Design for no one

Starry-eyed students fill the classroom. A vaguely defined design challenge is projected onto the front wall: “solve urban decay”, or perhaps, “fix patient identification.” Everyone has big hopes for the world-saving innovations they’re going to create over the course of the semester.

This is the prototypical Design Thinking course. As a studio leader of Design for America—an organization which makes social impact through human-centered design—and a student at Yale, I’ve been involved in my fair share of them. The fundamental assumption underlying any course on design is that design can indeed be taught in a classroom. I’m not convinced, however, that this is actually the case.

Since the launch of Stanford’s in 2004, the idea of teaching Design Thinking has become in vogue. Design Thinking, as the design consultancy IDEO describes it, is “a human-centered approach to innovation that … integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” For many, it’s more than just a methodology. It’s a gospel. The even acknowledges the movement’s religious nature in a post on its website:

In the’s early days, a group of us were sitting around debating our scaling philosophies … ‘What is our goal? Is it more like Catholicism, where the aim is to replicate preordianed design beliefs and practices? Or is it more like Buddhism, where an underlying mindset guides why people do certain things—but the specifics of what they can do vary wildly from person to person and place to place?

The Design Thinking disciples want to spread their approach to the world’s businesses, inventors, and schools. Towards that end, IDEO in 2009 published a Human Centered Design (HCD) toolkit—a textbook that describes a systematic process for creativity. Their methodology carries with it an air of inevitability: as long as you follow it closely, it implies, you’ll eventually come up with an innovative solution to whatever problem you’re trying to tackle. And since the whole process is neatly packaged in a book, it makes sense that educators have tried to transform it into a classroom experience.

Last semester, I took part in a design course on re-imagining patient identification for the 21st century. We were challenged to use the HCD process to come up with a solution to the rampant problem of patient misidentifications. We conducted research online, met with nursing staff at Yale New Haven Hospital, synthesized our findings, brainstormed ideas, and eventually prototyped a potential solution: a smart band and software application for mobile phones that improve patient experience and simplify the process of patient identification for nurses.

Then, the course stopped. We left for the summer and moved on with our lives.

Early on, our team decided there just wasn’t enough time in one semester to attempt to implement our product in a hospital. There’s no denying that this decision changed our approach. When the final destination of a design project is a website or a YouTube video rather than a real-world environment, priorities shift. Because we didn’t have to worry about implementation, we spent more time thinking about the product itself and less time considering how it would interact with the existing hospital environment. We knew from day one that we wouldn’t be able to get it into the hands of users in only three months.

This isn’t all that uncommon; the same thing happened in a course I wrote about in the Yale Entrepreneur. Students spent weeks and weeks prototyping a product for farmers in the developing world, only to leave it behind when the semester was over. And in “Extreme By Design”—a movie about a Design Thinking course at—not a single project team went on to actually implement their prototype. It’s hard to get a team to stop planning and start doing. It’s even harder to get a team to stop prototyping and start implementing. The gap between a prototype in a lab and a product that improves people’s every day lives is huge. From my experience, it’s the most difficult one to bridge.

You haven’t really designed something if nobody ends up using what you create. Sure, you’ve made something. You’ve built something. But you haven’t designed it. Design is about intent:

Good designers have a clear sense of the overall purpose of their creation; great designers can say, ‘This is why we made that decision’ about a thousand details.”

When you don’t have to think about implementation, you don’t have to make as many hard decisions. Nothing is driving the decision-making. You don’t have to account for the details or constraints of the environment you’re designing for. It’s all too easy to make assumptions and lie to yourself about what will work and what won’t. Without the constraints of the real world, you’re left floating in concept lala-land—where everything is possible and anything goes. It’s like giving a speech without an audience in mind.

The hard part about designing for the hospital environment, for example, is the fact that you have to work within the confines of the highly bureaucratic healthcare industry. There are HIPAA regulations, distribution issues, and cost limitations. But if you choose to ignore constraints so that you can “think outside the box”, then you’ve changed the problem. A challenge without constraints is not much of a challenge at all.

It’s not bad to think outside the box, so long as you eventually ensure your solution is usable. When implementation isn’t the goal, the design gets stuck in an endless feedback loop between assumptions and prototypes. The best you can hope to create is a nice piece of conceptual art.

The paradox here is that although implementation is the most important part of the design process, it’s also the stage that’s least likely to fit within the context of a class. Implementation can’t be scheduled. It takes many iterations to arrive at something that’s usable by other people. You can’t put a date on a calendar and say, “Your product will be implemented by this date.” This isn’t a fault of the educators, but rather a consequence of the simple fact that it takes years of trial and error to refine a design.

If we’re going to try teaching Design Thinking, it’s important to emphasize that the end of the semester is really a new beginning. Deciding on day one that your product will never reach users would be like a runner deciding on the starting blocks that she’s not going to run through the finish line. Encouraging the right outlook (i.e. a bias towards implementing) is key. Even if implementation isn’t strictly feasible in one semester, it’s the attitude that matters. We should be wary of cultivating a culture in which implementation is not expected—one in which students are constantly developing pieces of conceptual art rather than products that can actually improve people’s lives.