losing sight of the business, or the end goal. After Jobs death, that balancing figure was lost, leading to over-indexing on both the operations and the design side: designers got too insular and operations focused too much on costs and processes. Jobs famously said Apple stood at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. Over the last ten years, design has focused too much on the technology and not enough on the liberal arts.

I know many, many people who wanted to become designers after using an Apple computer. I don’t think anyone wanted to become a designer after using a Kindle.