Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy
How the Current State of Design is Simply a Digitally Updated Status Quo
For all of the progress proclaimed by evangelists, little has changed from the previous century for design today. Designers still are overwhelmingly white with most executive positions continuing to be occupied by the 36% minority of men within the industry. This demographic truth, however, reflects a more urgent issue that manifests itself in structures that reify its status quo.
With design becoming one of the most visible professions in the United States, who qualifies to enter its gates is of serious inquiry amidst the deepening socioeconomic divide between Americans. In spite of supposed attempts at diversifying the industry, entry is barred by arbitrary certification, exorbitant costs for design boot camps, and the saturation of work primarily to be reserved in rapidly gentrified urban centers.
The consequences of this phenomenon reveal itself devastating. Communities are uprooted, socioeconomic mobility stagnates, and the original community members get pushed to the bottom, if not already neglected into destitute.
This form of colonialism however was never unique to design nor the tech giants which have co-opted it. We have seen in modern history how the extraction of wealth takes many forms: the pillaging of indigenous lands, cultural appropriation, and wage theft which its victims today continue to be under Stockholm syndrome induced by their masters.
Indeed, capitalism and its ruthless operations is nothing new to the United States but design appropriated as an extension to capitalist venture has never actually progressed simply because the tools now live digitally. Thus if design previously faced Modernism’s authoritarian sentiments and was then followed by Design Thinking’s conception, what truly separates the two if not a parent-child relationship?
Instead, the current state of design is simply the digitally updated version of Eurocentric design doctrine and practice. The prescriptive nature of Modernism never escaped contemporary conversation, rather it became one of many rebrands in the 21st century to co-opt the weaponization of design. Indeed, Modernism has undergone a rebrand and today is marketed as “Design Thinking.”
Modernism’s Ode to White Supremacy
While Design Thinking has only recently taken the spotlight, its essence takes precedence from the Modernist movement. Pioneer Tim Brown frequently references Modernist practitioners including Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Isamu Noguchi as precursors to the Design Thinking dogma. But at what point of intersection intertwines Modernism to Design Thinking? Why is it that Modernism has acted as such a reference point for the Design Thinking doctrine?
Consider firstly the Modernist dogma. In 2019 while teaching a graphic design course at UCLA, book publisher Lars Müller often told his students that as designers we must be “above our audience.” Using language familiar to Modernism, Müller was not shy in his convictions towards “educating the masses.” As 2x4 partner Michael Rock puts it, there existed a “missionary zeal” towards modernizing and reforming the masses if not pulling the common citizen into an inevitable “modernization” which if one went against would be seen as simply living a life with one’s eyes closed.
This call towards modernization however extends beyond simply lifestyle choice. With other art movements against its backdrop (i.e. Dadaism, Constructivism), Modernists eventually absorbed many of them into a repackaged brand known historically as the Bauhaus. And as with any branding project, the margins which did not serve its brand were stripped from its significance, flattening a character into the Bauhaus. This colonization of cultural movements and ideas was nothing contradictory to Modernist ideology but in fact essential to its practice.
Consider sentiments many Modernists were vocal about. The Italian graphic designer Massimo Vignelli often is cited as defending the practice of using only four typefaces and disparaging “visual pollution.” Whether Vignelli realized his eugenics-adjacent language or not, his belief in the designer’s fight “against the ugliness” further cemented Modernist practice of erasure and consolidation.
To passionately argue against aesthetics unaligned with a certain canon of work is irrelevant when such argued-for aesthetics are inaccessible save a select group of people. The fact of the matter is that not all peoples use the Latin script or are even literate or are even visually unimpaired.
To view a certain collection of typefaces as the essential tool kit for typography immediately excludes billions of people as mentioned. Furthermore, should anyone outside of Europe need to use Latin characters, it is thanks to the complicated history of Western imperialism and the violent destruction of indigenous cultures. This history is endemic to Modernism and canonized itself into the popularly known institution as the International Style.
