Natasha Jen: Design Thinking Is Bullsh*t

If Google Image search is your sole barometer, “design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its,” says Pentagram partner Natasha Jen. “Why did we end up with a single medium? Charles and Ray Eames worked in a complete lack of Post-It stickies. They learned by doing.” In her provocative 99U talk, Jen lobbies for the “Crit” over the “Post-It” when it comes to moving design forward.

Natasha Jen is an award-winning designer and educator. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, she was invited to join Pentagram’s New York office as partner in 2012. In 2014 she was acclaimed by magazine as one of nine ‘Designers Who Matter’.

Jen’s work is recognized for its innovative use of graphic, digital, and spatial interventions that challenge conventional notions of media and cultural contexts. Her work is immediately recognizable, encompassing brand identity systems, printed matters, exhibition design, digital interfaces, signage and way-finding systems, and architecture. Her clients, past and present, include Harvard x Design, Phaidon, Kate Spade, Chanel, Nike, First Round Capital, MIT, and the Metropolitan Museum, to name just a few. Pentagram made headlines in 2016 for their bold brand work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Jen has earned a variety of awards and appeared in a number of publications, including , Fast Company, , , Creative Review , Metropolis , , and China Art and Design . She was one of the winners of Art Directors Club Young Guns, for which she also served as a judge in 2007 and 2011. She has been a guest critic at Yale University School of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, and Maryland Institute College of Art; and currently serves on the Board of Directors for Storefront for Art & Architecture and AIGA’s New York Chapter.


So, I’m going to talk a little bit about design thinking today. I’m a designer. I’m a practicing, I would say a graphic designer, that’s still the term that I would like to use to describe myself, although our practice is extremely wide going from brand identity design, to exhibition, to publication, to motion, so on and so forth. So, we have been living with this term ‘design thinking’ in our everyday life for a while now. And it had become such a buzzword. And that is my precise problem with design thinking in today’s society and particularly in the design community now is a kind of complete lack of criticism on it. And I think that as somebody who like myself, really really cares about what we put out in the world, I think that we got to take a step back and really kind of look at what we mean by design thinking and what it does to our world and to ourselves.

Okay, so if you google ‘design thinking’ and go to the image area, this is pretty much what you will see. So, this was found in May 1st 2017, last month. You know as you can see that is typically visualized and represented as five somehow hexagons. I don’t know why hexagons. [LAUGHTER] So typically five steps, right? And they go linearly. Okay, so now let’s look at the steps. Okay so, the five steps are: empathize, which we all know that we’ve got to, you know, understand the users their needs so on and so forth and be very sympathetic to the situation that they are in. And then we really got to define the parameter. And then with the parameter defined we ideate: we come up with concepts. And then we have to prototype very quickly to realize these concepts and then test the prototypes with the users.

It sounds all really reasonable right? And I’m sure a lot of us practice design or design thinking through this very linear particular methodology but, take a pause. Okay, think about what is really lacking here when you present something, meaning design, to your colleagues, to people. The first thing that people react to is what I call ‘crit’. So crit is completely missing from this process.

What is design crit? What is design criticism? For those who have gone to design school, you know how important that is in every step of the design, every discussion. You bring forth an idea. You bring forth evidence and then everybody crit the heck out of it. [LAUGHTER] And that’s when you can make improvements, right? That’s when you can begin to really evaluate if something is valuable, is good, at all. But I think that this critical step of evaluating whether something is good or not is completely missing in today’s design thinking conversation. And then my second problem is that design is now reduced to a single tool that is called 3M Post-Its. [LAUGHTER] And you’re probably pretty familiar with these images. Seriously! Go type in ‘design thinking’ and you will see these are the images that come up in Google. And that is really telling, you know. And that, I think, is highly problematic because, as you know, the world that we’re in right now is messy and is beautiful. It’s inspiring. It’s with a lot of stuff and then there are many ways – tools too – to use to actually create and think about design and why do we end up with a single medium here right now? And that’s something I really hope someone can explain to me.

So, here’s sort of my definition on design thinking, that is design thinking right now. Okay, not as a pedagogy, but right now. It packages the designer’s way by working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step by step approach to creative problem solving, claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problems. Okay, so that I think is highly, highly problematic but what is even more problematic is that I haven’t heard a voice or much voice from the design community to actually try to reshape this conversation. So, we’ve got to look back to how design thinking came about and this is by no means an in-depth study, but really a way to try to help myself and my team to understand where it came about, you know, from the pedagogical point of view.

