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What has two thumbs (down) and doesn’t care

22 September, 2012

This designer!

I recently saw Design & Thinking, the movie.

Warning: if your life changed from seeing this movie don’t read on. My life didn’t change. In fact, I’ll never get those 75 minutes back.

Some of my favourite things in the world are documentaries and design. I previously waxed lyrical and was genuinely energised in my profession when I saw Design the New Business earlier this year. In 2004 my whole design and career mindset was shifted when I saw The Deep Dive (I (used to also) love television too). I even did reviews of the BBC The Genius of Design series on this very blog. So, I don’t mind a good show about my discipline.

But this one? Not so much. I am not even going to do any background fact checking – this whole post is assumption, presumption and selfish gumption.

Here’s what it had going for it:

  • Great trailer. When I first saw it I thought 1) this looks good 2) oh dear, design as slick packaged movie, but let’s not judge too early.
  • Great design personalities. I mean, if you’re after a role call of influential voices here’s your top five-or-so voices and or companies/organisations together – and they say some good stuff.
  • The phrase ‘ambiguous problems’ – I’ve not heard it phrased that way before. I think it’s useful – amongst designers. Better than ‘wicked’.
  • Designers as solvers problems in an integrative, system-related way (I know – these are pretty weak highlights, I think I’ve even said this one before but I can’t even embellish it any more as I write)
  • The reiteration that as designers we solve problems, but not as they are originally stated. This is the ‘diagnosis’ aspect of our discipline. We ask ‘why?’ when faced with an expressed problem, then we research and prototype options to solve and re-articulate/re-frame the problem. We don’t mind being wrong and prototyping gives us the vehicle to put that into practice. Happily, in my real work we recently did this with a skeptical client and it won them over. But more on the project itself in later post.
  • When Tim Brown said something along the lines of – and I’ll completely paraphrase; after he referenced a quote by an author about being a professional author he basically said “while ‘anyone’ can be a designer, I do it for a living, so I think I might be better at it than an ‘anyone’” He was more articulate. But I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment.

Here’s where it lost me:

  • It seemed to want to elevate ‘design thinking’ to some kind of magical intersection of art and science, as the most unique problem solver for unique times. While this blog is testament to the fact that I believe design is an amazing discipline and practice, I think it is no more important or relevant or special to business/societal change (given my focus is public sector design) than business analysis, or project management, or solution architecture, or communications. It can be, given the opportunity, ‘transformative’, but I’m too personally and professionally pragmatic to believe one discipline can facilitate that alone. Even a multi-disciplined discipline.
  • If it’s supposed to represents ‘design and thinking’ it was very American-centric. I appreciate IDEO is an American company, as is Jump and AIGA, but I am not sure that I think of America as a centre of design thinking, at a real and practical, non-flashy, non-product-based level. I think of Europe, then I think of NZ and Australia.
  • If you’ve ever heard of buzzword bingo, take a card along to a screening. Before long you’ll be shouting “Ooooooh, that’s a bingo
  • The theme of societal change, big problems (the ambigious and ‘wicked’ ones) was introduced early, and then left behind and we got to hear from the director of AlliZilla vs OctoShark or something, and an actor-turned-corporate-team-building-through-cooking guy – both held up as users/appliers of ‘design thinking’ and ‘multi-disciplined’ approaches.

Where I started out hopeful and a bit excited, it just left me slightly sad (and a little bit mad) that people will see this documentary and see design and thinking through a Hollywood sheen and as a buzzwordy, flashy, ‘cool’ lifestyle and BIG THING. It’s not the design I see and do. Now, to be fair I do service design not product design – which I think was a big angle in the film, but I do get what design and thinking is and while this film is a point of view, there are better representations out there.
To finish on a positive and inspiring film here’s a video of a pig saving a goat – innovative, multi-disciplined, stated problem (goat in the water) diagnosis and quick core of the problem solved (get goat out of water), visually transcribed on film, a potential prototype for future pig-goat opportunities. Best example of design and thinking on film since Design the New Business.

*I would like to thank those who put the movie on and invited me to the screening. This post is in no way a reflection on the intent of the organisers, whose take on design I respect and support ; )

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