A Plea for More Critical Thinking in Design, Please

Critical thinking not only helps the industry learn and grow, critical thinking is the catalyst for change.

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.


Like 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.