Another OTHER Design Thinking


Here at Humantific we are always delighted to see design education community change initiatives inspired by The OTHER Design Thinking 2013-2014, Occupy Reimagining Design 2011 and the body of work within NextDesign Futures 2002-2014. Are you ready to be surprised?

Yes that’s right, there is Another OTHER Design Thinking out there, just announced!

Last week the academically focused PhD Design discussion list, well known in the transformation practice community for being slow to adapt, least effective, and often unfortunately down-right nasty when it comes to the subject of design futures made what was for that group, a big leap forward. A few of its loudest, self-appointed leaders announced in a 3 page manifesto posted inside their debating group and across social media that they were finally ready to recognize a multiple part change wave occurring beyond the confines of their circle.

It is change that was identified by others in the emerging practices community 10+ years ago, and has already been operationalized in practice but acknowledgment for these manifesto authors and their academic debating group, never-the-less represented a significant step forward. The migration to acknowledgement has been a long, long time coming for this group that includes Ken Friedman, Patrick Whitney and four others, reframing themselves anew in this initiative as “DesignX Collaborative”.

Kudos to well-known product design practitioner, Don Norman for leading the group’s long overdue emergence into the already in-progress conversation regarding next design futures in the context of the well underway big data/information wave. A frequent commenter on the subject of rethinking design education, Don himself is evidently ready to cross-over into terrain beyond product creation.

Woooooooooo Hooooooooo! It’s time for celebration of sorts!

The changes finally identified by the “DesignX Collaborative” authors will in 2014 sound familiar to Humantific readers as they include acknowledging:

1. the rise in challenge complexity
2. an operating context of organizations and societies
3. orchestration of many diverse constituents
4. team-based problem orientation
5. migration away from assuming product/service design as universal outcomes
6. advancing beyond product/service creation methods expertise
7. migration towards meta design
8. integration of what is commonly referred to as fact-based data and info sensemaking
9. integration of systems thinking
10. the deliberate construction of inclusion

All of those dimensions (and more) have previously been identified in the context of next design futures and all have already been operationalized by leading transformation practices.

We have ourselves been pointing out to the graduate/postgraduate design education community, since 2002 that the complexity of organizational challenges and societal challenges extend far beyond the creation of more products and services. That clear message with significant implications, based on real world practice, communicated repeatedly in numerous forums was welcomed by new generation graduate/postgraduate students and often met with considerable denial, resistance and even hostility by older generation design education leaders comfortable in their tenured ways. One result was a 12 year time lapse in adaptation that few organizational communities could survive. Evidently that corner has finally been turned.

Many additional aspects of current transformation practice were not mentioned in the manifesto branded, as if yet another name was needed, as “DesignX” but that is not so surprising. How would the “DesignX Collaborative” authors know what the actual dimensions of this kind of practice are today?

Oddly in the 3 page manifesto there seemed to be no practitioners of the terrain to which they spoke of speculatively and thus the group’s evolution was presumptuously, some might say naively positioned as breakthrough community frontier adventure when it is not exactly that. This is already a bustling occupied business space and has been for years, just not by these “DesignX Collaborative” authors most of whom have deep historical connections to the product design education arena. Surely they must know this space upon which they are postulating already exists operationally in practice.

Perhaps most strangely “DesignX” seemed to be not research (evidence) oriented, but rather more about speculative pronouncements. It is rather an odd fit coming from folks positioning themselves as research experts. It seemed particularly strange considering the many references in the manifesto regarding need for “evidence” and the reluctance for so long on the part of the authors to recognize this arena beyond product/service creation. Where is the research? After 10+ years of delay they seem to still have none.

Rather than speculate, why not do some real world discovery research with practices already operating in this space? It seems likely that some “DesignX” authors are not well positioned to undertake that kind of work with the already existing transformation practice community and thus the speculation route was taken. Frankly speaking, there is no evidence in the manifesto that the “DesignX Collaborative” authors have a coherent understanding of the core concept to which they speak…i.e: the role of evidence in the design process and the role of evidence in validation of methods in the context of Design 3 (organizational change-making) and Design 4 (societal change-making).

Compounding the oddness the projected manifesto gave only brief mention of long overdue needed change in design education, the actual knowledge orientation of most of its authors. Acknowledging that set of issues, and focusing in that direction would seem to be a much more plausible expedition for these mostly academic and product creation experts. Indeed the “DesignX” manifesto conveys very odd challenge framing priorities.

