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  • GK VanPatter

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

Updated: Apr 13

Welcome to Part 2 of 2.

KEY POINT 6: Business Thinking Education

ALIGNED: Many in the emerging practice community would agree with Don on this point, although, again, there is no unified agreement on what "different" means in this context. Complicating this part of the picture is that the design thinking lite movement has been used as a change driver in the long stalled, graduate business education community while paradoxically serving as a blockage regarding recognition of need for change in the design education community itself. On the forward motion side there already exists numerous change making leadership skill-building programs within the emerging practice community, geared for organizational leaders, not all of which are called or framed as design thinking. Right now, due to many marketplace factors calling everything design is not the best strategy if uptake is among the goals.

NOT ALIGNED: Folks out there not aligned with Don’s suggestion that business education needs redesign would probably not be in the design community...🙂 

KEY POINT 7: Content is King Model

ALIGNED:  Perhaps the most complicated is this picture. Few in the design community would argue against what Don is pointing out here, however what he is saying can also be misinterpreted, particularly in the context of organizational and societal changemaking, contexts to which design is relatively new. A little more nuance is warranted if we want to understand the evolving story. With good intentions Don is presenting here what we recognize as the Content is King model of design. The folks aligned with the Content is King orientation exist in many professional disciplines and programs outside of design including many graduate business school MBA programs, management programs, etc. where the sage-on-the-stage, tell-tell model is still taught as supreme. Clearly many have invested heavily in the sage-on-the-stage, Content is King approach which typically has heavy representation in organizations. One might ask what happens to changemaking when 80-90% of the folks present have been schooled in the Content is King orientation? In emerging practice we already know the answer to that question. 🙂

NOT ALIGNED: This point strikes to the heart of differences between traditional product, service and experience practice and the emerging practice community already focused on the complexities and dynamics of organizational and societal changemaking as well as capacity building. This is not capacity building for product or service design but rather for sensemaking, changemaking and inclusive culture building. In emerging practice, we are well aware of the often-encountered, still dominant, business management dynamics mashup that we know as the 3Kings Model: 1. Content is King, 2. Convergent Thinking (decision-making) is King and 3. Command and Control is King. It might not yet be clear to everyone that by design, we are, in the emerging practice community, not present to duplicate or mirror the 3Kings model but rather to bring and enable the dynamics to reorient it and recover from it in the context of a continuously changing world. 

Since 3Kings is not ideal for facing VUCA we want to be careful how we are talking about content knowledge, process knowledge, innovation dynamics, psychological safety, etc. How we talk about such issues is very different from traditional management programs where 3Kings is often embedded. It’s not that content knowledge goes away or is valued less but rather that the interaction equation, the value equation is, with an eye on enabling innovation, rebalanced. In the emerging practice community it is commonly recognized that process knowledge and content knowledge are equal in value but the design community complexity is, that the processes in play are not the assumption-boxed methods of product, service or experience design. This is an orientation not native to design but already central to organizational and societal changemaking, capacity building, inclusive culture building. We are present not just as “generalists” but to reformulate the interaction dynamics, the changemaking scaffolds, in human-centered ways. This very real, complex need to overcome the 3Kings Effect does not appear in Don’s video but is already present and operational in emerging practice.

KEY POINT 8: “Executive” Leadership

ALIGNED:  Interconnected with Point #7 above, many “executive” management “leadership” models are based on mastery of the 3Kings Effect, even as those institutions struggle to reinvent themselves in the context of continuous change driven by VUCA and other factors. 

NOT ALIGNED:  Long story short: With the challenges of rising complexity, information overload and continuous change in mind we do not in the emerging practice community define “executive” leadership according to 3Kings. We want to keep in mind that management leadership, decision leadership, decision support leadership are all different skills, different universes from innovation leadership, innovation enabling leadership, innovation capacity building leadership. In a highly competitive marketplace this is not always clear. When it comes to leadership, the rub is, since the early roots of craft and product creation design has a history of being subservient to business. The challenge of redefining what leadership is and needs to be in the present and going forward is a substantial and significant one for this community, in design education in particular. It’s a moment for stepping up. Lots of folks in the community simply won’t go there. From our humble perspective, the design community needs more strategically minded practice leaders and thought leaders capable of working at such conversational and operational levels, redefining and modeling forms of leadership that are very different from 3Kings.

KEY POINT 9: Reinventing Design 

ALIGNED: It seems likely that most in the design community would agree with what Don is pointing out here. With design being historically, many decades ago, once rooted in craft there was a time when alignment with already operating art schools probably made good start-up sense, but as Don is pointing out that time has long since passed. Design is long passed the start-up stage and remains in forward motion due to necessity.

