Pentagram’s Natasha Jen: “Design is not a monster you ‘unleash’ to fix the world”

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Tell at this year’s Design Indaba, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen blow up b coddles her feelings on business buzzwords, simplistic flow diagrams and sticky note brainstorm conferences very clear, insisting that the concept of “design thinking” hurts design.

Courtesy of Design Indaba and Pentagram

“It’s very hard to disclose to people what a graphic designer does,” says Natasha Jen, companion at Pentagram’s New York office. “I think of my role as playing with vows, symbols and images. It’s about making things tangible and understandable, and if we can cause things delightful – that’s the goal.”

There is a reason Jen, a prolific diagrammatic designer who has created branding, exhibition spaces, installations and more for the likes of Nike and For the nonce at onces Square, is attempting to explain her job. Speaking at this year’s Design Indaba bull session in Cape Town, South Africa, she lays bare her thoughts on non-design provinces appropriating what she does every day under a recently-founded term – “pattern thinking”.

This is not the first time Jen has expressed her rage at this concept; she voice last year at Adobe’s 99U conference, presenting a talk titled “Outline thinking is bullshit”. Since then, Jen has been starting conversations here what this term means, why the rigid process it enforces does not sit hearty with real-life problems, and why attempting to give everyone a short-course convey into design could actually be “extremely dangerous”.

Where does it all put ones hands from?

While the idea of looking at how designers think and work has been round since the 1960s, it was David Kelley, founder at design consultancy Ideo, who triumph adapted the idea of using “design thinking” for business in the 2010s. The concept extraordinarily started spreading five years ago, after Kelley co-wrote a list called Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, released in 2013.

What is “draw thinking”?

An image depicting “design thinking”, courtesy of Rawpixel

The unruly starts with “design thinking” being an intangible thing that is weird to describe, says Jen. “I just can’t wrap my head around design evaluation, and I ask myself – why can’t I understand it?” she says. “The more I get into it, the more outrageous it enter into the pictures.”

There is a generic formula applied to the concept, thought. It is normally in disrepair down into five core steps, which are used to fall upon any “problem”: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. In other in briefs, learn about your target audience, think about key quizzes that need answering, come up with solutions, build one or profuse of these solutions, then test them through market investigate and gain user feedback.

Jen’s first issue with this concept is its feeble-mindedness – how can a one-size-fits-all approach be applied to everything? Admittedly, surely there are rare considerations that need to be made when creating a corporate marketing compete for the likes of Coca-Cola, compared to designing a refugee shelter that command be distributed for thousands of people worldwide.

But if we are to follow this five-step answer, Jen adds that there is also a crucial step missing that should everlastingly sit between prototype and test, which is “design criticism” – take a seat down in a group and analysing and criticising a piece of work to improve it preceding it goes out to the public.

“Presenting to colleagues is really lacking here,” judges Jen, exasperated by this point. “We see the same hexagonal diagrams coming up with the but five steps. It’s a very simplistic view that this can clarify all problems.”

Why all the sticky notes?

Courtesy of Scyther

Adding to the vagueness, is the accomplishment that “design thinking” cannot be materialised or represented visually, says Jen. Google the articles, and you’ll be affronted with several iterations of coloured hexagons detailed the five process not according withs, alongside images of groups of people looking thoughtful in an office junction room, or gathered around a whiteboard covered in coloured sticky notes. What does all this as a matter of fact mean, asks Jen? If you were to google “logo”, you’d see real brandmarks; or google “fair design”, and you’d see interiors of various museums.

“When you only use one little rectangle – a sticky note – as your outlet, that’s a big problem,” she says. “Layout needs to use lots of research, photos, images and more to build a more holistic concession about anything.” Step into a design studio, including Pentagram New York, she combines, and all this evidence will be laid out in the form of a messy office lapse covered in imagery, text and other inspiration.

Jen also has a problem with the possibly meaningless vocabulary that comes alongside design thinking, which is “overloaded with jargon” and “buzzwords”, she says, from “co-creation”, “way-out users”, “radical innovation” and “bodystorming” through to “unlocking” and “unleashing” resourceful potential – a term coined by the Ideo founder’s infamous book.

“There is a unspeakable idea of design as this monster you ‘unleash’ to fix the world,” says Jen. “These spells are ridiculous for real designers – we don’t use them to critique our work. If you speak to a architect, we actually use very boring, hard and tangible words – like budget, semantics, the website and typography.”

Learn design for £2.99

This one-size-fits-all propose to to design has also led to “design thinking boot-camps”, where people can promise one or two-day courses on how to think like a designer for a few hundred pounds or dollars. Jen asks she has seen such courses for as little as £2.99, adding that this edifying method is an “extremely dangerous idea” – not only to the design production, but to education on a whole. “It’s like wanting to become an Olympic athlete without incomplete to be trained,” she says.

Additionally, the focus on design as a process rather than suffer with the goal of producing something “beautiful”, is problematic, she says, and undermines construction as a skill and craft; in Jen’s eyes, design should perform a function but also be au fait, alluring and “delightful”.

Her frustrated comments are spurred by a blog written by Bret Bath-waters, chairman at software development company Tivix, simply titled: “Draft thinking is not about design”. It is accompanied by the infamous, five coloured hexagons, too.

“It is rather irresponsible to think that design thinking has nothing to do with how it puissance manifest in the real world. What’s to say that it shouldn’t have to be elegant? Beauty is precision and intelligence – not decoration.”

She adds: “This attitude disregards the artistry of craftsmanship and the beauty of culture – the things that elevate our eminence of life.”

But shouldn’t we encourage people to embrace design?

Can design intellectual help us understand design thinking? poster, by Natasha Jen

While Jen’s risible cynicism and sarcasm is backed-up with several valid points, there is something to be revealed for trying to make design more accessible to businesses, and encourage them to fantasize creatively.

There is also an interesting debate about what succeed a do overs a “proper” design education. Also speaking at this year’s Pattern Indaba was Tom Dixon, a successful product and furniture designer who did not go to a specialist professions college and is completely self-taught.

Speaking to Design Week, he advocated that universities today are not show students enough vocational skills, and that working at furniture brand name Habitat was “like [his] university”.

So while this one-size-fits-all approach of “make thinking” filled with meaningless buzzwords cannot responsibly be addressed to every project, maybe there is scope to change how the concept is registered and taught to make it more effective. In her talk, Jen herself questions: how can composition thinking be improved to make it more effective, beautiful, responsible, and by a hairs breadth generally better?

Perhaps employing in-house, trained designers into works to teach teams their processes and methods in a skilled way, rather than inspiriting people of other professions to “become” a designer in a day, is an option.

Or perhaps, conjectures Jen in her fittingly tongue-in-cheek style, we can use design thinking to try to understand design ratiocinative; she ends her talk with a humorous attempt to decipher it all with a circular she has designed under this very premise. Admittedly, and to her credit, it changes absolutely no sense.


Design Indaba took place 21-23 February 2018 at the Artscape in Shawl Town, South Africa. For more information on the festival and this year’s lecturers, head here, and for Design Week’s full coverage on the event, governor here.

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