Also rather bizarre was the timeline posturing of “DesignX Collaborative” suggesting a very dated, present state picture oriented to product considerations:

“Design changed its focus after World War II to an emphasis upon appearance, often unrelated to how products performed or how they were used”.

Huh? This is where the “DesignX Collaborative” thinks design practice is today? This is their assumed jumping off point? At best this is the present state of design from a traditional product creation perspective. That is more about where the graduate design schools are. That has not been the focus of leading transformation practices for more than a decade.

Equally out of touch was the description of the next state:

“The next stage in design, which is where we are today, is correcting these problems by developing methods of designing for the needs of and capabilities of people.”

Huh? The “DesignX Collaborative” authors seem to be under the mistaken impression that this “next stage” is arriving upon their December 2014 announcement. Come on folks. Surely they must know better.

The “DesignX” proclamation is plainly a false, self-serving narrative that disregards where the transformation practice community is today. For leading transformation practices this “next stage” beyond product/service design incorporating data and information has been not only identified but operational for more than a decade. One wonders where and with whom have the “DesignX Collaborative” authors been hanging out?

Perhaps most unfortunately, the “DesignX” proclamation reflects, not the proper and respected referencing protocols demanded of students for decades in academic institutions but rather the bareknuckle competitive spirit of the marketplace, complete with competitor omission.

Why not recognize and acknowledge all of the contributions by many others, to the next design futures conversation? It is not difficult to see that many of those contributions are much more thought through, detailed and coherent than the 3 page “DesignX Collaborative” text.

Some might suggest that referencing omission is a spectacular hypocrisy coming from a group positioning themselves as academic scholars. When it comes to the issue of referencing, their initiative sends the message to students to “do as I say not as I do.” That unfortunate maneuver served to significantly undermine the announcements credibility in the transformation practice community.

The introduction of this dynamic seems to say a lot about what is going on in design academies today. This is the REAL change at the heart of this initiative, a change in strategy, a change in values, a change in behaviors, the increasing maneuvers by academic leaders towards competitive dynamics. Is “DesignX Collaborative” a bird? a plane? a school? a consultancy? It is not difficult to see that this is part of what happens when graduate design schools become consultancies, when academic leaders seek to operate consulting practices from the platform of design schools. Among other things referencing protocols go out the window as bareknuckle competitive marketplace dynamics are embraced. Lets recognize this as an integral aspect of what this is. It seems unlikely that academic leaders have thought through all the consequences of such embrace. So be it.

The underlying logic seen in the “DesignX Collaborative” proclamation seems to come from a rather walled-off academic neighborhood where it is evidently imagined that practice leaders are like graduate students sitting around waiting for academic leaders to figure out that there is more to design than product/service creation. Obviously that is a fantasyland on the part of the manifesto authors with no basis in reality. It is a false narrative.

All of these odd, force-fit projections, dated time lines, false narratives and omissions within “DesignX” combined to create a rather strangely time-capsule-like announcement that seemed to undermine itself upon arrival.

Unlike what has been postulated by several others in twitter discussions on the subject in the last few days, “DesignX” is less about “attempting to put old wine in a new bottle” and more about a small group attempting to rebrand, selfbrand a new wine that already exists in the marketplace outside their operational geography, now that they finally see the new wines popularity is undisputed and rising, at a time when their own wine offerings continue to recede in relevance and value. That is really what this is. This is a not a group hug for folks already working in and contributing to the design futures space. This is not a survey of leading practices operating in this transformation arena. “DesignX” is rather a forceful and clumsy overwrite maneuver by some late arriving folks who should know better.

What one can take away from how this manifesto was clumsely handled is that the academic design community remains disconnected from the leading transformation community in strategic awareness and adaptation leadership but continues, in its own bubble, to see itself, imagine itself, leading change regardless. At this point, ten+ years into this change wave that is going to be a difficult narrative for them to broadly sell outside their academic circle.

The change that it is suggested in this eager proclamation is less about a future arriving, less about the “DesignX Collaborative” leading the transformation practice community and more about one, rather disconnected, subcommunity’s not so prescient awakening. Being more honest about that might help “DesignX Collaborative” avoid future initiative fiascos and begin building bridges into the transformation practice community.

