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Two top designers debate the value of “design thinking”

Pentagram partner Natasha Jen and Adobe principal designer Khoi Vinh discuss the virtues and pitfalls of design thinking.

Two top designers debate the value of “design thinking”
Natasha Jen (left) and Khoi Vinh [Photo: Jai Lennard; courtesy of Adobe]

First popularized by Ideo in the 1990s, design thinking has since become ubiquitous in the business world but not everybody’s a fan. Pentagram partner Natasha Jen and Adobe principal designer Khoi Vinh discuss the virtues and pitfalls of the multistep creative problem-solving methodology.

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Natasha Jen: The idea of an operational process, without a philosophy or values, without a specific stance on how to look at the world, is highly problematic because every groundbreaking design has a philosophy behind it, good or bad.

Khoi Vinh: I’m certainly not at the top of the list of defenders of design thinking as a foolproof way of solving problems, but design thinking as a practice has been successful for companies that traditionally don’t have design in their DNA.

NJ: Design thinking avoids the idea of quality, of opinions, of an attitude onto the world. To me, those things are precisely what design is really about. Without design philosophy, products are just products, data just data, algorithms just algorithms.

KV: I don’t see having a value system and pursuing design thinking as mutually exclusive. It’s a way of organizing resources and time and people, and making sure they’re focused on the right things at the right time.

NJ: I think it creates a terrible
illusion. It’s the illusion that once you deploy this operationalized process, you can design. You can’t. Talk to people! Do research! We’ve been doing that for centuries across design disciplines.

KV: Design thinking is quite constructive because what you’re doing is taking values from the act of understanding what it is your users need. That’s a powerful value a lot of companies have not had and are not accustomed to infusing into their processes.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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