Perhaps it’s the word ‘design’ that gets under my skin. Beyond the usual modifiers of graphic, architectural, industrial, fashion, interior, textile, sound, landscape, product and so on, new appendages to the term seem to bubble up from the filth every other week. An exponential growth of the tumor.

For the record, at least two of those mentioned above seem somewhat reckless in retrospect: surely ‘architectural design’ is a tautology, and are ‘industrial design’ and ‘product design’ both imperative for distinguishing between two vastly separate disciplines? Perhaps even ‘graphic design’ is arguably redundant but that’s a tangent for another time.

So a design is a plan or convention for making something. But usually just a plan. Therefore, to design an object or process is to plan it. Perhaps your planning is based on the planning of others who have come before - all the better. It is also most likely grounded in some kind of convention for that particular thing you want to create. Seems straight-forward.

The problem is that everything is planned. Your suit was planned, my whisky was planned, that deep well over there was planned and her cello solo was too. We scoff at the person proclaiming that they are a ‘musical composition designer’ or a ‘distilled beverage designer’ yet accept ‘textile designer’ and ‘user experience designer’ as given.

There is an artificial distinction we all subscribe to. Perhaps we feel through the unus mundus that we collectively ran out of creativity in naming new things some time in the latter half of the 20th century so are resigned to grafting inoffensive adjectives to this crutch word whenever marginally novel professions arise.

Regardless, it’s often lazy or grasping to use the word. There may well have been a ten-minute period somewhere during 1998 when people were rendered awestruck upon hearing that you were a ‘blank designer’ but it seems the veneer has tarnished. It no longer garners whatever esteem it may once have done.

At worst, it is meaningless. The verb to design may have become so obscure when detached from a guiding modifier as to communicate precisely that the speaker is ‘making a thing’ or even ‘planning the making of a thing’; the unadorned term designer would be ‘a person who plans or makes a thing’.

Finally, here comes ‘design thinking’. Arriving just in time to combine two of the most nebulous words in an apparently un-ironic display of language as obscurist weapon. As far as I understand the intended meaning, it is a way of making something which takes the final user of that thing into consideration. Puts them at the centre of the planning. Or maybe it refers to some kind of process.

Probably a problem-solving process. Everything has become a problem to be solved and the shaman-designers are here with their enchanted ‘process’ to show the way out of the forest of bureaucratic myopia. To the promised land where the specter of Steve Jobs levitates high above his cash volcano promising that any company who creates products which customers actually enjoy using will be drenched by the geyser of holy revenue.

Nonetheless, a process is a process. Though until someone can show me otherwise, I don’t see how any two variants of ‘design’ can be said to share the same process until zoomed all the way out the macro scale where insight evaporates. Even within the same field there is rarely agreement on a single process. Agreement on principles, sure. Agreement on guidelines, considerations, attitudes and ‘best practices’, often.

Iterating on decisions, carefully considering revisions and taking technological capabilities into account while planning your thing is not ‘design’. To claim that all these and, above all, listening to the opinion of those using your thing is ‘design thinking’ is either ignorant or patronising.

But the intention is a good one. Hardly revolutionary as far as I can tell. Mostly common sense; that making smooth, shiny products and services which people enjoy could be considered revelatory perhaps speaks more to how far corporate culture has wandered away from common sense. Again, tangents for another time.

Look, adjectives: eloquent, empathetic, considerate, forgiving. Even ‘user-centric’ or ‘human-centered’, for all their lack of creativity, actually describe something.

So go on, plan that thing well. Listen to your audience or customer or end-user or whatever you want to define them as. Make sound decisions. Iterate to correct poor decisions. Consider as many of the external forces acting on your thing and the results of its existence as you can manage.

Just know that the next time you mention ‘design thinking’, you are, linguistically, perpetuating the exact opposite of what you think the term itself describes.

September 2013