It is in this that Modernists often proclaimed design as neutral, viewing style as divorced from content and inheriting a universal ability to communicate to any human being. But to highlight once more, such aspirations to achieve this is impossible let alone prone to racism. Doing so renders all the nuances of humanity to a uniform visual code.
Consider Paul Rand who believed design and social issues ought to be kept separate. Do we take this as aesthetic judgments being universal truths forming within a vacuum devoid of cultural and historical reference? Even if only said out of ignorance, Rand’s practice still primarily served a Western audience, making his statements at best an irresponsible prescription for design.
Thus to echo sentiments of neutrality refuses to recognize the social context in which work is made. The idea that a style can be “international” assumes that its curated formal qualities function for any person across cultural lines. By extending itself outside its borders, the International Style mobilized the same Western imperialism that sought to supersede whole graphic traditions, language loss, and the disappearance of indigenous scripts. What was even “international” about International Style if only accessible to Europe and its colonies whom underwent a conditioning of white supremacy?
It is impossible to divorce content from form and certainly context from a practitioner. However, those who proclaimed to do so or even urge others to follow suit inherit the privilege of not being affected by such a sociopolitical context because the context in which they live in safeguards them from experiencing the heightened consciousness the marginalized are forced to reckon with. This act of prescribing racelessness or more broadly neutrality is itself a racial or sided act. An urgent questioning forms: What is universal? What templates as neutral? What are our defaults?
In white supremacy, whiteness is default. And through the creation of whiteness in America, anything outside of it acts as a difference in which it is vehemently targeted. In this context, the idea of what “American” is, is incredibly important when considering the idea of conventionally “American.” Toni Morrison posed it strikingly, “What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as “American?”
In this respect, how can we earnestly look at “neutrality” or “universality” or “race-agnostic” if it lobotomizes design and diminishes the artist and their work? When we look at Modernism’s prescription of the world, it reveals itself as yet another byproduct of white supremacy, centering itself as the end-all approach to universal human aesthetics.
We can see this as a dangerous act of conglomerating many different cultures into a monolith of “humanness” but we ought to underscore that such absorption goes further through the erasure of the margins and the elimination of difference.
When the default is white, how can design as a “neutral” tool serve anything but whiteness? How can design as “universal” communicate when there is no universally adopted language? What is “clean” design if not contrasted with an “unclean” aesthetic relentlessly targeted?
These sentiments are far from gone today. They have revived themselves into the current digital landscape. And when the systems go unchallenged, its byproducts maintain and perpetuate the manufacturing of these grim realities. What is Modernism if not the cultural weapon to erase nonwhite aesthetics? What then is Design Thinking if not its succeeding methodology for cultural white hegemony?
Flat Design: A Homogenous Design Ideal
Today, visual design no longer solely exists for example on the canvas of a poster nor the printed matter bound into books. It exists intangibly, embodying products completely removed from physical space. It works to represent businesses with no offices, or technology with no hardware.
But the media in which design exists is not simply a container for visually communicated ideas. Design, as it always has been, lived with its content and was informed by the author. Thus what design puts out into the world always carries responsibility, always required criticality in its production.
The state of affairs for design today, however, acquire a familiar yet different insidious development. Recall that in Modernism, design was “universal” only if it adopted a certain curated form, adhering to stylistics codes. Even going so far as to codify standards, the conversation of design accreditation tried transcending into institution. Were designers so insecure that the erecting of arbitrary gates seemed like the remedy to validate themselves? And yet while absurd to imagine, it is precisely the reality design today inherited.
Design’s barrier to entry still works on behalf of the white supremacist capitalism which granted its existence. Consider the online courses or bootcamps which promise customers success in getting design jobs. IDEO’s “Insights for Innovation” course for example costs $499 for five weeks. Stanford’s d.school’s “Design Thinking Bootcamp” costs $12,600 for a modest four days. Now consider that the median household income of an average American working-class family in 2019 is roughly $60,000.
What then is so “human-centered” about Design Thinking if the average working-class family must first provide one-fifth of their income before contributing to it let alone being provided access? What is so “innovative” about its curricula if not a feedback loop that reiterates from an exclusionary, classist chamber? And when socioeconomic status is so deeply tied with race in America, who often are the admitted students?
