Design Is Too Important to Be Left to the Thinkers

Recently, at a conference reception (think wine and cubes of cheese), a well-known and influential member of the academic community said to me: "Design strategy is far too important to be left to designers." What a pile of crap, I think. I am pissed, but in a moment of cowardice, I sip my wine, chew my pepper jack, and slink off to lighter conversation. If only I were able to channel Clint Eastwood at will.

But since then I've been considering this notion of "design thinking" by non-designers and its aura of self-importance. You know, it's an area where really smart people spend lots of time pondering strategy, process, core principles, world trends, etc. in order to define the next big thing and change the course of human history. Entire schools have sprung up devoted to the idea.

I'll come right out and admit that I am a right brain, shoot from the hip kinda guy. I believe in an "educated gut" sort of approach. i.e. survey the situation, find inspiration, make it, see what happens, get better at it. True, this approach lacks the patina of "science." But over the course of more years and projects than I wish to admit, I can honestly say that I have been right about more things than I have been wrong.

What I think is wrong about the idea of "design thinking" is the implicit assumption that thinking is somehow removed from the act of design itself. That is, if we get some really smart folks together to ponder and brainstorm paradigm shifts, great stuff will come from it. This is mildly delusional at best.

Great design is born from inspiration, obsession, commitment and diligence. You need to have your head up and observe, and sort out what the truth really is. But in the end, it is about a creative individual taking that information and translating it into something really great. And great design is more than an object: It is an idea. An idea that permeates everything. Think iPod or Harley. These are ideas that coalesce into objects and connect deep into people's souls. This is where great stuff is born. It is about the passion. Go ask Steve Jobs about this.

beats-headphonesCase in point: Beats high performance headphones by Dr. Dre. This new idea in audio was not born of planning, research, pondering or academic thinking. Interscope/Geffen/A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine, hip hop artist Dre and I said: "Wouldn't it be cool if we could marry great audio and great design?" We went out, found a partner in Monster Cable, and did it. Along the way, we were cognoscente of all the strategic implications, etc., but we knew that in the end, it was all about an emotional idea that needed to see the light of day.

Design is too important to be left to the thinkers. I am not saying that forethought is not important. Of course it is. But thought without passion is not going to cut it.

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.

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22 Comments

  • Fred Collopy

    Robert, first I want to acknowledge along with others what a thoughtful post I think this is.

    Next, I want to encourage all of the designers, and thoughtful students of design, here to read and start discussing Anne Burdick's excellent essay on Design Without Designers.

    I can't help noticing in much of the discussion of design thinking an impulse to draw quick conclusions about what produces success in design and to paint "business" and "management" with broad brushes. My experience is that it takes energy to learn about the practices of others and to identify which of those have produced success. Like understanding customers, understanding designers (or business people) is seldom as easy as it seems. And the idea that management has come to the notion of design only in the age of Rotman, IDEO, blogs, and twitter belies the impact of the Intelligence-Design-Choice triad which Herbert Simon introduced to the management literature over a half century ago.

    Finally Robert, is there any chance we can encourage the Clint Eastwood in you to name names. Who said "design strategy is too important to be left to designers"?

  • anne burdick

    I like this play on Bruce Nussbaum's "Is Design Too Important to be Left to Designers?" post. A lot of people are interested in which aspects of design are transferrable. Perhaps it's time for designers to think about what cannot be transferred. I for one think that designers have not been great advocates for their unique way of engaging with and understanding the world--perhaps because throughout our history we've tied our work to the creation of consumer culture. (which is neither good nor bad, simply limited)

    This is where the non-designers come in. For a talk I had to give called <ahref="http: design-wo-designers"="" www.burdickoffices.com=""> "Design without Designers," I gathered examples in which non-designers have appropriated aspects of design. To my surprise, I discovered the following: (a) In each case "design" was defined differently and was generally used to critique a dominant mindset within a particular field, whether business or anthropology. (b) Frequently the "misuses" or "misappropriations" revealed powerful aspects of design that few designers recognize, for various reasons. And (c) we're our own worst advocates--designers had not been invited into these situations because a variety of prejudices or misconceptions about designers exist, namely that we're preoccupied with form or style and don't have the education or world view to participate in larger discussions.

    It's time for designers to differentiate by championing their strengths, which is why I appreciate your post, Robert. For designers, thinking and making are one in the same. Design Thinking (the popular American version) attempts to assign value in binary terms that are symptomatic of long-standing cultural biases (thinking over making, mind over body). By devaluing making, Design Thinking is actually damaging to design.

