A Plea for More Critical Thinking in Design, Please

Lately I've been thinking a lot about thinking. For reasons that are difficult for me to identify, it seems that the design industry lacks any real form of critical thinking. By that I mean a careful and deliberate analysis that's intended to identify genuine existing conditions, rather than the conditions that those with vested interests may want us to believe are true. Could be that the design industry isn't large enough to warrant professional critics, or that the market isn't great enough to consume these critiques, or perhaps that designers are uncomfortable criticizing their colleagues' work? Or maybe it's just that as an industry we are content, or that the intended audience has yet to develop a criterion for evaluation? For whatever reason, my observation still stands: critical thinking in design, whether from historians, educators, authors or journalists, is largely absent.

freudLike it or not, critical thinking is extremely important; it helps us learn and grow, encourages us to look in the mirror and when necessary, go on a diet. Critical thinking is the catalyst for change.

To underscore my point, that critical thinking is utterly lacking, let me provide an example. We are just emerging from a period in which the prevailing sentiment in design was 'innovation', an era characterized by big fish, big dollars and the growth of design.

Throughout the Innovation Era only modest dissent surfaced, notably from Rick Poynor and Michael Bierut (see "Innovation Is the New Black" by Bierut), but it was somewhat marginalized. The prevailing mindset went largely unchallenged, and critiques often appeared more promotional than evaluative. Finally when a careful and deliberate analysis did come, it came not from a designer, design journalist, educator or author, but from an economic journalist, Michael Wendell, in his BusinessWeek article, "The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S." Understandably that article focused on the macro reasons behind innovation's shortcomings; and so, after seven or so years of the innovation era in design we remain, to the best of my knowledge, without a benchmark, to truly measure innovation's value to business, culture or society. Design grew, but did it better the world, or just line its pockets? If innovation was all around, why didn't it move the needle? Was a product produced in 2007 so different from a product produced in 2000? (Maybe because BusinessWeek declared innovation dead in 2008.)

We need to consider this critical thinking deficiency as a serious problem, one that deserves a solution. It's possible the IDSA could become a hub for critical thinking; or that educational organizations—traditionally safe havens where pithy analytical evaluations can live—could drive this forward. Particularly now that two large educational institutions have the added PR pull of big thinkers like John Maeda and Bruce Nussbaum. Or maybe magazines, like this one, could sponsor a 'critically thinking' blog on their respective Web sites. Any which way, let's get on this. Please.

Where do you want to see more critical thinking in design?

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As the President and CEO of Teague, John Barratt is responsible for positioning the company for future success and building upon Teague's rich heritage. During his three years in this position, Barratt has guided Teague in building and strengthening partnerships with some of the world's leading brands. The result of these collaborative partnerships is design work that has been recognized with a growing roster of international design awards.

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  • Nancy Zerella

    This is at the core of my endeavor, 'The Design Narrative™' - a project seeking to demonstrate through multi-media opportunities, this process, so others can learn and 'move the needle' on the conversation about design.

  • Tim Johnson

    Great article, John. As a long-time designer, I am appalled at the lack of self-reflection in our profession that characterizes and improves other professions. There are few standards for appropriate design approaches, little consistency of opinion when it comes to defining successful design, and a self-defeating trend toward the postmodern notion that beauty is MERELY in the eye of the beholder. Yet our fees face constant downward pressure, and more and more "idiots with computers" enter the field every day. All the while, our trade associations play hot potato with the idea of certification, a mechanism that has stabilized and improved any number of professions whose missions were as difficult to codify as ours.

    Tim Johnson, President
    Coactive Brand Lab
    Brand Designer, Marketing and Communications Expert


  • Bryan Zmijewski

    John, I'm a little late to the thread, but I agree that critical thinking is an important aspect of design.

    I created a Venn diagram using Peter Drucker's Paradigm of Change Model and overlaid what I believe to be the roll of design and critical thinking. It's got a digital bias, but I still think it's a relevant talking point.


  • Michael Roller

    While I think more critical thinking can help designers reach the alignment they seek within business culture, I think the greatest opportunity to be more self-critical is in front end work. Specifically, activities like persona development and image boards are largely done intuitively and to "look cool." This approach risks being pretty far off target if the right team isn't established.

    I think there are plenty of critically thinking designers, but not a culture of critical thinking in design. John - how can we start to change our culture for the better?

  • c. sven johnson

    If the issue isn't "critical thinking" in our work, but critical analysis of another designer or design team's work, then in my (marginal) opinion critiques are rare simply because few industrial design professionals are willing to risk potentially adverse repercussions from being genuinely honest.

    By the way, you lost me at: "big thinkers like... Bruce Nussbaum".

  • Steve Portigal

    I'm not 100% sure I follow. Are designers not using critical thinking enough in their work? Is the design community not sufficiently using critical thinking in its interactions around issues that impact them? What specifically should change? Designers don't stand alone nor do they practice alone (and this seems like what designers are always asking for, so presumably a good thing?); Innovation isn't owned by the design community and so the critique, analysis, hyping, and beyond is shared by all comers. Again, I'm still not sure who needs to do what differently, when?

    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • Nicolae Halmaghi

    Mihalyi Czikszentmihaly, the brilliant professor of psychology and management, who dedicated most of his life to studying creativity said: I paraphrase: “creativity and innovation result from a system comprised of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation”.
    Try to look for these characteristics in the current state of design-business-strategy and it becomes instantly clear why, under the current circumstances, design has a very difficult time to establish itself clearly as value delivering entity.

    As long as designers are elevated to cognitive scientists overnight, business executives acquire design literacy by reading business blogs, and as long as journalists promote instead of evaluate, we cannot engage in fruitful discussions that are governed by critical thinking.

    Nicolae Halmaghi

  • Marcus Gordon

    I personally would like to see more critical thinking applied to web design. There seems to be a shortage of understanding the importance of critical "design" thinking in this field, perhaps due its grwoth rate. The focus on the innovation buzzword since the mid '90s and all the others that trickled alongside it, weren't necessarily bad, but misunderstood. Its almost as though Peter F. Druckers teaching on "creative imitation" resulted in mere "imitation" and forgetting the value of "modelling" experience and not just "repeating" it in a different time period.
    I think critical thinking encourages the use of research, a practice easily forgotten, but invaluable in its use.