Yet it is not simply the botched, brute force development of Design Thinking’s curriculum formed from “move fast, break things” Silicon Valley pseudoscience that make it so harmful. While the aforementioned is incredibly irresponsible, the source of its phenomenon is the fact of its conception from white supremacy which nostalgically mirrors the prescriptive superiority complex of Modernism and the International Style.
As Maggie Gram puts it, by embracing “Design Thinking,” we attribute to design a kind of superior epistemology: a way of knowing, of “solving,” that is better than any other method which differs. Reminiscent to the Modernists, by packaging Design Thinking as a promise to “good” design, all other nonconforming methods are flattened, dismissed, erased. The result is a homogenous digital landscape increasingly susceptible to biases maintained in white supremacy.
What tie Modernism and Design Thinking so frighteningly close was the shared sentiment of catering to the “needs of humanity” and “centering the human in the design process.” Yet this assertion inevitably becomes empty since no single design approach can ever truly be universal or wholly ubiquitous to any one human experience.
By bankrupting design through “neutrality” or “universal humanness,” making judgments through an ocean of sticky notes drowns cultural implications from its purview. The incessant insistence that “design is human” or that “design empathizes with the user” not only plays into white supremacist defaults of a user/human but also creates a carefully constructed lexicon which persuades lay people that design is a nonnegotiable product intended to be sold whether or not some lay people may fit the target audience to be served.
The unchallenged mindset of seeing the world as a landscape to redesign and “make better” (as if everything in the world is a problem to be solved) is not so much to proselytize design itself but rather under capitalism to make morally just the existence of the corporations these design evangelists represent. At the end of the day, Design Thinking is so entrenched in capitalism that the euphemism of “human-centered design” is only so “human” as it relates to the underlying business model. And perhaps this is why criticism on Design Thinking seems so little considering its rigid framework does not provide a vocabulary for an alternative outside of raw capitalism.
By evangelizing a monotheistic devotion for Design Thinking, the jurisdiction for design expands as Design Thinkers may now colonize anything as a “design problem” to be solved. Like evangelism during the Age of Discovery, Design Thinking becomes the gospel in which all other design methodologies are inferior. A different flavor of colonialism, Design Thinking and its missionaries seek to eradicate opposing mythologies to establish itself as supreme and all-encompassing through missions (bootcamps) and plenary indulgences (certification).
It is clear also that Design Thinking often neglects deep-rooted systemic issues which inform the challenge at hand. Consider the misguided attempt by IDEO to “redesign” Gainesville, Florida. Assuming Design Thinking as the proper approach to address community issues, a Silicon Valley design firm ordained itself as arbiter and prescribed nine bankrupt ideas for the city including the sanctioning of a “Department of Doing.” Far from doing anything, that department was overhauled, the NAACP filed a complaint against the city officials, and Gainesville’s poor and Black residents remained neglected. Design Thinking provided nothing but an empty promise and new case studies for IDEO to market with.
This self-righteousness that comes with being a Design Thinker consequently privileges the designer above anyone else. The result is a profession of narcissists deepening class stratification by standardizing Design Thinking jargon as a metric for gatekeeping and producing an artificial need that clients ought to hire for.
So long as designers believe themselves in a separate “creative” class, inequality is exacerbated, class consciousness is further erased, and solidarity between all working-class people is undermined. Design becomes a Ponzi scheme and everyone drinks the Kool-Aid.
The reality is that designers simply aren’t best suited to tackle all the deep-rooted systemic challenges that we have ordained ourselves to solve. For all the jargonistic gravity that revolves around being “empathetic” in the design process, perhaps the correct approach is simply to take a step back, remove oneself from the conversation, and acknowledge the original caretakers of the space we occupy.
While it is clear that Design Thinking mirrors the dangerous patterns of Modernism, it is equally crucial if not pressingly urgent to recognize that the two simply aren’t evolutions of each other or radical deviants from the historical context they exist in.
