Design thinking or design alchemy?

Tom Lee
9 min readOct 12, 2018

Contemporary quackery or sounding boards for geniuses? In this brief, undisciplined essay I suggest some different ways to think about design thinking.

Design alchemy

In his great new book Outnumbered, David Sumpter discusses the difference between what algorithms can actually do and the way they’re talked about in the media. He suggests much of the data science used in targeted marketing and recommendation engines is better termed ‘data alchemy’. Data alchemy isn’t bad it’s just a lot less accurate and scary than the hype suggests. I want to suggest that calling ‘design thinking’ ‘design alchemy’ might have two benefits: 1) design alchemy suggests inexact and untested practices of making which reflects the way much design thinking is done and prevents its efficacy being oversold; 2) the deliberately less salutary name might act as a balm for the levels of irritation design thinking increasingly provokes in contemporary design discourse. The obvious downside for design thinking and design thinkers: alchemy is a less ambitious practice than the scientific method in terms of truth claims.

The history of charlatanism

If design thinkers are charlatans when compared to university trained and practicing designers in traditional disciplines, then perhaps a perspective on the history of charlatanism and its relation to medical science can offer some interesting ideas for the study of design thinking? The history of charlatans is particularly revealing with regard to the complexities associated with the rhetoric of denunciation. As Peter Cryle notes, in his article “Charlatanism in the “Age of Reason””:

“To call another a charlatan is not simply to practise corporative smugness: it is to enter willy-nilly into the game of denunciation and counter-denunciation. Nobody ever called himself a quack, but everyone who is so called can answer: ‘Charlatan yourself!’” (2006, 244).

Design thinking is of course different from charlatanism in the sense that people willingly own up to and even boast about the appellation and claims to power associated with it (though increasingly less so) — perhaps ‘charlatan’ and ‘hipster’ are a more happy comparison? Nonetheless, Cryle’s point suggestively encapsulates the tension between master discourses associated with a discipline and the pseudo disciplines which trade on their powers. There are plenty of ex-design thinking advocates quick to engage in the name calling games.

There are other commonalities shared by design thinking and charlatanism: the emphasis on rhetoric or persuasive speech, self presentation and the theatre of illusion that accompanies the selling of solutions. Design is particularly susceptible to charlatanism as it often seemingly less grounded in a proven method than science and is typically more concerned with techniques of illusion.

None of this is to suggest we should be reasserting hard and fast distinctions between the illusory and the real, celebrating the latter and denouncing the former. The horse bolted long ago. Influence is influence and the masters of illusion have powers of their own that need to be accounted for in a non-judgemental manner in order to grasp what they are.

Form of knowledge

Following on from the point above, Ian Hacking’s deliberately non-judgemental approach to studying what he calls ‘forms of knowledge’ in the sciences also seems relevant to the study of design thinking. Hacking writes that “any set of declarative sentences, together with a Ouija board and a psychic, could count as a form of knowledge” (1999, 170–171). Hacking goes on to write, “The various possibilities envisaged in the doctrines of the Trinity — including unitarianism — did constitute and do still for some people constitute a form of knowledge” as do “arcane sentences of Paracelsus” (170–171). The aim of the researcher looking at forms of knowledge is frame “some general way to discuss the organization of constraints on directions of research” (170). Claims and counter claims as to validity of a discipline are in this sense less important than the broader context that supports such claims as a possibility.

So what is design thinking as a form of knowledge? Kees Dorst’s adapted notion of abductive thinking or “Abduction-2” is a perhaps the closest attempt to systematically distinguish design thinking from other types of thinking (2011). His use of the term can be traced to traced to the work of Roozenberg and Eckles (1995) who make use of term abduction to understand product design practice. The origins of the word can be traced back to the work of C.S. Peirce, a particularly inventive and peculiar thinker in his own right, who used abduction as a third-way term to accompany the scientific corner stones of inductive and deductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is synonymous with hypothesis formation or what is also called inference to the best explanation. Yet this alone is a long way from the nuance needed to define design thinking: hypothetical modelling and experimental exploration abounds in the sciences. By contrast, Dorst suggests that Abduction-2 is distinctive in it’s emphasis on the creation of new value. The ‘how/working principle’ and the ‘what/thing’ remain bracketed in the equation he draws to explain the design process, while the value-driven ends to which they are put is a comparably explicit, orienting force (2011, 523).

