Pentagram’s Natasha Jen: “Design is not a monster you ‘unleash’ to fix the world”

Speaking at this year’s Design Indaba, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen makes her feelings on business buzzwords, simplistic flow diagrams and sticky note brainstorm sessions very clear, insisting that the concept of “design thinking” undermines design.

Courtesy of Design Indaba and Pentagram

“It’s very hard to explain to people what a graphic designer does,” says Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram’s New York office. “I think of my role as playing with words, symbols and images. It’s about making things tangible and understandable, and if we can make things delightful – that’s the goal.”

There is a reason Jen, a prolific graphic designer who has created branding, exhibition spaces, installations and more for the likes of Nike and Times Square, is attempting to explain her job. Speaking at this year’s Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, South Africa, she lays bare her thoughts on non-design businesses appropriating what she does every day under a recently-founded term – “design thinking”.

This is not the first time Jen has expressed her rage at this concept; she spoke last year at Adobe’s 99U conference, presenting a talk titled “Design thinking is bullshit”. Since then, Jen has been starting conversations about what this term means, why the rigid process it enforces does not sit well with real-life problems, and why attempting to give everyone a short-course route into design could actually be “extremely dangerous”.

Where does it all come from?

While the idea of looking at how designers think and work has been around since the 1960s, it was David Kelley, founder at design consultancy Ideo, who first adapted the idea of using “design thinking” for business in the 2010s. The concept really started spreading five years ago, after Kelley co-wrote a book called Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, released in 2013.

What is “design thinking”?

An image depicting “design thinking”, courtesy of Rawpixel

The problem starts with “design thinking” being an intangible thing that is impossible to describe, says Jen. “I just can’t wrap my head around design thinking, and I ask myself – why can’t I understand it?” she says. “The more I get into it, the more outrageous it appears.”

There is a generic formula applied to the concept, thought. It is normally broken down into five core steps, which are used to tackle any “problem”: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. In other words, learn about your target audience, think about key questions that need answering, come up with solutions, build one or more of these solutions, then test them through market research and gain user feedback.

Jen’s first issue with this concept is its simplicity – how can a one-size-fits-all approach be applied to everything? Admittedly, surely there are different considerations that need to be made when creating a corporate marketing campaign for the likes of Coca-Cola, compared to designing a refugee shelter that will be distributed for thousands of people worldwide.

But if we are to follow this five-step process, Jen adds that there is also a crucial step missing that should always sit between prototype and test, which is “design crit” – sitting down in a group and analysing and critiquing a piece of work to improve it before it goes out to the public.

“Presenting to colleagues is really lacking here,” says Jen, exasperated by this point. “We see the same hexagonal diagrams coming up with the same five steps. It’s a very simplistic view that this can solve all problems.”

Why all the sticky notes?

Courtesy of Scyther

Adding to the vagueness, is the fact that “design thinking” cannot be materialised or represented visually, says Jen. Google the term, and you’ll be affronted with several iterations of coloured hexagons detailed the five process steps, alongside images of groups of people looking thoughtful in an office meeting room, or gathered around a whiteboard covered in coloured sticky notes. What does all this actually mean, asks Jen? If you were to google “logo”, you’d see real brandmarks; or google “exhibition design”, and you’d see interiors of various museums.

“When you only use one little square – a sticky note – as your outlet, that’s a big problem,” she says. “Design needs to use lots of research, photos, images and more to build a more holistic understanding about anything.” Step into a design studio, including Pentagram New York, she adds, and all this evidence will be laid out in the form of a messy office space covered in imagery, text and other inspiration.

Jen also has a problem with the seemingly meaningless vocabulary that comes alongside design thinking, which is “packed with jargon” and “buzzwords”, she says, from “co-creation”, “extreme users”, “radical innovation” and “bodystorming” through to “unlocking” and “unleashing” creative potential – a term coined by the Ideo founder’s infamous book.