    --
    Anne Burdick
    Chair, Graduate Media Design Program
    Art Center College of Design</ahref="http:>

  • Henning Fritzenwalder

    I'd say that the matter is rather simple: Insights and science can help your intuition a lot and to rely on your gut alone is not a wise thing if you take design serious. So they can help but they can not replace intuition and design thinking, simply as there's a gap between all things you can express in common languages and things you can not express in words, terms and formula (e.g. beauty). Science can't sketch a design. So you have a point in saying design is about e.g. passion and that's something you either feel or you don't and anyway you can't pin it down in a power point slide. But there's another thing: If you look at the way design is perceived, it is most of the time a social phenomena. Aesthetics have a social function which is to render your social peer group. It's a large part of design and it can be looked at with scientific methods, that's what's User Experience Design is all about.

  • Michael Smythe

    It is true that non-designers can identify needs and even wants, but they are often constrained by what they think is possible. Designers can write better briefs because they are less inclined to base the future on the past.
    Problem solver? That antiquated term dates back to the time we were trying to force design into a science paradigm. How about opportunity making and taking?

  • Anonymous

    The concept that the core of great design (the strategy) can come from people who don't do it daily (who haven't put in their 10,000 hours) is total bunk. Designers who have put in their hours and figured it out already incorporate sound analysis, and yes, strategy in solving every design problem. I really have grown to hate the term "graphic design" - since there is so much that goes on before fresh, yummy project can come out of the creative oven. How about problem solver by way of image, text and technology?

  • Laurie Aznavoorian

    Thank you - great topic and before I start I should say I agree with much of what you say. On the other hand your story gives us an opportunity for self reflection. I believe as designers (I am one - yet I now devote my time to 'design strategy) we are somewhat to blame for this recent movement, there is a lot of great design out there, but face it there is plenty that is ordinary and more important is unresponsive, unaccountable to client's needs. There are a few lucky people out there in the world that get to create for design sake, most of the others are responding to a brief that needs to be met for the design to truly be considered successful. Since many designers don't adequately solve the problem, the result is all designers get painted with the same brush - the one that colours you iresponsible and unaccountable. The second problem is the way many designers communicate and talk about their work. The world has shifted under our feet and there is greater complexity and accountability expected of designers, which is what I believe drives the necessity for each of us to develop a vocabulary to talk about our work that makes it relevant to the users drivers not our own. This of course sounds like design 101 and as I said there are plenty of talented designers that manage to do this and produce fabulous work, but clearly if we were all doing this well the door wouldn't be cracked open for others to come in and handle the 'pointy end' of design.

  • Paula Thornton

    Spoken like a designer in denial. In reality, it's the classic designers who understand the least what the significance of Design Thinking is (and often confuse it with 'thinking about design').

    It's like the junior fish who say: "what water?"

  • Michael Smythe

    Brian raises two important issues:
    CONTROL: Good designers are by nature control freaks, aka perfectionists. They die a little death each time a subtle detail is lost in the process of development, tool making etc. Being a control freak is a good thing that should be valued by the team. When it succeeds its effect is invisible - the product just feels right.
    DESIGN vs SCIENCE: I do not agree with setting these up as opposing forces. Leading scientists use creativity and open minded intuition to achieve breakthroughs. Design thinking should be inclusive and integrative, not combative. I like what the McCoys said: "Nothing pulls you into the territory between art and science so quickly as design. It is the borderline where the contradictions and tensions exist between the quantifiable and the poetic. It is the field between desire and necessity." (1990, Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse.)

  • Kelly Shaw

    Folks IDEO showed us the power of collaboration years ago, not sure why uncertainty persists.

    for some collaboration is about more hours to invoice
    for others it is a means to reducing risk and increasing returns to ALL stakeholders

    One thing is certain fat egos do not collaborate well

  • Brian Ward

    Thanks Bob,
    I have several feelings about this issue.
    1.This is about control. Industrial Designers are a special breed. We do things that others can't or are not allowed to do. We approach things from, like you stated "educated gut" or intuitive perspective. We need a certain amount of freedom to explore and to experiment. My first job in industry consisted of me as an in house Industrial Designer battling with 40 mechanical Engineers, Management, Marketing, Finance, Scientists and a plethora of others to get my ideas across. As an addition to the research+development division, I was so lucky to be placed with top-notched experts that GOT IT! What I learned was that everyone wants to be the Industrial Designer, and control of the project without doing any of the real research and development involved. These people would probably not pass the ID course, because their personalities are really not built to think in this manner. It is simple to Monday morning design, but it is difficult to actually do it.

    2. Design thinking was built around that exactly: Design.
    Try to get a scientist to apply design thinking, he/she will blow a gasket. It is not a linear path of thinking nor development. Again, it takes a different kind of mind to inhabit this arena.

    Cheers Bob!

