The Quest for the Silver Bullet

This is a commentary about Jon Kolko’s article at Design Mind, “The Maturity of a Discipline”, linked below:

As Jon Kolko pointed out several times, certain concepts are being treated as “silver bullets” to address complex problems. I feel that the quest for “silver bullets” is symptomatic of an approach to problems that has not changed for decades, namely, adhering to trends and fads instead of thinking about the nature of the problem. Any given use of a corporate buzzword will serve as an example. “Design thinking” is becoming a corporate buzzword. To me, it sounds like a rewording of the old standby, “think outside the box,” which in practice is a challenge that says essentially nothing, an expression of someone else’s frustration with real or perceived failure. At worst, it is used as an excuse to enforce their own narrow vision.

People tend to talk about a “design thinking” approach without really understanding what design is. Likewise, people tend to demand “creativity” without really understanding what that is, and what they really want is something that strikes their fancy. In reality, what strikes their fancy are shopworn ideas that appeal to an expectation of how things should look, and that kills innovation.

Understanding the fundamentals of design is necessary for “design thinking.” One should at least understand what design is before claiming to be a “design thinker.” It is not merely pushing elements around in a given space; form should complement function without becoming more important than the function itself.

Designers may hope that the current emphasis on “design thinking” and creativity may result in elevation of the design discipline. Sadly, what is happening is that design is considered too important to be left to designers, and people who do not understand design think they can do it without the designer. Managers often cannot or will not see or accept their own limitations. Task forces and committees tend to add complexity to problems that could otherwise be simplified. As the old saying goes, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Yet, in the name of “design thinking,” groups and committees will become more involved in the design process, under the mistaken belief that many can make better decisions than a few. For an example from reality, I recently assisted in a situation in which multiple opinions on colors and graphic treatments from people other than the designers resulted in an 11th-hour halt to project so that a multitude of branding violations and grammatical errors could be corrected. There were plenty of unusual and different graphic treatments, most of them off brand, many of them inappropriate for the content. A few of us fixed an avoidable problem that would not have occurred had the many not made decisions and choices without consulting the few.

I doubt we’ll escape “metrics” and statistical analyses. Quantitative measurement of success will always be part of business. The fallacy lies in the belief that “if only” we would just create something unique, unusual, different, imaginative, outstanding, amazing, and so on, we will be successful. Reality does not always follow our expectations. Basically, the old adage rings true: adapt or perish. So, all we can really do is to continue to try new things and new approaches, while continually avoiding the stifling trap of the trend, the fad, the buzzword, and the status quo.

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