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Design Un-Thinking - Annie Laurie Nichols

What has lots of hexagons, people in suits, sticky notes, and white supremacy? Surprisingly, a new organizational practice called Design Thinking. It has taken over businesses, non-profit organizations, classrooms, and tech firms in the US and abroad. It’s doing a lot of damage – and it’s a useful case study that reveals some white supremacy in the academy, too. In the service of unearthing some of our own biases (this comparative method is touted by, e.g., Philipsen, 259), I am going to examine the structures and rhetoric of design thinking that make it particularly subject to white supremacist ideology.

Figure 1: So many white people staring at so many sticky notes

Recently, Darin Buzon made the case that Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy, serving to reify racial and social hierarchy, re-entrench corporate monopoly, and support shareholder wealth, all to the detriment of historically marginalized groups -- in effect, that design thinking is the opposite of design justice.

The provocativeness of Buzon’s claim is underscored by the growing popularity and expansiveness of design thinking. As of this writing, Amazon returns over 20,000 book titles to the search term “design thinking.” A Google search for “design thinking seminar” turned up programs from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UT Austin, and NYU on the first page. It’s also expensive: a 2-3 day workshop from one of the aforementioned universities runs $2,200-$3,800 per person – unless you go with Stanford, in which case you get an extra half-day and a bill of $13k. The point is, design thinking is serious business. And it makes serious claims, purporting to be better than other approaches to design because it centers the user (we might say audience) of your organization’s product, service, or skills (and presumably their needs) in the design process. The result, proponents claim, is a more usable, more sustainable, more ethical product – achieved by, as Buzon puts it, a "superior epistemology: a way of knowing, of ‘solving,’ that is better than any other method."

When I first came across the concept of design thinking, I was excited, too. Who doesn’t want to use the best method of problem-solving? And design thinking seemed like it would be right up my alley: I am an artist and a reader in a family of engineers and math geeks, and this nature/nurture pairing fused to make me oddly good at systems engineering. I ended up a visual communication professor, but I still use systems engineering to optimize all my environments.[1]

So I set out to learn design thinking. I read the classics (like Hermione Granger, my motto is "when in doubt, read"): works like The Design Thinking Playbook. I checked out books that turn design thinking to social justice applications, such as the highly touted This is Service Design Doing. And, yet, I found them deeply unsatisfying. They were vacuous, sure – "ideally, we'll go outside right at the beginning and meet a potential user" (Lewrick et al., 28) – and full of jargon like "it helps the groups if a design thinking facilitator or somebody with needfinding experience accompanies first contact of potential users" (Lewrick et al., 29) that, rather than conveying precision, attempted to obscure lack of depth (a peeve I have a whole stable for). I knew there was more to it than mere irritation, but I couldn’t articulate what made me uneasy about the approach. So when Buzon’s critique was shared with me, I was interested, if skeptical of the clickbaity title.

Buzon, though, takes his title very seriously, arguing that white supremacy is embedded in the design thinking process in two ways. First, the designer themself is given a god-like position of false authority and told they are more equal than the other animals[2] while simultaneously erased from the production process as human beings. For example, after explaining that focus groups and market research are worthless because consumers don't know what they want, design thinking guru Thomas Lockwood writes "Design is about satisfying consumers' unmet needs through soliciting their senses, and that might be the key to its success. It challenges and stimulates marketers while wowing consumers" (n.p.). This god-like position of all-seeing yet invisible power is what feminist technology theorist Donna Haraway calls “the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere” (581) – in stark contrast to the role of the Black subject, always viewed but never seen. Consider, e.g., this tweet from an African-American scientist:[3]

Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein extend Haraway’s concept: “it’s a trick because it makes the viewer believe that they can see everything, all at once, from an imaginary and impossible standpoint. But it’s also a trick because what appears to be everything, and what appears to be neutral, is always what [Haraway] terms a partial perspective. And in most cases of seemingly ‘neutral’ visualizations, this perspective is the one of the dominant, default group” (76). In short, this god trick is a White trick, always individual yet representative, neutral yet default [4].

The god trick also functions here to obscure the human maker so that it is only the design itself that is considered to be ethical or unethical. As if "design" is the sentient force, not designers - thereby rendering the designers themselves not responsible (irresponsible?) for any biases, harms, failures, legacies of racial injustices that are passed into the designs by the people who unreflexively (or carefully, greedily) create them. For instance, Google has repeatedly called evidence of racial bias in its search engine “glitches” (Noble 82) or suggested that users were using the wrong search terms (Noble 44). The ethics are hidden behind the system – and any unintended consequences are either minimized as minor errors in the system (glitch [5]) or – most often – user error. For marginalized groups, too often this is taken one step further: the user themself being an error, not conforming correctly to the perfectly designed system.[6]

