Purposeful Design Thinking

Design Thinking Needs a North Star

We’ve been on our design thinking journey for almost 6 years as a school. We chose to anchor our school in the design thinking process because we feel it’s the best way to help students learn the skills and mindsets needed to succeed in an unpredictable world. We felt that teaching students design thinking would help best prepare our students for the future, but we didn’t anticipate how much it would help us all navigate the uncertain world we live in right now. We are reflecting on how our commitment to design thinking has helped us during this public health crisis, but we are also thinking very critically about the limitations of design thinking. It should be noted that I very much believe that your writing is not just an articulation of your thoughts, but instead you write to figure out what you think. This is not a polished piece but instead a first attempt to help us understand our own experiences and the possible limitations of design thinking.

I was first introduced to design thinking in 2008 when I was a student at Stanford University. Like many people I was immediately taken with design thinking and the promise of a “human-centered” problem solving approach. It was a high energy, high touch process, and it was fun to create something that others wanted. Of course over the past ten years design thinking has taken on a life of its own, and not only is it fun, but it has lead to some of the most financially successful ideas of the past 10 years.

As an educator, I did not give much thought to the product development aspect of the design thinking process. Instead I saw design thinking as an excellent method for teaching creativity and other essential skills and mindsets. I felt so strongly that design thinking held such promise as an educational strategy that I co-founded a school with design thinking as its foundation. I believed that the world was changing quickly and unpredictably and teaching students design thinking skills and mindsets was the best way to prepare students for a world filled with ambiguity and change. I still believe this is true.

In starting a school based on design thinking it seemed self-evident that students should use their design thinking skills to make the world a better place. Not only did this seem self-evident, it was also very much in the zeitgeist of Silicon Valley of 2012–13 when we were planning the school. What I didn’t realize was the wide variance in the idea of what “made the world a better place”.

As an educator who went to a liberal arts university, trained on the great philosophers I very much overlayed my experiences and world view onto design thinking and thought making the world a better place meant fundamentally improving the human condition, anchored in justice and self-actualization. In creating our school’s mission: “Develop people who believe the world can be a better place, and that they can be the ones to make it happen” I had given design thinking a purpose as we loosely defined “a better place” as a world filled with empathy and kindness. Now six years later I very much realize that design thinking does not inherently have a purpose. Very often “making the world a better place” translates into giving people what makes them happy at the moment.

Design thinking is human-centered, which means practitioners should focus on solving problems that matter to people. This is a worthy ambition, but in practice this means that design thinking is most often used not to solve problems, but instead to make our lives more convenient, giving people what they want. Unfortunately humans do not always want things that promote the long-term common good.

Design thinking has definitely taken ahold of the tech industry and the results speak for themselves. It has been a highly successful process for the commercial approach to creation, which David Edwards defines as “discovering and meeting a general public need before anyone else does, so that we profit and the world profits at least for a while (Creating Things that Matter 2018). By and large technology succeeds because it makes our lives more convenient and comfortable. Humans want comfort and convenience.

Shopping online is more convenient than going to the store, Google succeeded because it made finding things online as easy as possible, Facebook makes it more convenient to share information with people we know. These are all things we want. But we also have to consider the long-term implications of this quest for convenience. A recent MIT Technology Review Article discusses the impact of this in the context of COVID-19.

In terms of online discourse it is quite uncomfortable to wrestle with an idea or opinion with which you disagree. It’s much more comfortable to interact with information and people with whom you agree. As a designer if you know that people tend to default to comfort then the design thinking process would naturally lead you to design an algorithm that makes life online as comfortable as possible. It is not a surprise that being human-centered has created the online echo chamber we all live in now.

This is just one example of how the mindset underlying the design thinking process can lead to something wildly successful commercially, but also undermine the common good. There are many others, most notably as a high school educator we’ve been heavily impacted by the rise of Juuling among teens. Juul was started by entrepreneurs who learned design thinking and as one of our parents, whose son was struggling giving up Juuling commented, “It looks like design thinking was used to create this product, it gives the users what they want and it looks cool.”

We also see this mindset at our school in beginning designers. The mindset is that the designer interviews people to see what they want and then keeps prototyping their designs until the user is satisfied with the design. The successful design is the one that people like at the moment. This overlooks the fact that as humans we don’t always make choices that ultimately improve the human condition and sometimes we even choose against our own long-term self-interest. There is a large body of research that shows that we aren’t particularly good at identifying what will make us happy in the long-term.

I’ve struggled with whether or not design thinking is to blame for this situation. It’s easy to say that it’s merely a process and we shouldn’t be held accountable for how it gets used. I also think that as designers we bear some responsibility for how our designs actually get used in the world and having designed a school that teaches design thinking, we bear responsibility for how our students and staff use it. We need to put a step in the process that gives design thinking a north star.

For us this has meant developing an innovation program that asks students to apply their design thinking skills to solving one of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals.

This program is in its formative stages, but we feel that it is essential to give the design thinking process the goal of a product that does not just make life more convenient, but benefits the common good.

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