Back to the things?

Focus on aspiration at the expense of the ‘what/thing’ and the ‘how/working principle’ can lead to deliverables that are difficult to integrate into existing structures and systems in the absence of an embedded and scalable network of advocates or appropriate infrastructure. It can also mean that crucial disciplinary training and experience is neglected in favour of confecting hollow aspirations. Not necessarily, but it happens often. Work with a good industrial design consultant and witness the discipline specific knowledge about material performance, design engineering, processes of making, prototyping techniques, and the subtleties of form. Value in the absence of these or comparable capabilities is value of a diminished kind. This is a good reason to be cynical about design thinking.

As recent work in the field of ‘thing theory’ has aimed to show, in the absence of objects to think with, subjects (i.e. thinking, feeling beings) tend to have relatively impoverished inner lives. As Steven Connor writes in “Thinking Things”, “human beings come into their specific kind of being not in the ways in which, through language, they draw objects into webs of value and significance, not, in short, in the work of the concept” (2010, 3). By contrast, Connor suggests that human subjects are better understood as the “the outcome or achievement of objects” (3). In the absence of an object-oriented understanding of design practice, design thinking runs the risk of becoming a kind of thinking without substance. Cameron Tonkinwise makes a similar point when he suggests design thinking would benefit from a more rigorous grounding in updated notions of form, style and taste (2011).

However, in demanding a return to things, it would be wrong to simply reproduce the biases that equate reality with retrograde notions of what constitutes the real and the authentic. Bruno Latour has made this point forcefully with regard the the tendency in Martin Heidegger’s work to see old-world, handmade objects as bearers of truth, and industrially produced objects as somehow inherently lacking (2004). Design theorists including Tonkinwise and Redstrom and Wiltse (2015) have made the same point with regard to interaction design and the typically complex or “wicked” objects native to this design discipline.

Design thinking can become more substantial without necessarily returning to outmoded notions of substance or objecthood. For example, understanding the mathematical thinking that informs coding and computer aided design. Connor’s publication trajectory seems to suggest such a realisation. Living by Number: In Defence of Quantity is among his recent works and it aims to correct a bias against number and mathematics in values driven disciplines typically associated with the humanities.

Systems thinking has also been suggested as a way to supply design thinking with rigour in the absence of the focus on materiality and systems of production that typically guide design practice.

Sounding boards and enablers

Some of the cynicism about design thinking is warranted. However, it’s a good rule of thumb to remember that exaggerated levels of antagonism are often associated with part-truths mixed in with other, difficult to articulate cultural biases that benefit from unmasking. I want to propose four that are specific to the legacy of the wealthy western democracies with which I have the closest acquaintance. These include:

  1. a tendency to devalue or overlook the role of enablers
  2. the enduring association of authenticity with materiality
  3. an emphasis on product or results over process and performance
  4. the waning but continual influence of disciplinary specialisation

Enablers

Increasingly we hear of forgotten enablers, usually women, for great thinkers that history remembers: Princess Elisabeth for Descartes, Mileva Marić for Albert Einstein. Often design thinking and design thinking consultancies act as metaphorical sounding boards for firms wishing to obtain a clearer understanding of what they do. The trouble for design thinking and for the thought-enablers from history is that the value they bring is typically ephemeral and difficult to measure. Often, though not necessarily, innovation emerges from a routine of exchanges with well meaning, less-informed outsiders of a particular disposition. To some extent design thinking plays this role for organisations. However, no matter how crucial, selling a knowledge deficit and a capacity to listen as a service doesn’t sound very compelling as a business pitch.