Lets welcome and celebrate the 2014 arrival of this initiative into the ongoing, since 2002, next design futures conversation placing it in realistic, rather than hyperbolic context. Lets also not miss the forest by focusing on a few trees selected for their convenience by “DesignX Collaborative”.

Ask any practice leader in the emerging practices transformation arena today and she/he will tell you that there is indeed pressing need, not for academics to selfbrand the transformation practice community, but rather to get the graduate design education house in order.

Practice leaders looking for talent capable of operating in the future that has been here for some time are today hard pressed to find equipped candidates coming out of the graduate/post-graduate design academies. Anyone getting out into the real world community among transformation practice leaders would quickly learn this is the case. On the other hand talking to each other over on the PhD Design list evidently creates a much different perspective of challenges and priorities. That is not a research method or a challenge surfacing method that we would recommend to anyone interested in design futures in practice.

Even today, 10+ years after the issues/opportunities were surfaced and explained in considerable detail by NextD and others there is still not one graduate design school focused specifically in the direction of organizational and societal transformation.

Still today most graduate and postgraduate design programs continue to repackage and sell product and service design.

The slippery slope can be seen in the creative depiction within the “DesignX” manifesto itself, a statement that is anything but evidence based:

“In the past, design has focused upon products and services, but the design methods of continual, iterative cycles of exploration, reflection, implementation and validation can be applied to many societal problems.”

Herein lies the continuing challenge for this subcommunity with deep legacy orientation towards product/service design.

To be as clear as possible: There has for some time been a prescient new resolution in design practice, still not reflected in the graduate/postgraduate design schools and that is this: Respinning product/service creation as organizational and societal transformation is not the future of design. This resolution has been known in the transformation practice community for more than a decade.

At this point the transformation practice community is not beginning this journey, as the odd-ball “DesignX” initiative announcement suggests, but rather is deep into the development of this knowledge regarding how best to help others, without pre-set objectives, in the face of a complex world.

Best of luck to all.


Transformation Practice Today:

See what the transformation practice arena [beyond product and service design assumptions] already looks like and already does here:

Humantific: SenseMaking for ChangeMaking [2002-2014]

The OTHER Design Thinking [November 2013]
[This call for participant practices for this virtual book series remains open.]

Humantific: OverComing Process Design Missteps [2013]

Humantific: Data Visualization as Innovation Fuel [2014]

Humantific: Occupy Reimagining Design [2011]

Humantific: Design Thinking Made Visible Research [2002-2011]

Humantific: Trumping Brainstorming [2013]

Innovation Methods Mapping [2013-2014]
De-Mystifying 80+ Years of Innovation Process Design

Other Next Design Future Events:

NextD: SenseMaking is Rising [2005]

Data Designed for Decisions [2009]

NextD: Teaching CoCreation Now [2011]

NextD: When [Old Design Thinking LOVE] is Not Enough [2013]

NextD: NextDesign Geographies [2005-2014]
Understanding The Future That Has Already Arrived

NextD: Understanding Design 1,2,3,4 [2009]
The Rise of Visual SenseMaking

Out of Balance: CRITIQUE OF THE PRESENT [2013]
Information Design after Otto Neurath

NextD WorkshopONE [2005]
HyperWerk, Switzerland

NextD: Reality Check [2003]

NextDesign Futures Library [2002-2014]

Humantific Library [2001-2014]

Feel free to follow Humantific on Facebook. We post there often. 🙂

Comments ( 7 )
  • steve says:

    GK…I enjoy your perspectives.

    I personally have decided to let these graying academics live out their remaining days in peace and without challenge/criticism despite my categorical disagreement with their directives.

    They have become the emperors with out any clothes….and I cannot afford to uptake their message and use it or share it with the students I work with.

    I now am prepared to sit back in the audience and let them perform for us as a circus act in the time that they have remaining. I am eager to see their efforts to try and turn design education into a codified knowledge based model that is patterned after the medical field.

    Happy holidays…


  • Rosa Zubizarreta says:

    Very interesting article.

    One small comment — the article states that, “Even today, 10+ years after the issues/opportunities were surfaced and explained in considerable detail by NextD and others there is still not one graduate design school focused specifically in the direction of organizational and societal transformation”

    In that regard I want to give a shout-out re the Austin Center for Design, http://www.austincenterfordesign.com/ — from my perspective, a great step in that direction.

    with all best wishes,


  • Lee Traupel says:

    Wonderful content and a stellar example of why we all love to read topics online that are well researched, written intelligently, informative, engaging, topical, etc.