So, it was first kind of presented – design as a way of thinking – by a scientist named Herbert Simon as well as an engineer Robert McKim, who wrote a really wonderful book that’s called Experiences in Visual Thinking. You can still find it on Amazon. It’s really wonderful. It basically describes how visual evidence is so critical in creative thinking. And then, an architect named Bryan Lawson began to kind of apply design thinking into architecture practice. And then a journalist his name is Nigel Cross, wrote an article that advocated bringing design as a way of thinking or design thinking into education to actually talk to a broader audience. And another architect and urban planner Peter Rowe, who taught at Harvard. He first kind of really used the term ‘design thinking’ very significantly in his book titled Design Thinking. And then Rolf Faste, who was a professor at Stanford, began to actually really put it into a curriculum. And then after that, David Kelley, who we know from IDEO, he was sort of the first one, I think, in the public record who began to apply it into business courses. And then there’s Richard Buchanan who began to kind of address human concerns through design. He was really the one who talked very extensively about very fundamental human needs and design.

So, let’s look at this one, the Oxo Good Grips. We’re all really familiar with these products. What’s really interesting about this as an example of design thinking is that, first of all you see that there are many, many, many levels of iterations through this. This is something that is as simple as a vegetable peel, but what it did was that it began to kind of understand certain extreme use cases from everyday people like you and I, to athletes who are really, really strong, to people who have arthritis, so that the grip and the shape and the material became really important. But what’s interesting here is that you see that there are tangible evidence that we can actually look at and begin to critique, whether the thinking behind it is good or not. And then we can actually iterate and improve upon it. I think the idea of improvement is really important and demonstrated in this image. But then the problem with design thinking as a diagram is that you really cannot understand what is the outcome of it and without an outcome you cannot critique how good it is.

So, design thinking started out really as a kind of very important methodology for industrial design, but in recent years, you know, I think that it had become this kind of thing where other adjacent design fields began to opportunistically latch onto it in order to fulfill their own needs. That’s a problem, so how’s it going today? Let’s look at some examples. So, here you see that there is an MRI scan for children by GE. And allegedly this project as you see that there are a lot of murals with tigers, you know, on the wall. This result was done through design thinking. So now, just take a pause and think that MRI scan for children, let’s put you know cartoons on the wall, do you really need design thinking to actually do that? Isn’t that a little bit obvious? [LAUGHTER] Next example, so okay, you know, let’s talk about target markets and you know users. So, Oil of Olay is a very well-known, you know, legendary skincare product and they started to lose market share in the elderly women, you know, market. And then they decided to just take it down to a slightly younger generation of women in their 30s and 40s. Again, that itself is a pretty obvious thing and you don’t really need this kind of five step design thinking process in order to accomplish that. That itself is human intuition. Next one, this you know interface done by IBM. Okay so, allegedly this – I think, it’s a portal – it was also created through a really rigorous design thinking process. But then, if you look at the result, I have to say, this is pretty similar to a lot of portals that I have seen in my life. [LAUGHTER]

So what? So, what is design thinking? So, these are the words now that are associated with design thinking. I’m not going to read through each of them, but you may kind of find some of these are really just ridiculous. As real designers, we really don’t use these terms to define our work. We use really, really hard and you know tangible words to describe and to critique our work. None of these words are real criticism of anything. They are buzzwords to sound like corporate jargon, you know.

So what happens to design? So, I think that in today’s world right now I think design has become this box that people just want to check off. And I that’s a problem. I think that as designers or anybody who has anything to do with design, we got to be really critical of it. And also, let’s look at how design was done before design thinking came about. First of all, Charles and Ray Eames, as you can see, the complete lack of 3M stickies on their mood board. [LAUGHTER] So they really practiced learning by doing, you know. By doing so, they learned how to define the needs and constraints of every project before designing and they were one of the most prolific designers, you know, in our time ever. And Steve Jobs, again look at his home office, you know. Really messy. And he also applied his way of design thinking which is intuition, by really focusing on people’s desires and needs, rather than business needs. So, by doing so he actually created some of the most iconic and cultural shifting products ever. This is an image of Pentagram, and as you can see, it’s a pretty messy office. It’s me sitting there with Paula talking about design and as you can see we have a wall of our work, you know. We want to exhibit our work to remind ourselves where the standard is; where we have been. And also, to use the opportunity to actually self-critique and kind of, you know, use that to make us work better. Again, there is evidence right there. And this is a model wall of really renowned architecture firm called OMA. As you can see, these blue foams, they don’t look really interesting, but they’re actually the predecessors of all of the amazing architecture that OMA have built so far. So, as you can see, that these are all evidence that we can critique on and improve on.

So, what I think you know, what I still truly believe is that real designers surround themselves with evidence. You’ve really got to have the evidence and you’ve got to have the crit in order to make the world better. So, look at this environment. You know this is a kind of very typical designers environment. Again, messy evidence is not this kind of five step, linear hexagon based process. So, my challenge to design thinking practitioners is to really share the evidence and the result and the outcome that you have produced and allow us to crit it and to comment on it and to really kind of see where we can go from design thinking. Thank you.



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