design + thinking

“From a surface feature in the hands of a not-so-serious-profession that added features in the purview of much-more-serious-professionals (engineers, scientists, accountants), design has been spreading continuously so that it increasingly matters to the very substance of production. What is more, design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, […]  to nature itself.” (Bruno Latour)

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of Design & Thinking, a documentary film about, well, design thinking. The event was organized by the Vancouver Design Nerds, in collaboration with Gen Why Media and SFU’s Vancity office of community engagement. The evening marked the launching of the Civic Renewal Lab, “a community hub devoted to facilitating, promoting and supporting the use of art, design, media and constructive dialogue to foster better citizenship.”

The film is pretty entertaining. It demonstrates how at the roots of design thinking lies a willingness to experiment (and fail, often), to work from users outwards and thus open up the design process to a diverse set of partners or stakeholders, and to approach complex (ugly, hairy, wicked) problems from as many perspectives as possible. Which got me thinking …

“To be modern is to be dissatisfied with current conditions” (Robert Venturi).

Can we understand design thinking as a somewhat postmodern framework for approaching design’s quintessential modernist project? Does the celebration of multiperspectivalism and the rejection of single, top-down solutions offer more than just another way to allay our obsession for “making things better”? But better for whom? Better for what?, and why?

The film, unfortunately, did not address these kinds of questions, and opted instead for a rather celebratory tone, a perpetual gee-whiz moment. It put so much emphasis on the new methodologies of design that nothing was left for questions of values, ethics and social outcomes. In other words, it celebrated the ‘how’ with little attention to the ‘why’, reproducing precisely the problems design thinking attempts to overcome.

“the power of design is often overestimated.” (Dunne & Raby) 

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