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Design thinking is the opposite of inclusive design

NYU professor Natasha Iskander argues that design thinking only serves to uphold the status quo.

Design thinking is the opposite of inclusive design
[Photo: AshleyOlsen/Shutterstock]

Design thinking is business’s favorite buzzword, and it’s helped bring design to the table in the corporate world. But the methodology–long championed by Ideo as a six-step process that can solve any problem, no matter how complex–also has its detractors. Pentagram partner Natasha Jen has called it bullshit. Others have decried it as a cult, or as common sense dressed up as expensive consulting.

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Now, there’s a new argument against design thinking. Natasha Iskander, an associate professor of Urban Planning and Public Service at New York University, writes in the Harvard Business Review that design thinking doesn’t really encourage the innovation it claims to create. Instead, she writes, it is “a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo—and an old strategy at that. Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process.”

In other words, design thinking, by giving the designer total authority, squashes more inclusive design practices. Even in the design thinking phase “empathize,” where the designer is supposed to listen to users and understand their perspective, it is still the designer who is deciding what elements of the users’ experience are relevant. Iskander compares it to a similar technique called rational-experimental problem solving, which was popular in the 1970s and ’80s:

“They turn the everyday ability to solve a problem into a rarefied practice, limited only to those who self-consciously follow a specialized methodology. In fact, problem-solving is always messy and most solutions are shaped by political agendas and resource constraints. The solutions that win out are not necessarily the best—they are generally those that are favored by the powerful or at least by the majority. Both rational experimentation and design thinking provide cover for this political calculus. They make a process that is deeply informed by social and economic structures seem merely technical or aesthetic.”

These two problems make design thinking, by definition, exclusionary. And that, Iskander writes, “has allowed us to celebrate conventional solutions as breakthrough innovations and to continue with business as usual.”

What’s the solution to design thinking’s inclusivity problem? Iskander calls it “interpretive engagement”–a new methodology that is focused less on bite-size steps and more on grappling with problems and all the politics that surround them. She uses two proposed solutions to making New York more resilient post-Hurricane Sandy to show the difference: One involves literally building a wall around lower Manhattan to protect it (and its valuable real estate)–even though the multi-billion dollar project won’t withstand the storms predicted to occur by 2050. The other, developed through an open design process with the community, imagines building a series of organic islands along the shore of Staten Island, thus “[reimagining] catastrophe as an opportunity to create a new ecological future.”

Interpretive engagement doesn’t have quite the ring to it that design thinking does–but it’s a reminder that all the pushback against design thinking can lead somewhere more thoughtful, that includes all the messiness of the real world and real people.

The full essay is well-worth a read. Check it out here.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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