“There is a frightening idea of design as this monster you ‘unleash’ to fix the world,” says Jen. “These terms are ridiculous for real designers – we don’t use them to critique our work. If you speak to a designer, we actually use very boring, hard and tangible words – like budget, semantics, the website and typography.”

Learn design for £2.99

This one-size-fits-all approach to design has also led to “design thinking boot-camps”, where people can undertake one or two-day courses on how to think like a designer for a few hundred pounds or dollars. Jen claims she has seen such courses for as little as £2.99, adding that this teaching method is an “extremely dangerous idea” – not only to the design industry, but to education on a whole. “It’s like wanting to become an Olympic athlete without wanting to be trained,” she says.

Additionally, the focus on design as a process rather than having the goal of producing something “beautiful”, is problematic, she says, and undermines design as a skill and craft; in Jen’s eyes, design should perform a function but also be smart, alluring and “delightful”.

Her frustrated comments are spurred by a blog written by Bret Waters, chairman at software development company Tivix, simply titled: “Design thinking is not about design”. It is accompanied by the infamous, five coloured hexagons, too.

“It is quite irresponsible to think that design thinking has nothing to do with how it might manifest in the real world. What’s to say that it shouldn’t have to be beautiful? Beauty is precision and intelligence – not decoration.”

She adds: “This attitude ignores the artistry of craftsmanship and the beauty of culture – the things that elevate our quality of life.”

But shouldn’t we encourage people to embrace design?

Can design thinking help us understand design thinking? poster, by Natasha Jen

While Jen’s humorous cynicism and sarcasm is backed-up with several valid points, there is something to be said for trying to make design more accessible to businesses, and encourage them to think creatively.

There is also an interesting debate about what makes a “proper” design education. Also speaking at this year’s Design Indaba was Tom Dixon, a successful product and furniture designer who did not go to a specialist arts college and is completely self-taught.

Speaking to Design Week, he advocated that universities today are not teaching students enough vocational skills, and that working at furniture brand Habitat was “like [his] university”.

So while this one-size-fits-all approach of “design thinking” filled with meaningless buzzwords cannot responsibly be applied to every project, maybe there is scope to change how the concept is applied and taught to make it more effective. In her talk, Jen herself questions: how can design thinking be improved to make it more effective, beautiful, responsible, and just generally better?

Perhaps employing in-house, trained designers into businesses to teach teams their processes and methods in a skilled way, rather than encouraging people of other professions to “become” a designer in a day, is an option.

Or perhaps, says Jen in her fittingly tongue-in-cheek style, we can use design thinking to try to understand design thinking; she ends her talk with a humorous attempt to decipher it all with a poster she has designed under this very premise. Admittedly, and to her credit, it makes absolutely no sense.

Design Indaba took place 21-23 February 2018 at the Artscape in Cape Town, South Africa. For more information on the festival and this year’s speakers, head here, and for Design Week’s full coverage on the event, head here.

Hide Comments (23)Show Comments (23)
  • Jolyon March 8, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Is there a problem with everyone jumping on the design thinking bandwagon? Yes, of course – it has been adopted as a buzzword by every consultancy and its dog, and most do not truly understand it. But that doesn’t mean IDEO’s original concept is not valuable.

    The point is not that it’s a one-size-fits-all method or series of steps. Instead, it is an approach to problem-solving that uses elements from the designer’s toolkit (like empathy and experimentation) to help people solve problems in a new way. That’s why it’s called ‘design thinking’ and not ‘design’.

    Really, it’s about helping people to approach challenges from a more human point of view – just as a designer is trained to keep their end user in focus throughout the creative process.

    Commercial teams are hard-wired to look at numbers and results, but can easily lose sight of that human element. Design thinking helps them to stay on track, combining what people actually want with what’s technologically feasible and economically viable.

    • Mark Diggins March 9, 2018 at 8:25 am

      This is a great response to the above. One of the keys being “this is design thinking, not design”.

      That said, when applied to design it’s important to remember that commercial design is a business – and as such agencies will have approaches and processes locked in that serve as a backbone to producing successful design results – Of course they flex according to the brief.

