Is Design Thinking Really Bullshit? Thoughts from Marty Neumeier

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Last June, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen gave a main-stage presentation to a rapt audience of 1,000 at Adobe’s 99U conference in New York City. Her talk was engaging, funny, and brought forth some heady thoughts on the design thinking process. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Natasha Jen gave a main-stage presentation

An engaging speaker, Jen heads up the teams at Pentagram responsible for clients ranging from the Guggenheim Museum/Foundation to Chanel. As just of example of her work, she designed the latest Harvard Graduate School of Design annual compendium of student work, Platform Ten: Live Feed.

Her 99U talk included examples meant to show that solutions attributed to design thinking process — for which the services of expensive consultants are apparently necessary — are obvious solutions: a hospital puts a colorful cartoon mural on the wall of their children’s MRI facility to help frightened kids relax; a beauty company features younger models in ads when its customers are aging out.

The Design Thinking Process: Helping or Hurting?

Lots of ink and pixels have already been spilled on this debate, but it keeps coming up for me. One reason is that big-name universities like MIT, Columbia, Dartmouth and Cornell keep sending me emails, texts and sales promotions to get me to sign up for their courses on the subject .

So, is design thinking really bullshit? Or is the design thinking process a subject for our august institutions of higher education to be teaching?


Is this process truly dangerous? Or does the it help get better products and services and human-centered innovations out in the marketplace and the world?

Marty Neumeier

Who to ask? Marty Neumeier, of course.

From 1996 to 2001 Neumeier was publisher of Critique, “The Magazine of Graphic Design Thinking,” which he developed, wrote for, and designed. I loved that magazine: contributing to it, reading the articles, studying the still-brilliant design of the copies on my office shelves.

photo courtesy Jack Hadley

photo courtesy Jack Hadley

In 2009, Marty wrote a book on design thinking titled The Designful Company. Soon came many more books, including two about design thinking: Metaskills and The 46 Rules of Genius.

design books

Now Head of Transformation at Liquid Agency in San Jose, CA, he consults to the CEOs of companies like HP, PayPal, and Walmart.

Neumeier characterizes himself as “a graphic designer and author of books on the design process since Johannes Gutenberg was an intern.” So let’s hear what he has to say.

Q: First of all, Marty, do you agree with Jen’s timeline on the origins of the term ‘design thinking’?

A: Actually, Jen’s talk on design thinking triggered a series of flashbacks for me. But I’d like begin by tidying up her timeline so it sparks a little more joy. Jen is correct to start with Herbert Simon, who proposed a definition of the process that’s hard to argue with: Designing is changing an existing situation to an improved one. In other words, design is deliberate change for good. That doesn’t sound exactly like graphic design, but it doesn’t exclude it, either.

I would next pop in Donald Schön, a design philosopher who talked about ‘reflection in action’ — the mind-hand process that we designers are so familiar with. You make a mark, you change it, you make another mark. You assess and learn on the fly. You ‘self-critique,’ a term Jen used in her talk.

Jen focused on the lack of criticism she finds missing from the process. Isn’t criticism — evaluating and figuring out whether something ‘is good or not’ — inherent before closing out one step and beginning the next? From Empathize to Define; Define to Ideate…?

Formal critiques are part and parcel of design thinking. In my experience those critiques are much more rigorous than what passes for criticism in most design schools and professional studios.

She got a big laugh by showing a slide of how the process is visualized as a linear chart of five hexagons. Circles too. I just grabbed these off Google images, and there are lots more. Is there a different or better way to visualize it?

design thinking

Real design thinking is not a simplistic five-step process. That’s crap design thinking, of which there is plenty, I agree. Traditional business thinkers love to package any new idea into a trademarked process. They’re not alone, however. Graphic designers do it, too. Check out all the design firm websites that have links to ‘Our Process.’

Do you agree with the proponents of the design thinking process when they claim that it can be applied to any problem?

Yes and no. Horst Rittel — who should be on the timelin
e — a German design theorist and professor at U.C. Berkeley, developed the idea of ‘wicked problems,’ complex challenges that can never be solved, only tamed with the application of systems thinking. His field of work was design theories and methods, the understanding that planning, engineering, policy making are forms of design. When you tackle wicked problems, they fight back. They don’t roll over and say, ‘Thank you for solving me.’

I define design thinking as the process of working through a complex challenge using a succession of prototypes; i.e., thinking by making. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, as it should.

Do you agree that the work of professional designers is expressed/made/done/created by many tools, not just (if ever) Post-It notes.

The design thinking process is a generalized one; there’s not a specific formula, recipe, methodology, technique, or prescription.

Over the years, volumes of outstanding work have been created by individuals and firms who never heard the term design thinking. Would it be fair to say that it’s a process best suited to large corporations and organizations with a many-tiered approval process?

Yes. Larger organizations and larger teams need a way to collaborate without reducing the outcome to the lowest common denominator. It’s fairly easy to design a stunningly beautiful poster, package, trademark, or exhibit on your own or in a small team — if you’ve got the design chops. Design thinking, used well, can make room for that quality of work on a larger scale.

As Jen pointed out, the process of designing and amassing real evidence and critiquing and making it better is messy. But I wonder if that super-simplification was necessary to get corporate folks to think about design at all. For example, the phenomenal success of OXO Good Grips, as useful products and a successful company, has been widely attributed to design thinking as practiced and taught as a methodology by IDEO.

Yes, design thinking really took off in the early 2000s when IDEO, consultants to organizations from manufacturers to school systems to governments, embraced it as a firm-wide approach. It caught fire in the business world because the same approach we designers use to address creative challenges can also be used to address business challenges: strategy formulation, decision making, business modeling, crisis management, even leadership itself.