Figure 2: Clearly no actual graphic designer was employed here

Second, the universal design of design thinking is positioned as "neutral," even “natural.” Consider this musing by Lockwood: "Maybe there is some kind of universal wisdom that runs beneath our conscious minds, and it is design that helps reveal it. Innovation has a way of emerging when inspired by people's emotional states" (Lockwood, n.p.). But, as Buzon puts it, "when the default is white, how can design as a “neutral” tool serve anything but whiteness?" And whiteness is not only considered to be neutral, it’s viewed positively. "The 'blandness' of Whiteness," Ruha Benjamin notes, "is treated by programmers as normal, universal, and appealing" (29, emphasis added). Even well-meaning designers using this tool are going to be limited by their imaginations: "designers tend to unconsciously default to imagined users whose experiences are similar to their own. This means that users are most often assumed to be members of the dominant, and hence 'unmarked' group" (Costanza-Chock, 77). So not only are white people designing the system, they are designing it specifically for other white people.

Doubly so when all the designers are white. And if everything must be "neutral" to be "universal" (read: convenient for the lived experiences/lifestyles of those in power), then everything else will be labeled as non-neutral, subjective, inferior, unclean, disallowed. Sound familiar? It should; let’s return to Buzon: "a different flavor of colonialism, Design Thinking and its missionaries seek to eradicate opposing mythologies to establish itself as supreme and all-encompassing." In other words, white supremacy. Addressing search engine design, Safiya Noble writes that "algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system, but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web" (10). And she’s not alone; Benjamin also sees white supremacy as fundamental to how technology has been designed (44). It’s even gotten into our verbiage; there's a reason the late 1990s saw a rise in cries for "clean" design, exemplified by major ad campaigns by tech giants IBM and Apple.

But when the person who designed the system isn’t reflexive – sees himself, his white, hetero, cis, upper-middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated, vaguely Christian, American-born, suburban raised, legal citizen with easy records to prove itself as boringly “normal,” all those unchecked assumptions get designed into that system too. Racism is not only "an output of technologies gone wrong," Benjamin documents, but also "an input, part of the social context of design processes" (40), because "social norms, ideologies, and practices are a constitutive part of technical design" (41). So it ends up that a low-income parent in Pittsburgh who utilizes government services such as early childhood education programs, classes on childhood development, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is automatically marked as a higher risk for abuse and neglect by the child protective services algorithm (Eubanks, 155-7). Or a major tech company used the resumes of its employees to train an AI to screen job applicants and was dismayed when it only wanted to hire people named Jared who played lacrosse (D'Ignazio & Klein, 245). Or when a program was developed to predict recidivism and recommend sentencing, it “predicted” that darker skin would result in much more criminality (Angwen et al.). As these examples demonstrate, one of the problems of not questioning how things are usually done or whether a designer's thinking is sufficiently reflexive and expansive is that the resultant system ends up "creating and normalizing structural and systemic" forms of "oppressive social and economic relations" (Noble, 10).

I hope you’re beginning to see that this white supremacy is not what we usually think of when we hear the term. Is this tech!bro the kind of guy who is likely to wear a MAGA hat to a Klan rally, sporting a neo-Nazi tattoo? No. He’s probably vegan because he doesn’t want to harm animals. He’s using design thinking to help people! But the mechanism of this approach puts him in the god trap -- which even the most reflexive among us can only pray to escape.

This all sounds very dire, and, indeed, it is. But Buzon ends on a high note, which I would like to extend somewhat. There is an alternative to design thinking, with its $3,150-a-day bootcamps and corporate jargon: Design Justice. This isn't Buzon's term, but it is his call to action: "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." This focus on uplifting communities, challenging the status quo, and decolonizing design is exactly what design justice is about.

As digital humanists, we know that systems are not objective conduits from one human to another, and so we can create a way out by changing the humanity in the system. So what do we do with a system that, is, say, replicating white supremacy?

One approach is to be very thoughtful and very reflexive at every step, every stage of the system. But this doesn’t really let us out of the god trap – it just maybe makes us a slightly less terrible god. Slightly. The problem with the god trap – and with design thinking – is that it relies on a single person to do the solving, the reflecting, the thinking, and the ethicing. The way to avoid this, then, is to invoke a collective. (Not very American individualist, is it? Well, not very white male American, anyway. But it’s a fairly Black feminist approach. [7])

This is the core principle of design justice: all design work should be done, at every stage, with the people it is for. I eventually wound my way to the Design Justice Network and found what I had been looking for: a community of people who cared about design and wanted to use it for social good. [8] Not only for good. For justice.[9] For communities. To right wrongs.

There are some similarities between design thinking and design justice: the Design Justice Network focuses on process, it runs workshops and seminars—there’s even a Design Justice book by one of the collective's founders. But its ideology is wholly at odds with the tenets of design thinking. For instance, two of their ten central principles are "We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert," and "We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer" -- the exact opposite of design thinking's "neutral" design effacing the designer and imposing hegemonic norms on communities. Rather than subsuming humans into "design," design justice sees design as a tool that can be used by humans for humans to create better communities -- relationships between humans.