  • Brian Ward

    Thanks Bob,
    I have several feelings about this issue.
    1.This is about control. Industrial Designers are a special breed. We do things that others can't or are not allowed to do. We approach things from, like you stated "educated gut" or intuitive perspective. We need a certain amount of freedom to explore and to experiment. My first job in industry consisted of me as an in house Industrial Designer battling with 40 mechanical Engineers, Management, Marketing, Finance, Scientists and a plethora of others to get my ideas across. As an addition to the research+development division, I was so lucky to be placed with top-notched experts that GOT IT! What I learned was that everyone wants to be the Industrial Designer, and control of the project without doing any of the real research and development involved. These people would probably not pass the ID course, because their personalities are really not built to think in this manner. It is simple to Monday morning design, but it is difficult to actually do it.

    2. Design thinking was built around that exactly: Design.
    Try to get a scientist to apply design thinking, he/she will blow a gasket. It is not a linear path of thinking nor development. Again, it takes a different kind of mind to inhabit this arena.

    Cheers Bob!

  • John Rousseau

    Absolutely agree that the recent trend toward "design thinking," strategy, big-dig research, etc. is missing something in the mix--as evidenced by the amount of dull, rational, defensible and safe work put forth as innovation. The industry is headed toward an era of increased specialization and collaboration across a broader set of disciplines. We need to figure out how to harness the best of both.

  • Brian Ward

    Thanks Bob,
    I have several feelings about this issue.
    1.This is about control. Industrial Designers are a special breed. We do things that others can't or are not allowed to do. We approach things from, like you stated "educated gut" or intuitive perspective. We need a certain amount of freedom to explore and to experiment. My first job in industry consisted of me as an in house Industrial Designer battling with 40 mechanical Engineers, Management, Marketing, Finance, Scientists and a plethora of others to get my ideas across. As an addition to the research+development division, I was so lucky to be placed with top-notched experts that GOT IT! What I learned was that everyone wants to be the Industrial Designer, and control of the project without doing any of the real research and development involved. These people would probably not pass the ID course, because their personalities are really not built to think in this manner. It is simple to Monday morning design, but it is difficult to actually do it.

    2. Design thinking was built around that exactly: Design.
    Try to get a scientist to apply design thinking, he/she will blow a gasket. It is not a linear path of thinking nor development. Again, it takes a different kind of mind to inhabit this arena.

    Cheers Bob!

  • Ayana Balagas

    Your points are well taken. However, I feel that you are eluding to the fact perhaps that designers don't participate in what you call "design thinking." They are not mutually exclusive.

  • Guest

    Surely the headphones idea was born out of research - passionate, honest and practical research, which should be nurtured by any organization. Design can't be glued to a culture at will. It implies a change in habits, and probably people. But a gutsy idea can't be shielded from criticism and testing, even it comes from a brilliant mind.

  • Raymond Pirouz

    Absolutely, Michael. "well-led cross-disciplinary teams" is what it's *all* about. Everyone talks a good cross-disciplinary game but I posit that a true understanding and appreciation for cross-disciplinary collaboration guided by *passionate leadership* is the management challenge of this next century. Those who understand this will go on to do great things indeed. This is the secret to the misunderstood meme that has been labeled "design thinking" -- it's about giving design a true decision making position at the executive level within the organization and allowing it to thrive in a top-down manner rather than relegating it under layers of bureaucracy. It's about passion & culture.

  • Michael Smythe

    Excellent points made so far - thanks for initiating this Robert. New Zealand's Better by Design conferences have been increasingly characterised by featuring speakers who do not come from a background of design practise - we still have 'suits' speaking for us. Is that because designers are generally inarticulate?

    In the process of researching my Master of Design Management thesis I concluded that design thinking is informed by design process - design by doing / thinking through the hands /trial and error. Design process is grounded in the ability to draw and make things to externalise and evaluate ideas quickly. L Bruce Archer's old great aunt called it 'wroughting and wrighting' as distinct from the other Rs of learning: reading and writing; reasoning and reckoning. So designer bring a different way of thinking to the table: intuitive AND rational / divergent AND convergent. Design thinking is inclusive AND integrative - not binary.

    But Raymond is right to warn against isolationism. Committees may design camels but well-led cross-disciplinary teams can deliver great results. The iMac and iPod are obvious examples. Even Phillipe Stark is backed by Studio Stark. New Zealand examples include the Fisher and Paykel DishDrawer and the Formway Life chair - and more recently their Hum desking and the BE chair (to be marketed as Generation by Knoll) about to be launched at Neocon.

  • Raymond Pirouz

    I'd have to call time out and say that design is too important to be owned by anyone, and certainly important enough to benefit everyone.

    Therefore, the sooner we all get over the unnecessary turf war, the better off we'll all be for it.

    Certainly, there is no way that academics & managers can claim ownership to design without including the design community (who will -- or should -- surely put them rightfully in their place) but on the flipside, designers risk belittling the true value of design by laying some sort of divine claim to it.

    Time to work together -- design, business & academia -- toward a common understanding and better world for all.