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  • GK VanPatter

Alternate to Nigel Cross Paper

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Welcome back NextD Journal readers. This week part one of a two part post as we are taking on the challenging journalistic task of sharing a few thoughts on an important paper recently published, originating in the graduate design education community, authored by Nigel Cross, School of Engineering and Innovation, Open University, UK, entitled: Design Thinking: What just happened”.

Many of our readers will know Nigel Cross as the author of the 2011 book, Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work. We are aware that the book makes a strong case for Design Arena 2 skills, primarily product design, which are depicted as Design Thinking.

It seems likely that Mr Cross is not a NextD Journal reader…:-)

After reading Nigel’s “what just happened” paper I was reflecting, racking my brain for useful analogies; Alternate Universe, Swan Song, Design by Omission, Lost Weekend, Political Theater, Papering-Over, Missing the Forest for the Trees, Deflection, Clean-up on Aisle 3, Missing in Action, Feel Good Blankie all came to mind. Analogy-wise I was rather stumped but decided that while they all fit to one degree or another, omission and papering-over were perhaps the two most important aspects of what does and does not appear in Nigel’s well-intentioned paper.

Can parallel universes exist within the subjects of design / design thinking? You betcha.

For those of us on the front lines of Arena 3/Arena 4 practice in this age of complexity the “what just happened” paper came across as a rather snoozy, feel-good swan song, placating the graduate design education community serving to convey all is well, on expected trajectory, design remains fine, largely papering over what actually just happened, and what was largely missed by a sizable chunk, some might say the vast majority of graduate design education institutions / academic leaders.

Somewhat oddly there is something about the time speed clock, the relationship with time visible in the “what just happened” paper that seems, from a complexity arena practice perspective to be a little off-kilter.

Readers seem to be invited to accept the adaptation time speed picture that appeared in that paper as a depiction of not only “what just happened” but also where collectively we all are around the subjects of design and design thinking, where the subject itself is and should be. That is a depiction that we would not subscribe to.

What REALLY Just Happened

Story Part 1: Episode 1

From the NextD Journal perspective what just happened 2005-2023 was fundamentally less about who tinkered with what definitions of design/design thinking and more in the bigger picture strategic sense, about recognition/acknowledgement of need for change, degree of change needed, change leadership and what happens when important community educational institutions become distracted, mired, comfortable, timed-out, strategically lost, defensive, looking at rising public interest in design thinking while ignoring horizon scanning, approaching VUCA storms and R&D in an unforgiving world in constant motion.

While design thinking was used as an instrument of much needed change in other communities, particularly in graduate business school education it largely served as a blockage of recognition and acknowledgement of need for change, in several designerly circles, particularly in graduate design education.

The stampede to sell current state methods as design thinking workshops was difficult for many graduate design educational institutions to resist. With the help of a misguided and misguiding article that unfortunately appeared in Harvard Business Review (2015) the stampede went into overdrive, sidelining other considerations.

Oddly during the stampede years it was rare to see a coherent picture posted regarding the value and difference between formal graduate design education and design thinking coming from the graduate design education community. During the stampede there was an odd, prolonged design educator leadership missing-in-action silence dynamic in public forums. That absence puzzled many folks who had made significant investments in lengthy design education.

With rising complexity of problems in organizational and societal contexts clearly visible on the horizon by 2005 it seemed rather clear to many in the strategic design practice business that a storm was coming, so we better get ready. In that year, from the platform of NextD Journal we began communicating explanation regarding the nature of the approaching storm and its implications. Many of our early readers benefitted from that sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing and came along with us via various forms of participation, still ongoing.

Alternatively, one could make the case that time stopped in much of institutional graduate design education during the stampede era. Suffice it to say that the crowd acknowledging the approaching storm and the crowd selling current state represented two very different universes.

With a few notable exceptions; Peter Jones & friends, Don Norman, Humantific/NextD Journal, Jesse Weaver, Mike Monteiro being among them, what was sacrificed/lost in that stampede era was much needed complexity related R&D in the direction of rethinking design and graduate design education. It was no doubt more than a decade but let’s be generous and round it off. We think of it as a lost decade in graduate design education adaptation and forward motion.

Fortunately, or unfortunately the world outside did not stop in tandem.

What we saw in the “what just happened” paper was a complete missing of that forest and instead a detailed accounting of various trees was presented, some of which played no meaningful part in the rethinking design movement which eventually evolved into the design for complexity movement.

