[4 Ways Design Thinking Perpetuates Oppression]

September 26, 2020

Design Thinking at its core is a creative process that streamlines problem-solving. It is not an intuitive process because many of its practices go against how we normally approach problem-solving. While we normally seek an answer design thinking focuses more on the problem and develops a bunch of possible answers or methods for arriving at an answer. We are not used to working that fast and in that way. So when design thinking made its way into the mainstream it’s natural for it to be misused.

For those who are not familiar design thinking in its many versions typically consists of defining, ideating, and testing problems.

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The criticisms of design thinking I am making in this article are not about misuse they are about the process itself. I want to make that clear from the jump. I want to improve the inherent problems in the process and work toward preventing its misuse. I also want to step into my love and use of design thinking as a process so this criticism is much more about advancing practice than it is tearing down the framework without providing a path forward.


The first problem is the idea of the blank canvas that we perpetuate in the design industry. There is no such thing as a blank canvas. Think about the bias we bring with us into any room. So for us to assume that a framework we constructed would remove that bias is very presumptuous. When engaging in design thinking we have to notice the people present in the room and map the biases they hold. We also have to acknowledge the people not present in the room and account for their voice in the process.


As hot as design thinking is empathy is probably ten-time hotter nowadays. It is the new buzzword in business and it is all about taking the time to listen and understand the pain points of users, customers, students, etc… The problem is not in some of the methodologies or practices that contribute to empathy but in the decision of who designers choose to listen to. Are you as a designer not comfortable approaching certain people, do you not even consider certain people, and how does that hurt the process? We know there is a problem with representation in the design industry to begin with and we know how implicit bias works. Given that 71% of designers are white according to the 2019 design census you can understand how implicit bias impacts the people designers choose to engage.


With the lack of inclusion present in the empathy phase how we define problems is also an issue. For example, think about how issues like institutional and societal oppression and racism are taboo in the walls of large organizations. When problems are defined in design thinking are the underlying isms discussed or are the symptoms of the core problem discussed. The solution looks a lot different when we are only looking at the surface.


When users are tested sometimes openness leads to us appealing to social norms when we discuss problems. We need to consider more directed approaches to testing. For example, when testing a prototype we can have users discuss any implications of the solution contributing to oppression.


As designers, we have to acknowledge that we have put a flawed framework into practice and our responsibility for creating the services, products, businesses, and experiences for people might be doing a lot to keep racism a fixture in our society.

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