To avoid automatically recreating “normal” systems, design justice centers users who are usually forgotten, ignored, pushed to the margins, or thrown out of datasets altogether and designs with them in mind. “Starting at and centering the margins,” as D'Ignazio & Klein put it, ensures that at least some of the designer’s assumptions are surfaced and that the resulting product or system at least somewhat works for people other than the “norm.” When paired with community-centered participatory design, the practice of centering the most marginalized member of any group and designing first for them can be very powerful in upending entrenched habits of white supremacist systems.

Fine, you might be thinking, but I’m not a designer. Or a white tech!bro. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. But you’re probably an academic. You’re likely a teacher. And many of us – myself very definitely included – are using a design thinking approach to planning – I could say designing – our courses.

I care about teaching. I care about it a LOT. I’m so reflexive it’s become an occupational psychosis. But I came up in white school systems, taught predominantly by white instructors using Euroamerican-centric curricula. The “correct” way to write, give a speech, construct or study for or pass a test; the “necessary” or “canonical” things to know in particular disciplines – all white, white, white. And I got a disgustingly good education, by nearly any metric. I sought out chances to study with scholars of color, to attend diversity and inclusion seminars, to learn about culturally responsive pedagogy. I do ok at being reflexive.

But I’m still operating from a system of whiteness, and I’m still in the god trap. To escape the god trap and practice justice, I need to take a radically different approach: I need to design my courses with my students, not just with them in mind. And – in particular – with my students of color.

My brain is full of excuses right now. Is yours? Design justice sounded great a few paragraphs ago when I was prescribing it to white tech!bro, but it’s a more provocative medicine when the patient is yourself. But I don’t think I can say I’m really taking my students’ cries for racial justice seriously if I don’t give this a serious attempt.

This doesn’t have to mean completely unstructured, or just winging everything, or going all the way to an unschooling approach. It can mean working with students to co-design the midterm and final assessments, sometimes even on a student-by-student basis. It can mean developing our classroom policies together. It could look like contract grading, modular course sections with flexible deadlines, topics chosen by student teams, etc. It’s still my job to structure the course, to frame it, and to assess student knowledges and skills. But most of the rest is stuff we can work out together. There are many possibilities here for involving students, especially this semester, this wacky, hybrid, topsy-turvy, masked semester. Might as well try centering students, giving them some control over their lives, and stop pretending to be a god before I’m trapped behind the curtain.

Besides, students taking control of their own learning? That's what an "optimized environment" looks like to me.


[1] Yes, this makes me a delight to roadtrip with. Yes, my partner is a saint.

[2] Buzon: "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."

[3] See also Simone Brown, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. <https://www.dukeupress.edu/dark-matters>

[4] “whiteness is itself signified as a universal, raceless, technocultural identity” (Brock, 1).

[5] These sorts of glitches are seen as irregularities and immediately patched, rather than opportunities for new perspective and change -- the opposite of glitch in composition studies, sonic composition, and art: "Glitch art is often about relaying the membrane of the normal, to create a new protocol after shattering an earlier one" (Menkman, 341).

[6] See Eubanks, Automating Inequality. <https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250074317>

[7] See, e.g., Collins, 24.

[8] This is the community that originally shared Buzon's article with me.

[9] The difference between design for good and design for justice is made by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein in their book Data Feminism. <https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/data-feminism>, p. 137-142.


Angwin, Julia, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu, and Lauren Kirchner. "Machine Bias." ProPublica, May 23 (2016): 2016. https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing

Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity Press, 2019.

Brock Jr, André. Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. Vol. 9. NYU Press, 2020.

Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

Buzon, Darin. (@dabuzon) "Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy: How the Current State of Design is Simply a Digitally Updated Status Quo." Medium, March 2, 2020. https://medium.com/@dabuzon/design-thinking-is-a-rebrand-for-white-supremacy-b3d31aa55831 Accessed May 29, 2020.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. MIT Press, 2020.

Design Justice Network, designjustice.org. Accessed May 29,2020.

D'Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren F. Klein. Data Feminism. MIT Press, 2020.

Eubanks, Virginia. Automating Inequality: How High-tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. St. Martin's Press, 2018.

Haraway, Donna. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective." Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-99.

Lewrick, Michael, Patrick Link, and Larry Leifer. The Design Thinking Playbook: Mindful Digital Transformation of Teams, Products, Services, Businesses and Ecosystems. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

Lockwood, Thomas. Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience and Brand Value. ebook. Allworth Press, 2010.

Menkman, Rosa. "Glitch Studies Manifesto." Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images beyond YouTube (2011): 336-347.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Philipsen, Gerry. “Mayor Daley's Council Speech: A Cultural Analysis.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72, no. 3 (1986): 247-260.

Stickdorn, Marc, Markus Edgar Hormess, Adam Lawrence, and Jakob Schneider. This Is Service Design Doing: Applying Service Design Thinking in the Real World. O'Reilly Media, Inc., 2018.

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