OPINIONS

Why the d.school has its limits

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, better known as the design school (or d.school), was founded in 2005 with the aim of creating a university-wide hub where students from all disciplines would come together to work on complex challenges using design thinking. The design thinking process provides a methodology for, in the d.school’s own words, “producing reliably innovative results in any field.” The school is focused on the method and not a particular field, as it seeks to impart the design thinking methodology to its students with the aim of creating “innovators rather than any particular innovation”.

d.school students learn design thinking by working with client organizations on real problems, trying to find novel ways to solve them using the method. Design thinking is a radically emphatic, human-centered process that provides a structured way for discovering insights that can be translated into products or services. The approach is powerful and has produced impressive breakthroughs with the potential to improve the lives of scores of underserved individuals: a low-cost, low-tech infant incubator (Embrace) and a sturdy solar-powered LED lantern (d.light) are just two of the more well-known examples.

Like any method, design thinking structures how you approach and conceptualize a problem. The way the method is currently taught, however, preordains the result.

The answer to any problem unfailingly is a product or a service. Some problems are indeed best solved with a product or a service. Yet other problems need systemic solutions (e.g. political action).

Take the problem of a low-income single mom for whom dinner with her kids is stressful. How might we improve her dinner experience? We can surely come up with some product or service which decreases the time the mom spends in the kitchen or somehow makes it more fun for her kids to help cook dinner.

But what if raising the minimum wage so she didn’t have to work two jobs was the best way to improve this mom’s dinner experience? Using the design thinking methodology, you would be exceedingly unlikely to reach this conclusion.

By providing this mother a product or a service, we condone the fact that her hourly wage is too low to make a living. By applying a temporary and quick fix in the form of a product or a service to the problem, we do not acknowledge or engage with the root causes and instead, implicitly decide that her interests would not be better served by an increased minimum wage. This may be true – but that decision needs to be the result of a deliberate thought process, not the inadvertent product of the design thinking method.

Perhaps it is no accident that the d.school and design thinking have flourished in Silicon Valley. There is a prevalent belief in the Valley that technology will be able to solve all our problems (“there’s an app for that”). Solutions in the form of products and services appeal to our desire to “fix” things. With this attitude comes a lack of reflection about which problems lend themselves to technical solutions and which do not. Sometimes apps, products and services are the right solutions to a problem. Sometimes they are not. And sometimes a “quick fix” can get in the way of desperately needed structural change. The d.school methodology, as it currently stands, is not likely to prompt its practitioners to think rigorously about these important questions.

No method can possibly be appropriate for every problem, and design thinking is no exception. But it is imperative to understand the limitations of the methods we use.

If the d.school was a private enterprise, it could do whatever it wanted without the need for reflection. However, as part of a university, it has an educational mission. Even though its quarters look distinctly non-academic, the school is in the business of teaching a method. Accordingly the d.school has an obligation to not only teach the method, but also to ensure that its students understand the limits of the tools they are being taught. There may be ways of remedying this problem and to integrate political or structural solutions into design thinking.

But as long as this is not standard procedure, the d.school must not just teach the method, but also its blind spots.

Danny Buerkli MA ‘13

  • Dave

    I agree–there are certainly some problems that are better solved by taking non-product/non-service routes.

    But why doesn’t that mother deserve a quick fix in the meantime while politicians endlessly duke it out over policy issues? I think that the d.school does a great job for empowering designers to figure out how to solve a problem *right now* rather than relying on another system, which in some cases might be very bureaucratic and slow.

  • Matt

    Dave – what if no such quick fix exists? The quick fix cannot replace a truly sustainable and holistic resolution to the problem.

  • Talia

    This bizarre thought process and connection of yours is way off base! Why maline the d.school when the problem lays with the idiot girl that allowed herself to became a single mother in the first place. Individual responsibility could cure this problem before it even started!

  • Dave

    I’d find it hard to believe that there are no solutions that are a product/service. Despite that, I’m not advocating for *not* trying to produce a sustainable solution, but rather suggesting that if the sustainable solution is going to take time and hoops to jump through, I think a quick fix is just fine in the interim.

  • Cardinal Soph-ty

    Likewise, why should you malign the underserved single mother, already in a disadvantaged position? This article isn’t maligning anybody, merely pointing out the limitations of design thinking that the d.school should address. Why not put your criticism to use and further contribute to engaging with the root causes to help this single mother, like birth control education outreach, rather than blaming the mother?

  • Cardinal Frosh-y

    In other words, calling the woman an “idiot girl” isn’t doing anything to address the problems of either the d.school or the mother herself.

  • Talia

    The “underserved” (your term not mine) single mother should be maligned. Someone should speak out loud and clear that it is a horrible choice for her and her kids. Look at the statistics. Also in this day and age free birth control is there for the taking. It is her body and it is her responsibility to make better decisions so as not be in a situation where the government or the taxpayer have to suffer the consequences of her poor choices. No one forced her to have sex. Abortions are available. Maybe if someone actually stated what is obvious meaning being a single mother sucks then fewer would choose that route. I am tired of hearing of oh the poor victim. She had a choice. If her life is hard enough maybe she will actually teach her children not to make the same poor choices she did.

  • Talia

    What is so hard about you understanding that she is an idiot for allowing herself to get pregnant? Oh boo freaking whooo does it hurt her or your feelings?

  • Rudolf Greger

    design thinking _is_ capable to create a quick fix that would help this mother to cope with her situation. it is the misinterpretation of design thinking and proves that the author didn’t grasp the gist of this methodology. design thinking is about “doing, not talking”, design means transforming a given situation into a preferred one. and designers should know about their influence! a political restructuring of this situation is in most cases not available to designers, although they would try to win a politician for that topic. as we all know from the latest history: if you approach a politician with this you start a debating that lasts years. so, why not trying to help with “an app for that” and setting that this young mother accepts that she has to find a better employer for the talents she offers (but that is a different story, thinking about the austrian school of economics).

  • Rob

    This author does not understand what design thinking is about

    “There is a prevalent belief in the Valley that technology will be able to solve all our problems (“there’s an app for that”)”

    Design thinking is not about technology. It is about understanding the world view of the people who are being designed for.

    I sense that the author is deeply conservative and threatened by changing ways of thinking because he doesn’t want to make the effort to understand something new.

    Design is about creating new and better things.

  • Rob

    I think that the weakness at the d school is that they are not teaching hand skills like drawing to a sufficiently high level for the graduates to get jobs in existing US industry. They preach t shaped design but lack the vertical stroke of the T.

  • http://www.purecaffeine.com/ Nathanael Boehm

    I have not visited the d.school but as they are oft used as a case study for design thinking I am well aware of their approach. That said, they are not the flagship of design thinking and any perceived failings of the school should not translate to perceptions of flaws or constraints in design thinking as a mindset and methodology.

    Re “The answer to any problem unfailingly is a product or a service” — I’m completely at a loss as to how you came to that conclusion and how you think design thinking cannot begin to address the system issues such as the scenario you describe. Design thinking is better positioned than many other approaches to tackle such wicked problems and indeed has been recognised as a tool that governments must have in their toolkit if they want to begin to solve or participate in solving such complex issues.

    Empathy, a desire to truly understand from a user, consumer or citizen’s perspective, research of and collaboration with those who are involved in and affected by systemic failures or shortcomings today; exploring the problem space and looking at all possible solutions both quick fixes and 10-year strategies, prototyping those ideas to test them for viability, practicality and emotional consequence … absolutely not limited to a new or improved product or a service.

    Perhaps you meant to couch that assertion in the context of the for-profit private sector?

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