Beyond design thinking by Roshel Chawla

by Interaction Design March 30, 2022

In September 2021, I started my MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts. Coming from a communication design background, I have been exposed to design-thinking methods that every designer uses as their holy grail. Little did I realize that this oversold concept of “design thinking”, following a 5-step linear process has become a buzzword for designers and corporates to fulfill and satisfy their needs.

This article by Tania Anaissie, assigned as a reading for my Research Methods class completely changed my perspective on design thinking. I started questioning design methods and processes that we learn and read about but fail to put into action. Another talk by Natasha Jen made it clear that we as designers need to reshape this conversation.

So what now? I am in my second semester and this paradigm surrounding the traditional design thinking has been a recurring theme in my classes. But there is a methodical change that more and more designers are adopting to create solutions that are borne with criticism, co-design, and equitable collaboration. I am now in the continuous process of more than just design thinking.

Speculative Design

Speculative design sometimes called critical design or design fiction is about thinking beyond user-centered design and asks what the effect of our design could be on future societies. It is concerned with the implications rather than the application of technology and design in our everyday lives.

Recently we did a small project where we imagined future user experiences, creating a blasphemy of human and futuristic technology, a black mirror episode of sorts. It was not about designing a 2030 prediction of what earth and humans would look like but evaluating quintessential scenarios that have consequences and have a larger impact.

Photo collage of hippie family on superimposed grid layout with mountains in the background used to illustrate speculative design. Photo collage of hippie family on superimposed grid layout with mountains in the background used to illustrate speculative design.

https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/speculative-design-playing-devils-advocate

Inclusive Design

Every design decision that we make has the potential of including or excluding users. Inclusive design emphasizes designing for exclusivity and the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities — all of us really.

My favorite example and probably heard in every class I have taken is the OXO Good Grips. What’s always interesting about this as an example is that it was designed with an extreme use case, people who have arthritis in mind, but works equally well for anyone else. I actually brought my first OXO vegetable peeler recently to validate all the hype! It works magic…

When I was introduced to Inclusive Design, I realized that more than a process that has to be applied to any solution, it’s a mindset. Just like empathy, designers now need to focus on “inclusivity” as building a skillset. Most of my design solutions have focused solely on a type of user, thinking that by applying design-thinking I have done justice to their problems. It’s not that simple, especially given that humans are complex organisms. It is important to consider diversity to make informed design decisions.

Liberatory Design

Liberatory Design is a creative problem-solving approach and practice that centers equity and supports us to design for liberation.
https://www.liberatorydesign.com

We as designers and problem solvers hold immense power over the process we choose to come up with the solution that impacts a large community, yet we are rarely directly impacted by the challenge itself. Liberatory design generates self-awareness among designers to become more equity-centered. This requires a shift in the relationship between people who hold the power to design and decide and those impacted and influenced by the design works.

When I was reading about Liberatory Design, I couldn’t stop thinking about my undergraduate thesis. I was designing a solution for India’s largest potter’s community, Kumbharwada. I rigorously followed all the design-thinking steps, spending a couple of weeks to understand their problem space and went back to my drawing board to sketch and conceptualize. I vividly remember during one of my interviews with a potter he said “I hope you design a solution that impacts and really helps us than something that other design students have created merely for their portfolio.” I ended up only putting the design solution in my portfolio. What I would do to go back in time and undo my so-called “design thinking” process!

Photo of a potter working from Kumbharwada, India to reference liberatory design. Photo of a potter working from Kumbharwada, India to reference liberatory design.

The potter from Kumbharwada

Am I becoming better or is it just in my head?

Learning and unlearning design has been an overwhelming experience. The idea of going beyond sticking post-it notes on the wall and moving them from one category to another (which btw our studio is filled with) seems daunting but exhilarating. While new-age designers keep questioning and shaping new terms to break the traditional barriers in design, it has become quintessential to think before questioning, criticize before conceptualizing, diversify before designing, and speculate before implementing.

Post-It Notes on wall to show how designers love to use sticky notes all the time. Post-It Notes on wall to show how designers love to use sticky notes all the time.

A designer’s obsession with sticky notes

Additional Resources:

  1. Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practice by Matt Malpass
  2. Designing for Justice with Tania Anaissie