At the end of the day, both Modernism and Design Thinking are byproducts of white supremacist capitalism that maintain its operations through a thinly veiled promise for visionary change. No matter how progressive a designer’s politics may be, unless overthrown we are all complicit in the unabated maintenance of capitalism.
Unless we decolonize design through a radical shift towards alternative practices, we continue to lose sight of the margins and watch the process of design being weaponized, neglecting those barred from its gates.
It is in this that our urgent call as designers ultimately is to accept the responsibility of design not as a tool for oppressive capitalist exploitation or cultural hegemony but instead challenge the status quo in an effort to uplift the communities which it targets and decolonize the practice to prevent such a reemerging from happening in the future.
In this call to action, our efforts towards an equitable society begin with maintaining this criticality of our industry and relentlessly continue providing the radical alternatives to white supremacist capitalism which might liberate us from this cycle of oppression.
A transcript of this essay with complete citations is available to view here from this Google Docs link.
The are.na channel which hosts all resources listed in the bibliography below is available here.
UPDATE: The bibliography/are.na are alive and ever-growing resources that I will be updating occasionally for people interested in looking deeper into the topics of design thinking, its criticisms, and relevant literature.
New items will be in bold for easy navigating of changes.
Bibliography & Suggested Reading
AIGA, Google. “Design Census 2019.” Design Census. 2019. https://designcensus.org/.
Artist, American. “Black Gooey Universe.” unbag. End. Accessed March 5, 2020. https://unbag.net/end/black-gooey-universe.
Badger, Emily and Kevin Quealy. “Watch 4 Decades of Inequality Drive American Cities Apart.” The New York Times, TheUpshot. December 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/02/upshot/wealth-poverty-divide-american-cities.html.
Bratton, B.H. (2016), Bad Mood: On Design and ‘Empathy’. Archit. Design, 86: 96–101. doi:10.1002/ad.2117.
Brown, Tim, and Barry Katz. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2019.
Caio, Braga and Fabricio Teixeira. The case study factory. UX Collective. August 5, 2019. https://essays.uxdesign.cc/case-study-factory/
Chun, Christine. “How I became a UX Designer with no experience or design degree | chunbuns.” YouTube video. 4:13. Posted by “chunbuns.” June 2, 2019. https://youtu.be/Poo4AI2expA?t=253.
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Iskander, Natasha. “Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo.” Harvard Business Review (2018). https://hbr.org/2018/09/design-thinking-is-fundamentally-conservative-and-preserves-the-status-quo.
Gram, Maggie. “On Design Thinking.” Savior Complex issue 35. Fall 2019.
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Hustwit, Gary. “A Rare Interview With Graphic Design Legend Massimo Vignelli.” Fast Company. March 24, 2015. https://www.fastcompany.com/3044133/a-rare-interview-with-graphic-design-legend-massimo-vignelli.
Introduction: #TravelingWhileTrans, Design Justice, and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. (2020). Design Justice. Retrieved from https://design-justice.pubpub.org/pub/ap8rgw5e
Jen, Natasha. “Design Thinking Is Bullshi*t.” Adobe 99U Conference, New York, New York, June 5, 2017.
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Pressman, Andy. “What Do We Lose When It’s Easy to Use?” Design Week Portland 2016, Portland, Oregon, April, 2016.
Rock, Michael. “On Professionalism.” Ideas by 2x4 (1994). https://2x4.org/ideas/1994/on-unprofessionalism/.
Tighe, Colleen. “Design Is Not Neutral.” The Baffler (2019). https://thebaffler.com/odds-and-ends/design-is-not-neutral-tighe.
Tran, Tony Ho. “How We Empathize in UX Matters.” dscout, Conversations, 27 February 2020, https://dscout.com/people-nerds/how-we-empathize-in-ux.
Wang, Jen. “Now You See It: Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of Design.” Loki Design (2018). https://www.lokidesign.net/journal/2018/5/14/now-you-see-it-helvetica-modernism-and-the-status-quo-of-design.
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