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  • GK VanPatter

How We Make Sense of Don Norman’s Making Sense of Design

Updated: Apr 22


Part 1: Key Points 1 to 5: 2070 words

Part 2: Key Points 6 to 10: 2060 words

Welcome back NextD Journal readers. This week, a different kind of adventure in two parts. Since we have invested in helping to make sense of several complicated subjects over the years, we greatly appreciate all attempts at sensemaking within the design community, around the topics of design / design thinking / rethinking design. With that appreciation in mind we took a look at the recently published Don Norman video; "The Role of Design". 

For this adventure we might start here in a big picture, courtesy of Ilya Prigogine: “When a complex system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.”

In addition, this quote from Architect Louis Kahn might also be helpful later in this post: “You know, even when I get a haircut I’m an Architect.”

To begin, begin, let’s face it; the subject(s) of design / design thinking / rethinking design have become a complex intertwined messy hairball. With constant high volatility twists and turns, it might, depending on your individual perspective, be considered a system, a system of systems or just a giant shxtstorm..🙂 As practice leaders in the storm, also journalistically covering the evolution of that bumpy story for many years, we have come to recognize that continuously existing in the community during the storm are both Islands of Coherence and Islands of Spin. This mash-up makes the picture complex for many, particularly those folks arriving into the subject, including next generation leaders. 

On our best days we strive for NextD Journal to be one of those Islands of Coherence in the storm of these complex subjects, recognizing that there are other islands, all having similarities and differences. Of course from time to time there are occasional dust-ups as the islands; Coherence and Spin, bump up against each other in the storm. We recognize Don Norman as an Island of Coherence and appreciate his many contributions, even when we do not agree with him..🙂 With due respect we noted what was said and not said by Don in this useful video.

Selected below in two parts with our NextD Journal readers in mind are, what we believe to be the ten most important points made by Don that directly connect to Rethinking Design / Rethinking Design Thinking and the evolving Design for Complexity Movement. 

Generally speaking, it would appear that NN/Group and Humantific/NextD Journal seem to be aligned with the basic notion that graduate design education would benefit from a significant redesign or the introduction of new streams, in order to better address the complex organizational (Arena 3) and societal (Arena 4) situations of today. We differ from Don on many of the details. We are in different businesses and have very different viewing lenses.

In the community itself many diverse perspectives exist simultaneously, some in alignment with what Don is stating in the video and some not. This might not be clear to everyone. 

Using a simple Aligned / Not Aligned structure to denote the often conflicting community diversity we are happy to add this into the mix of sense making here for our NextD Journal readers. You might ask: Where is everyone in relation to what Don is saying in the video? The answer, as you will note in this two part post is: It’s a jungle out there. 🙂

KEY POINT 1: Way of Thinking

ALIGNED: We struggled with the design or design thinking terminology question ourselves when we wrote our last Humantific book in 2020; Rethinking Design Thinking. Even recognizing all of the terms flaws, we questioned whether Design Thinking was becoming the broader umbrella for this subject. There are parts of the design community that would probably be aligned with what Don is suggesting here as forward motion regarding terminology. To a large degree, whether we all like it or not, that terminology train has already left the station.  

NOT ALIGNED: Gravitating to two dimensional argument, many folks in the design community like to position design thinking as an inferior, lite version of design, using that straw man argument as their central differentiator. In this view any problem being pointed out with design is depicted as a design thinking lite problem. Some folks unaligned with the term like to ask: Where is design doing? On and on it goes. 🙂 In the video Don is doing a more nuanced two-step dance: 1. pointing to design thinking as the forward motion header and 2. pointing out the design thinking lite problem simultaneously. Others in the community have different dance steps in mind. Over the years we have noticed that the "lite is the problem, not us” strategy tends to be most often seen in the context of graduate design education institutions. It’s a simple argument (with no change drivers inside) that is easy to sell/explain, but one that fails to capture the real story which is considerably more complex. There is significant irony in that oversimplified argument being insisted upon, at a time when there is lots of barking in the community regarding the need to embrace complexity and avoid “reductionist thinking”. 🙂

KEY POINT 2: Complex Problem Solving

ALIGNED: Probably THE most important point that Don makes in the video, this view aligns with folks within the community who believe that design is, or has the potential to become, a powerful constructive vehicle to bring to bear in contexts that require complex problem solving. Aligned with this view would be parts of the emerging practice community already operational on the front lines in organizational and societal change contexts. For those in the Design for Complexity emerging practice community the phrase "has the potential to become" is key. The complexity is that Don's statement here is considered by those emerging practice folks to be aspirational, meaning not yet factual within the current state of conventional, traditional design. In magic thinking logic Don is describing current state across Arenas 1,2,3,4. From the emerging practice community perspective Don's words here do map to Arenas 1&2 and do not map to Arenas 3&4. In the latter arenas, terms such as in-progress, in redesign, in reconstruction and emerging would be a more accurate description of current state. Without an ecology for the word design being present that conversation never takes place. Ready or not, there is movement and considerable reconstruction underway. That is not clear in the video. 

