Why the d.school has its limits

March 7, 2013, 12:04 a.m.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, better known as the design school (or d.school), was founded in 2005 with the aim of creating a university-wide hub where students from all disciplines would come together to work on complex challenges using design thinking. The design thinking process provides a methodology for, in the d.school’s own words, “producing reliably innovative results in any field.” The school is focused on the method and not a particular field, as it seeks to impart the design thinking methodology to its students with the aim of creating “innovators rather than any particular innovation”.

d.school students learn design thinking by working with client organizations on real problems, trying to find novel ways to solve them using the method. Design thinking is a radically emphatic, human-centered process that provides a structured way for discovering insights that can be translated into products or services. The approach is powerful and has produced impressive breakthroughs with the potential to improve the lives of scores of underserved individuals: a low-cost, low-tech infant incubator (Embrace) and a sturdy solar-powered LED lantern (d.light) are just two of the more well-known examples.

Like any method, design thinking structures how you approach and conceptualize a problem. The way the method is currently taught, however, preordains the result.

The answer to any problem unfailingly is a product or a service. Some problems are indeed best solved with a product or a service. Yet other problems need systemic solutions (e.g. political action).

Take the problem of a low-income single mom for whom dinner with her kids is stressful. How might we improve her dinner experience? We can surely come up with some product or service which decreases the time the mom spends in the kitchen or somehow makes it more fun for her kids to help cook dinner.

But what if raising the minimum wage so she didn’t have to work two jobs was the best way to improve this mom’s dinner experience? Using the design thinking methodology, you would be exceedingly unlikely to reach this conclusion.

By providing this mother a product or a service, we condone the fact that her hourly wage is too low to make a living. By applying a temporary and quick fix in the form of a product or a service to the problem, we do not acknowledge or engage with the root causes and instead, implicitly decide that her interests would not be better served by an increased minimum wage. This may be true – but that decision needs to be the result of a deliberate thought process, not the inadvertent product of the design thinking method.

Perhaps it is no accident that the d.school and design thinking have flourished in Silicon Valley. There is a prevalent belief in the Valley that technology will be able to solve all our problems (“there’s an app for that”). Solutions in the form of products and services appeal to our desire to “fix” things. With this attitude comes a lack of reflection about which problems lend themselves to technical solutions and which do not. Sometimes apps, products and services are the right solutions to a problem. Sometimes they are not. And sometimes a “quick fix” can get in the way of desperately needed structural change. The d.school methodology, as it currently stands, is not likely to prompt its practitioners to think rigorously about these important questions.

No method can possibly be appropriate for every problem, and design thinking is no exception. But it is imperative to understand the limitations of the methods we use.

If the d.school was a private enterprise, it could do whatever it wanted without the need for reflection. However, as part of a university, it has an educational mission. Even though its quarters look distinctly non-academic, the school is in the business of teaching a method. Accordingly the d.school has an obligation to not only teach the method, but also to ensure that its students understand the limits of the tools they are being taught. There may be ways of remedying this problem and to integrate political or structural solutions into design thinking.

But as long as this is not standard procedure, the d.school must not just teach the method, but also its blind spots.

Danny Buerkli MA ‘13

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