      Different teams have different approaches, but I would be surprised if they are wildly different to the 5 hexagons referenced here. Constant critiquing should be built into a studios nature (“no ego”) be it daily formal meets or comments on boards and a generally open and collaborative approach to problem solving.

  • Emily Penny March 9, 2018 at 8:10 am

    Depends if you’re a surface designer or a service designer. A very limited view.

    • Merlin Duff March 9, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      I don’t think it depends on either of these things — DT is a framework for problem solving. It’s simply an expansion on the double-diamond and isn’t proposing anything that shouldn’t already be happening anyway in any design process (regardless of your design discipline)

  • mike dempsey March 9, 2018 at 10:58 am

    For me, the term ‘Design thinking’ is just another of those buzzy phrases like ‘Joined up thinking’ or ‘Collaborative working’, concocted by jargon spinners who like to start their sentences with ‘So’.

    I have been in the world of graphic design since the early 1960’s.
    I never went to art school, I’m dyslexic and everything I know has been driven out of passion and curiosity. Over the decades I have witnessed many isms come, go and return. I have never particularly wanted to know how I think. I just do it. I don’t believe it can be applied to people like a magic plaster. You either think in a unique way or you don’t. As a keen observer of our industry over many years what is now sadly lacking, in this hugely overpopulated industry, is the fingerprint of the individual. Where are the likes of Paul Rand, Alan Fletcher, Pierre Mendell, Massimo Vignelli, Saul Bass, Willy Fleckhaus and Josef Muller-Brockmann? I could go on and on. The immediacy of the digital age has created work of enormous similarity in almost every creative area, making it difficult to identify the wood from the trees.

    You can pull together acres of research and focus group reports etc, but in the end, a designer, either at their desk, in a coffee shop, or waking up in the dead of night, will suddenly have that elusive ‘idea’ that pops up like magic. There is no rhyme or reason. It’s a case of accumulated knowledge and the experience of looking and noticing when others just don’t see. It’s a special antenna that some are blessed with, and you can’t buy it off the shelf.

    • Clive Grinyert March 18, 2018 at 7:52 pm

      Sad to see the anger in this discussion. Thinking like a designer, which we call Design Thinking, is not the enemy. It’s a useful way of opening the door to great design. I am proud to be a practitioner and evangelist of design thinking – it has driven many companies I have worked for to care more about humans and design quality, instead of the usual self centred focus on efficiency and internal processes, with little regard for the human impact of their decisions and the products they produce.

      As a designer, I was always frustrated that so many decisions had already been made that limited the opportunity for great design. That’s why I work inside organisations and use the techniques that we refer to as design thinking to change the way people think and the decisions they make. This always leads to better opportunities for great designers to deliver their magic.

      It’s a shame that some designers “can’t get their head around it” , so they attack it. If anything it’s faddish to criticise design thinking. Time for more reasonable discussion and perhaps more curiosity from designers of all type into the undoubted successes that thinking like a designer has had on business and public sector. Time for design to grow up perhaps.

  • andy penaluna March 9, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for this article, and I think this needs to be considered more. I’m a professor of creative entrepreneurship and past designer. I know the shift of learning to ‘designerly thinking’ (as defined by Cross at RCA in the 80s) takes a long time to develop, and my research into the associated cognitive neurology confirms this. Design Thinking is a thin veneer of what happens, but as said above, at least it raises the profile.

    My current concern is the number of business schools / management schools who are rushing to educate using this method without anything other than a short class they’ve taken to base it all on. If the educators don’t know / understand the bigger picture, where might all this end up?

  • Merlin Duff March 9, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    Words fail me…

    • Merlin Duff March 9, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      The fact that a Pentagram partner (who we must presume is therefore/thus a respected figure in the design world) feels that it is right to use their platform to try to undermine something they clearly do not understand, is truly astounding.

