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Is Design Too Important To Be Left Only To Designers? Part 11

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 17, 2009

I’m reposting a comment by Anne Burdick that links to her speech at Parsons which led me to say raise the issue of whether or not Design was becoming too important to be left just to designers.

Check it out.

“My comment is ancient by blog standards but nonetheless, if anyone is interested in reading the original talk that led to Bruce’s post with the incendiary title, a pdf can be found at:

I am interested in how the appropriation of design by non-designers may give us (designers) insight into the power and definition of design. I believe that our focus on developing a design profession in service to industry has interfered with our ability to understand and advocate for design in larger terms. If design practitioners, educators, and researchers don’t expand thinking about the field, we risk its dissolution into other fields who may do a better job at claiming its powers.

Of course this isn’t a process that can be controlled and I do believe that there is much to be learned through exchange and the testing of boundaries. But I do think that “makers of stuff” need to be better advocates for their unique way of engaging with the world so that the “thinkers” out there—as if making were distinct from thinking—don’t get it in their heads that a few post-it notes and a white board are all one needs to be a designer.”

Reader Comments


June 18, 2009 9:43 AM

Hey Bruce, hey everybody,

thanks for your BLOG and for this article! I'm a student at the d.School in Potsdam, Germany, ( and I'm not a (real) designer. I studied comparative literature and other similar things (like theatre science and Italian) and I am working as a futurist for a big german car maker.

I really have to strengthen your argument: the best part of the concept of design thinking is the idea of interdisciplinarity. At the german d.School we have engineers, nutrition scientists, psychologists, philosophers, artists, designers and many more. (Even a future music conductor.)

It is wonderful to see how these people work together and come up with new ideas. And (believe it or not) they understand each other - most of the time - because they speak the same language: design thinking!

In order to come up with new, sustainable ideas you have to have the perspective of as many different people as you can get and everybody brings in his or her special way of thinking and (!) of doing.

Cheers from Germany,

Fred Colloyp

June 18, 2009 3:03 PM

I agree with Anne that the whole "thinking" thing is a red herring. As often happens at such times unfortunate lables for something new going on catch hold, in this case "design thinking". Design is always about acting. Whether you design a poster, a toaster, a day at the park, an organization, a derivative, or a response to poverty, it is not really designing until actions associated with bringing it into being get underway (sketching, observing, discussing, prototyping, storytelling, and sure, thinking).

I think that design thinking's advocates have in mind that there are multiple kinds of thinking and one that has been ignored is the sort that designers do. This kind of think often happens in naming movements. But as suggested by Anne's remarks, it ends up privileging the noun, in this case "thinking" (nouns act like that; they love being in control).

The deeper truth of our current situation seems simple to me. We design whether we acknowledge it or not. Credit default swaps were designed. So were the rules by which banks made loans and the terms of the auto industry bailout. It is just that the people designing them didn't always engage in the best design practices (or perhaps even decent ones, or indeed any design practices at all!). Sometimes, it was because they prefer to see themselves as engines of decisions, but often it was because they are unaware of just what it is that designers know and do.

When we don't think about our how we are designing, we run the risk of doing it poorly. No group knows more about how to do it well than designers and design educators. It is time for business people, lawyers, doctors, engineers, governments and others to tap into that resource.

Karl Gerstner, the great graphic designer and founder of the Swiss firm GGK said it brilliantly "Design must not be understood as an activity reserved to artists. It is the privilege of all people everywhere." And, I would add, the responsibility.

Hans Kaspar Hugentobler

June 20, 2009 10:22 AM

Most of what is designed in our world (especially in non-industrialized countries) is designed by people who are not professionally trained designers.

Most of what is designed in the industrialized world is designed by cross-disciplinary teams. Take a car. It is designed, but trained designers contribute to a car´s design only to a certain degree. And in many cases then they are just executing framed challenges that have been set by marketing, product management, engineering or strategy.

In other cases, designers are simply left out of these teams. There are sometimes good reasons for that as designer more than often lack some critical skills in order to be able to work in such teams. (I am glad to hear though that at in Potsdam it seems to be different). And in many cases those that are part of these teams lack some important skills designers may bring to the table.

These inequalities relate to power issues for which designers and especially design educators as well as the design press are to a great degree responsible (the focus on artifacts vs. solutions, a romantic portrait of design, etc.). Even more so management eduction that produces MBAs that do not even no about the product or service space at all.

Designing is a natural human ability. Trained designers are actually a marginal group of all those that actually design. All people can learn from trained designers, but trained designers can probably learn even more from the non-designers who design since humanity exists.

Hans Kaspar Hugentobler
Chen Hugentobler Associates
Zurich, Switzerland

jeanine Guido

June 24, 2009 5:06 PM

I cannot agree more with Hans and Anne's comments. Designers at all levels and disciplines are feeling the transformation that is currently taking place in the field, and while some are very excited about it, a great number of them are feeling frustrated.

There is a great deal of talk about "design thinking" as if this is something new or different from what we, as designers, have been practicing. "Design thinking" and "Design doing" are not separate from one another, we practice both everyday; in fact, we are experts at it. The process of design is the natural human process of discovery that we all, conscious or not, follow for everything we do. So that is old news. What is new is that:

1) The business community is now aware of it, has acknowledged its benefits, and has realized that, without it, there is little innovation and
2) Design education and the design community have failed to embrace this new landscape and take advantage of it

The more intriguing question for me is "Who will own design in the 21st century?" And while knowing that design cannot be "owned", a great number of voices that are talking about design thinking are not designers. We need to re-gain the space by reaching out across the table and stand tall next to the left brains. We need to become better advocates for it, better practitioners of it, and the voice of design. And in order to do that, we need to retrain ourselves, speak left brain language, and acquire the new skills necessary to hold our fort.

Jeanine Guido
Design Consultant
New York, NY

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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