To address a deficiency in traditional business thinking — that business leaders can’t imagine what they don’t know — design thinking inserts that ‘making’ step, which is what we creative people do for a living. We propose concepts that traditional thinkers can’t imagine. We sketch, prototype, document, test, explain. Our making skills change what clients know and what they do. We’re the key to their innovation.

The easiest way to really understand design thinking is to compare it to traditional thinking. Traditional thinking uses a two-step process: know and do. You know something because you studied it school, or you tried it successfully in your last job, or you saw it in a design magazine. You move straight from knowing to doing. You adapt your knowledge to the new challenge, maybe adding a twist here or there.

But what if you’ve never seen this problem before, or you’d like to solve an ordinary problem in a completely original way?

In these cases, your previous knowledge won’t help. You need design thinking. So you insert that middle step. You imagine a new solution that you’ve never seen before, and then you make it. You prototype it using sketches, mockups, models, or whatever you need to make to see and show how it works. This step not only changes what you know, but what you do. It gives you rough approximations that you can evaluate, modify, and shape into a new-to-the-world idea.

What Jen described sounds like a very different approach that what you just expressed as ‘what we creative people’ do. She said: ‘The fact that we are living with this buzzword is the precise problem.’ Do you see a problem here, or an opportunity?

Here’s where my experience might shed some light on what Jen and others are feeling. She seems to be giving voice to moral outrage, asserting that the world outside professional design is stealing and devaluing our credibility. Isn’t this our domain? Haven’t we worked long and hard to bring our craft to a point of aesthetic sophistication? How can they call what they’re doing Design Thinking? How much talent does it take to stick little pieces of paper on a whiteboard? Can design really be reduced to a five-step process? Where’s the self-criticism that makes design so rich and deep? How can they steal the whole conversation with their phony jargon and make a ton of money from it? Money that should be ours?

In short: How dare they? I will tell you right now that this sort of wailing will get us nowhere. It’s not only counterproductive, it’s a waste of opportunity.

Natasha Jen

Hmm, I don’t agree with your analysis that Jen’s point of view stems from moral outrage. And I do agree with her disdain of corporate-jargon-speak, that these aren’t the words we use when we talk about design. But is this the only or best way to communicate effectively with business people?

As to cheapening the conversation with junk words, I’m continually amazed that graphic designers, some of whom believe our profession exists at the crossroads of culture, can’t handle a few silly neologisms. Words of all kinds should be of intense interest to all communicators.

design thnking

I’ve interviewed many 99U attendees, who come from all over the world. My sense is that few of them do what Pentagram does. They are ‘real’ designers, but they don’t design books or posters or anything printed on paper; they don’t work on brand identities or exhibitions. These are the people responsible for our User Experiences. They work for tech companies and digital agencies. They make apps. The 99U mainstage speakers and workshop leaders are there to open their heads, inspire them, and turn them on to new tools and methodologies. On the other hand, a high percentage of readers of are more traditional designers and illustrators. Can the design thinking process help them — help us — in our day-to-day work? And in successfully presenting and selling that work to clients?

I w
ill try to answer that by giving some examples: In the 1960s, Paul Rand and Bill Bernbach teamed up to create a new kind of advertising based on brevity, wit, and Modernist design. This led directly to the creative revolution that spawned the famous VW ‘Think Small’ campaign and the witty work of George Lois and others.

In the 1980s, Steve Jobs handed out early Macintosh machines to creative leaders to see what they might do with them. He offered one to Milton Glaser. While Glaser was a big believer in the creative revolution, when it came to computers he turned up his nose. He said there was nothing of interest for him; every tool he needed was already in his studio. Considering his curiosity about so many things, that was a shocking stance.

In the 2000s, the AIGA held a panel on branding at its national conference. The AIGA president at the time, [the late] Bill Drenttel led the discussion, which quickly turned to a condemnation of branding as ‘an inherently dishonest practice.’ I was in the audience, and it was just after the publication of my first book, The Brand Gap. So I raised my hand and said, ‘Excuse me, but I believe you’re confusing branding with advertising. Branding is a long-term investment in a company’s reputation. Dishonest branding, by definition, is not branding at all. It’s un-branding.’ The rest of my comments were drowned out by shouting, and the panel disbanded after ten minutes.

So, 20 years ago branding was anathema to graphic designers. And now they are—we are—experts at doing it?

Yes. And now the bogeyman is design thinking.

Engineers and software designers in Silicon Valley have a term for this syndrome. It’s called ‘NIH,’ ‘Not-Invented Here.’ It’s the observation that creative people can be dismissive of ideas that don’t originate with themselves or their in-group. In the early days of technology this became a real problem: companies were unable to react quickly to competitive threats because entrenched thinkers felt that their competitors’ ideas just had to be wrong. NIH was the MAGA hat of Silicon Valley: Make Engineering Great Again! Eventually, tech leaders rooted it out.

Someone once said that creative people are cats and business people are dogs. Dogs get along with each other and move happily in packs, whereas cats are aloof and territorial. They’re suspicious of change. Their creativity is confined to the territory they know. Designers may be more like cats, but we do change. We ultimately joined the creative revolution. We adapted our work to computers, and do amazing things with them. And we learned how to leverage branding.

We will also figure out how to harness design thinking in ways that will elevate it to a new level of aesthetic magic.

This June, Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, will be a mainstage speaker at 99U. I will be there. Stay tuned to find out what he will have to say.