    Great long form content …….

    #welldone (Tweeted this out too)

  • GK VanPatter says:

    Hi Rosa: Regarding your question in reference to: “The Austin Center for Design” [ACD]: We have not been asked to undertake a formal assessment of that school (would be happy to do so) but looking at the site, knowing something about its history/founder, and setting aside the tired hyperbolics around “wicked problems” the short answer to your question would be No.

    However well intentioned any program is…What we suggest is to look at the method orientation and related toolset/knowledge not just the tag lines and broadly stated visions. The later are a dime a dozen. In doing so it is not so difficult to notice oddities.

    Often what one can notice is an odd chasm, some might say strategic distortion between the broadly stated objectives and what the tools actually are.

    The promo [From their front page]: “Austin Center for Design exists to transform society through design and design education.”… “workshops focused on leveraging design in a strategic, thoughtful manner.”

    The reality [From their front page]: “Learn practical skills to make products and services that help people.”

    In the real world those are two very different things…☺

    From a methods perspective, typically this kind of language translates into: their tools, skills and orientation assume all challenges, wicked or not, have product, service or experience outcomes. These assumptions are preframed up front and baked into the skills that they are teaching along with the tools themselves.

    Often not clear in their marketing materials is that their approach (product/service design) is most useful downstream. That approach works well in downstream contexts not so well in upstream contexts…:-)

    How could all organizational and societal challenges be preassumed to be solved by creating more products and services? Not possible. Embedded there in the chasm is a rather nonsensical narrative, not connected to reality.

    As per the post above, for a number of reasons related to slow adaptation in the academic community the strategic distortion phenomenon has become a graduate design education epidemic right now. Academic leaders involved in that pitching would prefer that this not be pointed out. Heat rapidly rises in any online conversation where the subject comes up. Slow in adapting what they are left with is rewrapping, reselling their existing/old product, what the faculty knows how to do, into a changed world. That is more about marketing change rather than program change, skills evolution or toolbox change. High interest in “design thinking” has played a big part in that repackaging wave, now widespread. That spin is getting tired quickly as the marketplace gets smarter.

    We encourage students and all shoppers to look a little more smartly and closely at any and all “design thinking” related learning programs. We are happy to offer assessment assistance in this regard.

    Among other things, upstream methods have different starting points, different assumptions, different challenges identified and outcomes are often quite different.

    Hope this helps.

  • Kevin Dye says:

    It seems that a lot of your concerns are due to too much overlap of imprecise labels between your views and the articulation of the DesignX Collaborative. The naming conventions and their ascribed meanings seem to be quite different and there is a resultant overload of meaning on all too few distinctions. But there also seems to be overeach by the DesignX Collaborative. If they had positioned it as a new direction, simply for their group, coming into consideration of larger systems interventions from their background in product design that would seem to be fine. But to state a manifesto of concerns people have been addressing under a variety of names for decades seems to go too far.

  • Don Norman says:

    I have no quarrel with the spirit of the critique of DesignX.

    I completely agree that we wrote the document with little understanding of the several other groups that already existed and that were similarly attacking these very same issues. In the several years that have passed we have learned a lot. And I, for one, am still learning.

    I am grateful to all those who have contacted us (or me) to educate me, give me readings, invite me to meetings.

    We are all in this together. And yes, we should give credit to all those who have gone before us. And I will certainly do that in any future publications. Alas, the dispersion of disciplines makes it difficult for one group to know what another is doing. Fortunately, I see some convergence and cross-communication now taking place.

    So, thank you GK for your contributions. Thanks to the Systemic Design Research Network folks. And thanks to everyone else who are now in communication.

    Don Norman

  • Heico Wesselius says:

    Don: Thank you for your input and your statement that we are all in it together.
    It is indeed challenging to find out what others are doing in various fields. It is even harder when they there is hardly any communication. Some of the discussion was also covered in DRTS # 8 and in Design Studies. Direct link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/0142694X/32

    DTRS eight was held in October 2010 in Sydney. The core of the meeting was to discuss the increased role of DT in the various sectors.

    Heico Wesselius

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