Most notably there is no mention in the “what just happened” paper regarding graduate design education largely missing that train, missing the need for and approach of the change movements focused on updating methodologies and related skill-building to better suit Arena 3 and Arena 4 contexts.

Clearly an important aspect of what just happened and is happening now is that graduate design education institutions are finally in 2022-2023 emerging from that slow adaptation lost decade. Missing that train in part explains the gap between where the world on fire is presently and where much of graduate design education is, now playing catch up.

We noted this important part of the design thinking story was completely absent from the “what just happened” paper. Including it would have made a more transparent and authentic journalistic picture.

Right now, with the world noticeably on fire there is pretty-much an all-hands-on-deck situation in graduate design education due to that lost decade. The stampede is reversing itself as the challenges facing the disciplines become more clear to more concerned people inside and outside of design. The previously pointed out disconnects between present philosophy and missing actual methodologies are finally becoming clear.

The storm signals are now so strong that they have become impossible for slow to adapt graduate design education to ignore. In concert a new generation of graduate students is arriving with very different ideas regarding the challenges of most interest to them. Also arriving with that generation are differences in degree and pace of change expected.

Now caught behind the 8-ball, some slow to adapt design education institutions that for years missed or ignored the approaching storm signals can be seen resorting to creatively/confusingly, trying to redepict Service Design as the missing progress towards meta. The “what just happened” paper presents an even more incremental picture of forward motion (See Episodes 2 & 3 below).

Let’s be honest: Designerly rhetoric often contains high pitched notions of challenging others to take on big picture change but this part of our own community adaptation story, with a few notable exceptions, flies in the face of that rhetoric.

Journalistically speaking we would say that is Episode 1 in the Design Thinking: what REALLY just happened story.

Of course not everyone went down the same stampede rabbit hole.

What REALLY Just Happened

Story Part 1: Episode 2

In years of writing into this subject via NextD Journal 2005-2023 as well as being Arena 3 and 4 practice leaders we have seen many approaches and rationales for blocking change come and go. Recently we have noticed that academic leaders are now actively trying to make the case that the problem with design thinking is/was that it’s a not authentic light weight.

It’s no big secret that lots of amateurs rushing in, taking one day, current state, design thinking workshops proclaiming instant expertise has created a design thinking lite monster. An often appearing academic defense script is that if there is a problem with design thinking it is with design thinking lite and not with actual design. In that script design and related education always emerges as in fine shape with no need of change, only greater appreciation.

Not mentioned in that academic defense script is that design thinking is primarily based not on problem solving, but rather on product, service and experience design methods. Today current state design thinking is widely interpreted to be product, service, experience design. In NextD Geographies Framework that is Arena 2.

That focus would be no problem if all the challenges in complex organizations and societies where product, service, experience related which of course they are not. Gearing up to tackle a world on fire is not about improving Arena 2, product design skills. Distinguishing between product design thinking lite and the professional version does nothing to help prepare that missing Arena 3 and Arena 4 community capacity.

The additional hic-up in the defense script, also often not mentioned by academic leaders selling current state graduate design education and current state design thinking is that even at full force, occupied by design school educated designers those assumption-boxed methods of product design, service design and experience design are not geared for, not intended for and are not equipped for the shift towards designing in complex contexts of Arena 3 & Arena 4.

Unfortunately, the “what just happened” post sticks closely to the well-known, well-worn academic defense script narrative. In that script the extent of problem finding, problem acknowledgment is routinely deflected and redirected. In that a significant forward motion opportunity was lost.

There seems to be a rather confusing and confused perception/depiction being floated in “what just happened” that introducing a two-part taxonomy around levels of Arena 2 skill somehow solves the problem of adapting design methods to more complex situations. Clearly those are two very different things. It is a rather head-spinning, force-fit confused narrative often being directed into the community and into the public by design education community leaders.

One might wonder; What could possibly go wrong with adhering to such a script on a collision course with rising complexity reality? How long can that go on?

What we saw in the “what just happened” paper was essentially a missed opportunity misfire in that it side-stepped the moment, the responsibility to stand up to that academic defense script picture, known to be a misleading narrative.

Happy summers end readers, if that is your season...:-)

Coming soon!

What REALLY Just Happened

Story 1: Episode 3


What REALLY Just Happened

Story 2: Did Not Wait / Not Waiting


Image credits: All visual sensemaking diagrams in this post are from Rethinking Design Thinking: Making Sense of the Future that is Already Arrived, Humantific, 2020

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