The reinvention of design in the direction of rising complexity is underway in the emerging practice community without any official sanctioning from formal design education institutions. Some reinventors have in mind extending traditional design logic, some seek to add one silver bullet ingredient and others in the practice community have already integrated 8-10 shifts. Humantific publicly tabled our view on Thinking Blending in 2013 reflecting what we already do in practice and have posted on the subject many times since then. Some have in mind tossing the word “design” out the window, others want to add words to it. Suffice it to say that the various Design for Complexity reinvention models differ, not only in terms of what is on the integration train but which ingredient is driving. Not everyone is up for handing the keys to systems thinking…:-) Rather than carpet bombing entire approaches for the sake of differencing, in Think Blending we recognize that all approaches have strengths and weaknesses. This is tricky, in-motion business.

As the dynamics that are effective in the context of organizational and societal complexity become more clear, the importance of having an open aperture beyond traditional design and holistic thinking becomes more clear. Some of those mechanics, including the importance of behaviors and cognition preferences have deep roots in other disciplines.

When does an approach take on so many additions and shifts that it is no longer design? This is a question unfolding in real time in the emerging practice community. If there is consensus there it would be that traditional design knowledge by itself is not enough if we want to engage in the complex contexts of organizational and societal changemaking. 

We interpreted Don’s call for “thinking more broadly than your field” as being open to considering not just content (what) knowledge but process (how) knowledge from outside of traditional design as the work of reinventing what design is and does moves forward.


NOT ALIGNED: Clearly not every person or institution in the design community is going to be comfortable with the degree of change underway around design and that is not so unusual in any complex community spanning multiple generations. As the future unfolds it seems likely that the emerging practice forms of design, containing multiple streams of ThinkBlending will split off and out of the art schools to be more properly housed elsewhere within academic institutions.   

KEY POINT 10: Gaining Respect

ALIGNED:  No one we know is suggesting that the design community of communities is not worthy of respect, however views on how that has been and will be accomplished differ widely. To be aligned with a community but concerned seems like a not so new normal and Don’s video is a good example of that constructive duality. In addition, as new generations arrive into the subject of design, views on this question are, no doubt, under reconsideration. To get a sense of this shift we suggest readers take a look at one of the newer books focused in this direction, Jesse Weaver’s Design Won’t Save the World, 2019, or Mike Monterio’s, Ruined by Design, 2019. Somewhat oddly many new books on “the future of design” contain no problem finding but these two books (as well as our own) certainly do. With the alarm bells going off regarding the state of the planet it seems likely that how design gets to “respect” in the rapidly arriving future will depend largely on how the community, including graduate design education, meets the challenges of adaptation and regeneration in a world now on fire. In the design community much R&D time has been burned up going around in circles on simplistic justifications, half measures, redundant repeating starting point initiatives and no-there-there issues such as double diamond. Now there is no more going around in circles time left to waste.

NOT ALIGNED: In a super competitive marketplace not everyone is a fan of design. In some of the heavier anti-design writings there is often a sense being conveyed that no one is strategically home in the design community so anyone can move in and rapidly dominate. Others are happy to take the reins of design leadership if the design community itself is distracted and or cannot step up. Suffice it to say that we believe the design community, including graduate design education, needs to be strategically awake, strategically home and strategically participating outwardly in the public realm. Clear signals that design has strong leaders willing to speak up on various issues can only help the cause. Belief in design is not enough.


Perhaps the most difficult part to express in all of this community complexity is what Louis Kahn (1901-1974) was talking about when he referred six decades ago to being an architect, even when he got his haircut. What Kahn was referring to there, rather abstractly, is architectural design as a way of thinking, a way of being, a way of life. He was referring to being connected to the soul of architectural design and being an embodiment of that soul, at all times even in the barber shop..🙂

We saw and believed that was part of what Don was talking about in the video when he referred to design as a way of thinking. It is a way of being, and a way of life. It is something that many can learn at many levels, but it takes time to get the soul part…🙂 Not everyone is going to get there.

If someone was hiring us to help articulate the differences between deep formal graduate strategic design education and the one day workshop version we would find a way to incorporate the soul part of the story as part of skills progression. Anyone can learn an old or new method but without the soul it’s not quite the same.

The complexity and disconnect in the Louis Kahn hair cut analogy is that the world has changed and keeps changing so most professions, including design, are in motion, thus the souls are in motion. Some of the rethinking design movements now in play represent not only new forms of design but new souls too. With this in mind we can see that some of the approaches being onboarded into design are a good soul fit and some are less so. Many disciplines/professions have souls, not just design. The souls of design are in motion and this makes the community picture, the practice picture ever-so complex.

What are the shapes and configurations of design soulness now in a changed and changing world? What should they be, need to be? This is the rubix cube on steroids of present day design, so lets leave that considerable complexity for another day. 🙂

Swimming in these waters for some time we have come to see that in the context of any giant hairball shxtstorm, the Islands of Coherence can only do so much and so be it. We can live with that. Improving the connection between the various coherence islands seems desirable and possible recognizing that the politics are often complicated. Time will tell.

Does contributing coherence around this giant hairball shxstorm subject help “shift the entire system to a higher order?” Readers can decide. 🙂

Big thanks to Don Norman for making his video public in the midst of the storm. Happy to chat with you anytime Don.

Good night from an awaiting for spring New York City.


Images Credit: NN/Group 2024



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