NOT ALIGNED: To further complicate the picture, running contrary to what Don is expressing here regarding complex problem solving is a relatively small group of folks within the community often seen, not only vocalizing their view that design is not about solving complex problems but aggressively trashing problem solving itself. In that manifesto, such as it is, problem solving = bad, versus what they have in mind for design = good. Their differencing energy is often oddly combined with a head-spinning lack of enlightened knowledge regarding the long standing, still evolving, parallel CPS (Creative Problem Solving) community with its deep methods knowledge roots that predate the 1970s era design methods movement. Truth be told: By ignorance or by competitive design, mischaracterization of current state problem finding/solving/evolving knowledge runs rampant in the design community. Many depictions are blatant misrepresentations. Again, this too is a simple two-dimensional argument that is easy to sell/explain, but one that fails to capture the real story which is considerably more complex. Lots of irony there in that argument being made by folks on route to the complexity business. Whether we all like it or not such vibes are now often in play in the competitive marketplace. We have in NextD Journal written in the direction of this phenomenon on numerous occasions. Let us see clearly that Don is NOT engaged in that maneuver in the video.

KEY POINT 3:  Philosophy & Methodology

ALIGNED: Difficult subject…What we notice here is the philosophy of design being presented as generalized actuality. We view this as the heroic magic thinking view of design. This tends to occur when there is no design ecology present for the term “design”. There are many folks within the design community who acquired this orientation, this manifesto in one of the graduate design academies and are not only aligned with it but are actively out in the marketplace selling it. Not mentioned in this video is that the gap between this broad philosophy and actual methods suited to complex contexts is by far the biggest elephant in the current design education living room as well as many practice living rooms..🙂 If we miss that, the central reason for acknowledging the need for change is lost, so the stakes are high. The complexity here is that the emerging practice community is generally aligned with the philosophy being stated by Don here and/but busy at work closing the gap between methods and philosophical pronouncements. Neither the gap, nor the need for methods redesign is mentioned in the video. The philosophy / methodology gap is clearly visible to some more than others. Some believe that not closing that gap in a timely way will undermine the design communities’ ability to deliver on that philosophical promise. 

NOT ALIGNED: There are folks in the design community who strongly advocate design staying within its traditional boundaries that they are most comfortable with, regardless of VUCA and other external change drivers. In addition, there are numerous parties outside the design community increasingly calling into question this thing called "design thinking" as it is, in this transitional cross-over era being tried-on-for-size in many complex Arena 3/Arena 4 contexts beyond products, services and experiences, with mixed results. Is the jury still out on Design Thinking? Some say yes and others say no.

KEY POINT 4: Design Thinking Lite

ALIGNED: Many in the design community would be aligned with Don’s tennis analogy. By 2024 it is probably safe to say that 99% of the design community recognizes that there now exists a widespread design thinking lite problem in the global marketplace. How that story came to be and who bought into it no doubt deserves its own in-depth analysis but there is little doubt regarding its sweeping, dual corrosive/positive impact. Much of that was probably not well thought through, not well explained, and over-sold when it was launched as a way to make design sound more strategic, reinvent how business leaders think and generate significant revenue for many including the graduate design schools. Be careful what you wish for is now here in the form of graduate business education being transformed with design thinking lite. The design community unleashed that concoction and is now wrestling with what to do with it, as Don points out. Whether we all like it or not Design Thinking lite is another train that has already left the station. Such are the complexities now in play. 

NOT ALIGNED: It seems likely that the folks who bought into the notion (some with hefty price tags) that a one day or one week workshop makes you a "certified" design thinking expert would likely not be aligned with Don's suggestion that it is superficial. Also presumably not aligned, would be the institutions hiring instructors to teach “design thinking” courses, who have never set foot in a design school. That particular hic-up has to be an ultimate expression of the lite phenomenon that the design community lost control of long ago. Can the toothpaste be put back in the tube?...not likely, but much more clarity/honesty/transparency in the form of clearly articulated skills progression ladders could arrive. Based on what has occurred in the last decade, that clarity storm around lite versus deep is not likely to arrive from the direction of graduate design education. That absence too is part of the community’s complexity.

KEY POINT 5: Design Thinking Education 

ALIGNED: Many in the emerging practice community would agree with Don on this point, which amounts to a general call for change although there is no unified view of what "different" means in this context. Our readers will know that several alternate "TOMORROW" graduate design education program models have already been tabled including one in our last Humantific book.

NOT ALIGNED: No need to dwell on this educational non-alignment. We have written on this subject elsewhere. Like the shoemaker going barefoot, the graduate design education community tends to have a hard time with internally facing problem finding, problem acknowledgement, problem acceptance and often pushes back on suggestions that change and proactive adaptation is needed. Deflection of calls for change was particularly high during the design thinking lite workshop wave era, which is now winding down. Call that missing the adaptation/transformation train or something else, slow adaptation/no adaptation was/is a strategy that has been costly to the overall picture of graduate design education in a rapidly changing world. With rising awareness that product, service and experience design methods are NOT META, many of the graduate design schools have been caught flat-footed and are now scrambling to adjust to the shift in complexity awareness. Good news is that in some less traditional designerly leaders are emerging in some educational institutions signaling the possibility of picking up the pace of rethinking. We do know that skill-building programs based in practice tend to not be so adaptation constrained.

End Part 1 of 2.

KEY POINT 6: Business Thinking Education

KEY POINT 7: Content is King Model

KEY POINT 8: “Executive” Leadership

KEY POINT 9: Reinventing Design 

KEY POINT 10: Gaining Respect

Images Credit: NN/Group 2024


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