Buzzword of the Day: "Design-Thinking"

Design Tip #1 for all the Design-Thinking Innovation folks: When pasting an image onto a monitor,
include an offset darkened reflection for that professional touch  [Pic by Mitch].
Why is the catchphrase design thinking the big buzzword these days?  Somehow alongside a massive cultural focus on innovation, companies are lusting toward design-thinking as a strategy to reframe old problems and create new, radical solutions.  Yet how many organizations maintain an internal structure to accommodate such endeavors?  How many organizations can afford to do so, when the premise of design is to take risks over and over again until something works?  Not to mention, design is merely a tool equitable to all other tools for solving problems.  Design solutions are by no means better, they are simply nicer to look at, easier to sell, and sometimes not as predictable.

Now after paging through Forbes or entrepreneur magazines, it seems that all the people who are lusting for design solutions are non-designers. I wonder what they are hoping to find?  Anyway,  I'm fine with the trend because when I came out of art school, I didn't plan on ever making much money or being in high demand - but all that has changed.  Thanks!

Tip #2: Always include filigrees
to come across as hip but refined.
I find it fascinating, and somewhat comical, that so many organizations suddenly want to be design companies.  Having started my career as a designer, I admit that directing my career into urban planning, economics, and conflict studies was extremely difficult.  There were countless hurdles to acceptance among other development professionals who would immediately question the value of my education.  Once I had a job interview with an ngo that kept asking about my BFA throughout the interview... even though I had masters degrees and work experience in their sector for 6 years,  having graduated from art school nearly 10 years past.   During that 8 years, I also had to work 10 times as hard as my peers to acquire a fundamental knowledge-base in statistics, research methods, and contextual knowledge.  It is only natural that the challenges go the other way as well... even though it is a popular ideology that anyone can do art and design, this is far from the truth.  Like anything else, one has to work their way up and there are many sleepless nights.  Not to mention, design isn't like some disciplines where one merely needs to be smarter than the competition, as a design project easily entails hundreds of hours with no guarantee of success.  For all the companies that suddenly want to become design firms, they are about to face a barrage unexpected hurdles.

Take for example the firm Caerus Associates.  Headed up by military strategist David Kilcullen, Caerus is a defense strategy consultancy that has initiated a transition toward working as a design firm.  Yet when you look at their amateur website, it is evident that the one thing they really lack is an understanding of design.  To make matters worse, the source code on their site shows that they didn't even do it in-house, but passed it to a group of young WashingtonDC hipsters who probably did it below market value in hope of building a better business relationship down the road.  The fact that Caerus didn't reject the outsourced site design shows just how much more they need to learn before they can actually do decent work for someone else.  If something as fundamental as a basic CSS site is such a design obstacle, do you really want such a firm proposing urban design solutions for an entire city or nation?  

Tip #3:  Always include helvetica in your photoshop images,
ideally contrasted with a font no one can read [Pic by Mitch]
If a client is searching for design based solutions why bother hiring social scientists wanting to be designers when there are plenty of design firms out there that work in complicated areas.  Just off the top of my head I can think of SAYA/Design for Change,  Urban-Think-TankSolidere.  Will their solutions work?  Maybe, but not necessarily because they are design firms and architects are trained to approach social space as a design space rather than as social enterprise.  But at least you are getting designers if that is what you are looking for.   


Reconciling complex social problems with product-oriented solutions is a monumental task and very few people have the training within both domains to accomplish this feat.  If it was easy, urban design and planning wouldn't be so reliant on professional trends. The majority of architectural and planning solutions would extend far beyond the standard application of mixed-use urban development (maybe retail on the bottom with housing on top, whoa!), green-belt buffer zones, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, community mapping exercises, economic incubators, zoning codes, voucher programs, community design centers, PAR, and public-private partnerships. 

Tip #4: Use QR Codes all the time
since no one uses them outside of Asia
So why keep recycling solutions and pretending it is something new and innovative? The present focus on design-based social innovation is simply another trend.  It is equitable to the industrialist trends of 1890s, the garden city concepts of the 1900s, the Le Corbusier inspired highway elevations of the 1950s.  Then of course there is the creative cities and new urbanism movements of the 1990s, the sustainability movement of the last 10 years and the overwhelmingly popular interest in urban resilience that is happening these days.  All of these trends are permutations of the same thing more or less, varying only by degree.  

Today's overwhelming focus on social entrepreneurship, design-thinking, technology-based solutions and resilience is not a means toward something worthwhile.  It is merely another observable reflection of economic circumstance and a cultural gravitation toward technology as a solution gateway.

So why draw more dots when there are plenty to connect in the meanwhile?  
C'mon fellas, we can all do far better.

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[Hmmmm... this was fun. Maybe I should do a whole series of tips for all those new Innovation Consultants and Strategic Design Firms out there].