      Then again, I can understand how anything that opens up the design process to the wider world must feel like a threat to those who are insecure about what they do…

      • Emily Penny March 12, 2018 at 6:57 pm

        Agree Merlin. Thank you. But don’t you think this lack of understanding comes from Natasha (and other graphic designers) being concerned with visual outputs only eg type and logos. The word ‘design’ is being used to mean two different things and we’re getting seriously crossed wires… it’s equivalent to comparing say, illustration and photography, it’s not relevant arguing which one is ‘right’, graphic design and service design are different. Done by different types of people with different training. We should celebrate and promote both.

      • Nemesis March 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm

        Spot on. I would also add that Jen is making something of a name for herself with this simplistic and reactive diatribe.

  • Bob Vitale March 9, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    I don’t know about the validity of this whole “design thinking.” As a designer myself, I subscribe to the school of thought best expressed by Michael Vanderbyl back in early 90’s, “Once you think you have the formula for good design, you’re dead. You cease to be a good designer at that point.” Forget this hexagon approach to design thinking around a conference room table and a dry erase board, and begin holding meetings in the shower and on your commutes to and from work. I couldn’t agree more with Natasha on this topic.

  • Frank Thiele March 10, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    I think Natasha is right: Design Thinking may not be the ultimate tool to save the world. However design thinking is a great to start to tackle a problem from a user centric perspective. Let’s consider Design Thinking as a mindset and activity and not mix it up with special disciplines like graphic or user experience design which require different skills and education.

  • Bourgogne March 14, 2018 at 12:51 am

    Design Thinking is not for designers….

    • Brie P October 29, 2018 at 5:10 pm

      Exactly! It’s to help bring clients along! Of course designers are going to have a more nuanced view of the process. However, I feel like she’s getting stuck in the graphic designers view. Maslow’s Law of the Instrument seems appropriate here: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

  • Jon Finkelstein March 15, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    I know she is uber talented. But in my opinion, her discourse is a product of being an effete. Yes, Pentagram is awesome. Sure, they do amazing work. And yes, that design thinking poster needs a boat-load of work. However, as others have said, let’s not conflate design with design-thinking. I have experienced first-hand the power of co-creation with large, fortune 500s and public sector clients. Design is not the sole privilege or people with a design degree, expensiver markers, a NYC address or/and photoshop superpowers. I am not saying it should be democratised either. But dismissing it because she doesn’t understand it is total and utter nonsense.

  • Billy-bob March 15, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    OMG…if it wasn’t for the prevalence of DT, Natasha would be whenging about how no one understands design & designers, how business completely devalues design, etc. WAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!

    Don’t get me wrong, the whole “DT-everything” meme is getting a little tiresome. But that being said, I think it’s great that people are starting to learn a little bit about our discipline. They are gaining basic design literacy. But it is ONLY that.

    As I like to say about meself; I am highly skilled at BOTH designing thinking AND doing.

  • J March 18, 2018 at 1:43 pm

    I don’t understand it therefore it’s rubbish.
    There are also lots of cheap books and courses on graphic design. By her logic, graphic design must be dangerous too…

  • Ben March 18, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Let’s not get overly hung up defending/attacking the ‘Design Thinking brand’ – but rather let’s focus on the importance of demonstrating how a people-centric (sorry buzzword) approach can help generate more empathic even more meaningful solutions.

    There’s nothing wrong with an intuitive, design-led approach of course, but design-thinking as a ‘tool’ does offer a mechanism for organisations to explore this counter approach.

  • Clive Grinyer March 18, 2018 at 7:53 pm

    typo alert! Clive Grinyer, not Clive Grinyert.

  • Sean Patrick Coon March 22, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    i’m stunned that the term “framework” wasn’t once used in this article.

  • Brie Pampell October 29, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    Design Thinking can be used as simply a common working language for teams and organizations, or it can be a fully articulated, complex, nested framework. It’s not as inflexible as it’s being portrayed. Project teams can work through this together without the use of a single sticky note too.

    I’m having such a hard time grasping the ire.

  • Diego LLaneza June 10, 2019 at 11:37 pm

    By all the rest that is included in the article, I think neither Natasha nor the author know design thinking is a framework

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