Sustainable Design Thinking (SDT)

By | August 5, 2022

Practitioners and scholars have long been aware of the limitations of Design Thinking (DT) as has been adopted by private sector and non-profits for their own applications. At some point around 2008, the early batch of design thinking bloggers, particularly those exploring the interstitial spaces between business and design, went silent as the dominant narrative of DT as outlined and promoted by IDEO et al. swamped our content feeds with an attractively simple and user friendly way that promised ‘you too can think like a creative today’. No more debate and discourse, or little unconferences to explore the overlapping spaces – glitzy handbooks, posters, and post-its took over the channels. This blog isn’t being written to review the rise and fall of this miraculous packaging of ‘design thinking for the lumpen masses’ so much as it attempts to introduce the legacy of the past two decades. A legacy I have inadvertently and deliberately been a part of ever since I first heard the term mentioned in the staffroom of the Institute of Design (the new Bauhaus) in Chicago circa 2003. It was a derisive commentary by faculty on the attempt by a competing program to capture the core of an entire discipline and brand it for PR purposes, for were we (ID-IIT) not the progenitors of integrating business planning with design methods and tools for innovation strategy? Anyway, that was then, this is now.

The limits of a marketing campaign‘s capacity to provide the means to solve the complex societal challenges through harnessing our collective capacity for creativity and innovation are now formally recognized by innovation management scholars. Given below is the snapshot of the reasoning why DT is not capable of addressing contemporary organizational challenges, as framed by Verganti et al., 2021.

Verganti, R., Dell’Era, C., & Swan, K. S. (2021). Design thinking: Critical analysis and future evolution. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 38(6), 603-622.

Describing operating conditions in the 2020s is impossible without awareness of the massive turbulence caused by multiple, concurrent shocks (“surprises”) buffeting the global social and natural environments, which include a global pandemic that hit highly industrialized countries much harder than it did the less developed nations; frequent, intense, and unusual weather patterns related to changing climatic conditions; massive supply chain shocks; conflicts and refugees; and various other societal inequities and inequalities, not to mention degradation of the natural environment and biodiversity losses. Design, even with a big D, would have to be overweeningly arrogant in its assumption that it has any capacity whatsoever to address these challenges with prettily arranged sketches on a poster, without any kind of reflection and introspection on its own operating system and its underlying values. As Verganti et al., 2021 state:

“…the change in future scenarios compared to 20 years ago is so dramatic that we cannot assume that Design Thinking will keep its central dominant role. … we speculate even further on the possible trajectory of studies in design and the future role of Design Thinking. Subsequently, we introduce the framework of Figure 6, which provides a map of possible territories of the practice of design. Two important dimensions are suggested to examine the future of design paradigms: the world view of the practitioner and the focal concern.”  Verganti et al., 2021

At this point, and for the purposes of a blogpost on a personal website, all I will say is that from my own dissertation work in deconstructing the design practitioner’s worldview, based on the first principles of creative design, is that Verganti et al.’s framework above assumes that sensemaking and problem solving are distinctly different activities/worldviews rather than intertwined modes of work within one design problem’s solution development process. That is, further elaboration of this is a journal article I am working on based on my 30 years as creative practitioner and my academic work in recent years for my doctorate in interdisciplinary product development.

However, it should be noted that Verganti et al’s analysis of the problems with DT is not the same as problems with design and the thinking of designers, so much as it is an analysis of a marketing and promotion campaign for commercial design services from one particular studio and/or ‘school of design’. As White-Hancock’s excellent analysis of the Bauhaus tradition  as deliberate, conscious, and enskilled disciplinary transgression, and its relevance for a post-pandemic world clearly shows, other schools of design practice can trace their roots to constructivist legacies of innovation going back a hundred years. The Bauhaus’ influence has been so far-reaching, that I can trace the hours I spent drawing straight lines on paper with a pencil in 1989 in Ahmedabad to its design skills development practices.

“Examining the approach of the School [Bauhaus] shows how learning in authentic industry-based workplaces required and enabled innovation. The dual aims of the Bauhaus were (1) to create a new guild of craftsmen that broke down barriers between artists and craftspeople and (2) to reintegrate the artist into a technological society (Bayer et al., 1938). This reintegration of the arts, crafts and industry was key to generating new knowledge and innovations across workplace and education boundaries.” (White-Hancock, 2022)

Do we need a “new” paradigm for design to meet the challenges of a turbulent and evolving world? Or, as White-Hancock (2022) points out, the Bauhaus legacy has not only influenced numerous design education programs across various ‘design paradigms’ (Verganti et al., 2021) but its innovation tradition is well suited to the complex challenges of our post-pandemic world.

With Design Thinking, design has come close to business but maybe at the expense of its attention to society and a long- term sustainable vision. […]  We expect that the evolution of the DesignThinking paradigm, as well as the emergence of new design paradigms, will need to embrace these new perspectives. (Verganti et al., 2021)

Verganti et al.., 2021 refer to Schön’s work from the 1980s, and then give a more recent example of Pendleton and Seely Brown (2018) as examples of alternate ways of thinking and practicing creative design and how they may serve to provide solutions to the problems they have framed in the diagram above. Maybe it is not the new and the novel that is required, but a return to first principles of innovation in a transformational moment in industrialized societies, such as the time when the Bauhaus was first born with its visions of transgressing established practices and boundaries for a holistic solution that encompassed a sustainable future. 1919-1933 were the turbulent interwar years in world history, and the lifespan of the original Bauhaus.

We don’t need something new to replace what does not work, we need something that has sustained itself as a mode of thinking, as a worldview, as a mindset, and as a related set of practices since 1919, not 1999. For sustainable design thinking, look to the Bauhaus for a paradigm that was designed for industrial innovation in products and services.

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