Materiality & Authenticity

Concrete solutions, ideas of substance, a material difference, tangible outcomes…Despite being told that human activity is increasingly conducted in and through the virtual and the digital, and knowing that our happiness is contingent on connectivity, our language and values nonetheless remain wedded to the idea that truth, reality and authenticity are synonymous with physical presence. The vague, the intangible, and the ambiguous are regarded with a suspicion that is sometimes warranted and sometime regrettable. The drama and sense of masculine bravado that accompanied the now Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he brought a piece of coal into the Australian parliament was a memorable exemplification of how this primitive legacy still impacts human emotion and rationality. The power of physical presence is confirmed to us on a daily basis when hugging the body of a loved one eclipses the comparatively impoverished experience of communicating with them remotely. But we delude ourselves as well: even in the most intimate embraces we in part reside in the virtual spaces of our fantasies and calculations.

Outcomes focus

Instinctively outcomes seem like they ought to be more important than process. The end result is what matters, surely? Aren’t solutions and deliverables are what determines value in a transaction? The tension between outcomes and process is echoed in the discourse around popular sport: the scoreline is what matters but we increasingly hear coaches and players talk about focusing on process and going through the motions. The outcome can be a distraction. To some extent the emphasis on capability building in contemporary business-speak reflects a growing recognition that outcomes are only part of the picture, useful as an indicator for specific purposes, but not always the best place to direct institutional energies. Design thinking is a process rather product driven approach to design. Sometimes this is entropy inducing. In the absence of tangible solutions, measurable results, and definitive outcomes it remains vulnerable to accusations of quackery.

Disciplinary divides

Design thinking is not a discipline. It is an approach that is useful in some trans-disciplinary problem solving contexts and for non-designers to use alongside existing methods as a different way to approach problems and engage customers or citizens in the process of creating new value. It is yet to find a happy place in the current university system. It stirs the greatest antagonism when referred to in close proximity to practitioners in flagship design disciplines like fashion, product design, visual communication and interior architecture. It is a relatively useless form of knowledge for designers in these disciplines, unless they want to start trading on the credibility of their disciplinary training and deliver design thinking workshops for non-designers.

Whether or not it design thinking will become a discipline (i.e. something you could get a degree in) is entirely up for grabs. Any offering in this area would need to have a strong basis in understanding business models, systems thinking, and most importantly, extended periods of experience engaging with problems that require adaptive understanding of legal, economic, scientific or political knowledge sets. My hunch is, that calling such an experience a degree in design thinking would be selling it short.

Connor, Steven. 2016. Living by Number: In Defence of Quantity. London: Reaktion Books.

Connor, Steven. 2010. Thinking Things. Textual Practice, 24(1): 1–20.

Cryle, P., 2006. Charlatanism in the ‘Age of Reason’. Cultural and Social History, 3(3), pp.243–249.

Hacking, I. 1999. The Social Construction of What. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1977. The Essential Tension, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorst, K., 2011. The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), pp.521–532.

Latour, B., 2004. Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), pp.225–248.

Roozenburg, N. F. M., & Eekels, J. 1995. Product design: Fundamentals and methods. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Sumpter, D., 2018. Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles The Algorithms That Control Our Lives. London: Bloomsbury.

Tonkinwise, C. 2016. Committing to the Political Values of Post-Thing- Centered Designing (Teaching Designers How to Design How to Live Collaboratively), Design and Culture, 8:1, 139–154

Tonkinwise, C., 2011. A taste for practices: Unrepressing style in design thinking. Design Studies, 32(6), pp.533–545.

Vassallo, S. 2017. Design Thinking Needs To Think Bigger (July 5, 2017). Fast Company, available from: https://www.fastcompany.com/90112320/design-thinking-needs-to-think-bigger

Wiltse, Heather, Erik Stolterman, and Johan Redström. 2015. “Wicked Interactions:(On the Necessity of) Reframing the ‘Computer’ in Philosophy and Design.” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology.

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Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz. https://giramondopublishing.com/product/coach-fitz/