What If? And What’s Wrong?

Design Thinking and Thinking About Design We Can’t Easily See

Sherri Spelic
7 min readJan 14, 2018
Hiding in plain sight. How can we teach this kind of seeing? (image credit)

Recently I read a searing critique of Design Thinking which likens its spread in popularity to that of a sexually transmitted disease. It’s a provocative stance to take and the author offers numerous examples to support his view. I was intrigued for a couple of reasons: my encounters with design thinking have been only peripheral so far and noticing its steady rise, particularly in education circles, made me curious about the approach and what it promises.

I’ve read about Design Thinking at a distance: in conference workshop descriptions, as part of a Twitter chat, in an occasional blog post. I’ve even participated virtually in an abbreviated edition. Most reports are particularly enthusiastic about the process, about the synergies created and ideas that emerge (usually in a brief time span of 2–4 hours). Images shared typically feature (mostly white) people talking in small groups or placing sticky notes on chart paper. Participants tend to be smiling and appear energized. It’s a process that seems to rely on lots of interpersonal communication and people may have several reasons to move around during the process. By the looks of it, this seems like my kind of activity: engaging, structured, action-oriented, and communicative. Sounds a lot like I how I try to organize my own workshops.

In this essay, however, Lee Vinsel pulls back the curtain on the larger game of design thinking. He sees the highly commercialized process as a marketing tool for consulting services which envisions education as a field ideal for feeding that particular capitalist monster.

What Miller, Kelly, and Hennessy [early proponents of DT] are asking us to imagine is that design consulting is or could be a model for retooling all of education, that it has some method for “producing reliably innovative results in any field.” They believe that we should use Design Thinking to reform education by treating students as customers, or clients, and making sure our customers are getting what they want. And they assert that Design Thinking should be a central part of what students learn, so that graduates come to approach social reality through the model of design consulting. In other words, we should view all of society as if we are in the design consulting business.

In response to one comment on his article, Vinsel points out that he is not arguing that all design thinking is bad, but is targeting his critique squarely at a commoditized version of it which can be readily packaged for sale to any number of groups and organizations. And thinking in these terms I can see where my own inner skeptic is activated by this essay.

The versions of design thinking most likely to be shared among K-12 educators as a course or professional development workshop will necessarily need to be practical, meaning that teachers can take it into their classrooms and apply it. The next day. This is what sells for teachers. As a profession we are particularly receptive to answers, solutions and steps. It’s most often what we look for when we seek outside help. Imagine if Design Thinking as a process could deliver on what it widely promises:

The d.schoolers believe Design Thinking is the key to education’s future: it “fosters creative confidence and pushes students beyond the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines.” It equips students “with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.”

Which teachers wouldn’t want a piece of that action? I mean “reliably innovative results in any field?” Sounds too good to be true. And it most likely is. Alas, that particular quote refers to elite undergraduates at Stanford but you know, we could all get there with the right training, …

One of the further attractions of Design Thinking lies in its future orientation. The process encourages generating new ideas (and products) for the future, solving problems through (drum roll, please) innovation. Most often of a tech-infused digital type. Intuitively it makes sense that we as educators would want to engage young people in thinking about how to improve things, systems, and services for the future. But there’s a catch. The popularized versions of Design Thinking tend to leave politics, social and economic inequality out of the picture. Speaking to that specific dynamic, Megan Erikson provides a healthy dose of Design Thinking critique in her article, “Edutopia”:

From the perspective of the tech industry, education and space travel are alike because they are problems in search of rational, personalized, twenty-first century answers, like those arrived at by design thinking. The expectation is that these answers will obliterate material limitations, class struggle — history, past and present.

And applied directly to education:

If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

Erikson insists that optimism among Design Thinkers holds a central role in their ethos and that skepticism is discouraged as it may dampen the ‘creative confidence’ of its front line practitioners.

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Turn the page.

In his book Nobody(2016), journalist Marc Lamont Hill writes thoughtfully about America’s War on The Vulnerable. While describing recent and also past high-profile examples of state and state-sanctioned violence against primarily poor, black and brown people, he directs the reader’s attention to forms of design which have contributed to the plight of poor communities. In Ferguson, Missouri where Mike Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, Hill provides a detailed account of the destruction of black residential communities in St. Louis following WWII and of how occupants were “resettled” in high-rise public housing complexes like Pruitt-Igoe. Striking here is how he illustrates the guiding ideas of leading architects as they created housing aimed at reforming the poor. Over decades, white flight, limited job opportunities in St. Louis, along with the destruction of the failed public housing venture in 1972 led many blacks to seek better housing in the first ring of suburbs around St. Louis like Ferguson. In this example Hill offers readers a rare view on one city’s development of urban inequality.

In a different chapter, Hill highlights the widespread adoption of ‘broken windows’ policing in several major American cities in the 1980s and ’90s which suggested that the interruption of low level crime would increase a sense of order in particular communities and help reduce the incidence of more violent crimes. By documenting this underlying framework for law enforcement strategy and illustrating how its practice both expanded and distorted some of the authors’ original claims, Hill alerts us to the ways in which ideas can become the basis for designing policy and how that policy’s enactment may stray farther from the authors’ intent than they ever imagined. Hill’s assertion: “In many places, we have witnessed just what the architects of broken-windows policing feared: that it would be used as a pretext for racist policing.” (Noboby, p. 55)

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What does this have to do with Design Thinking and education?

I wonder about how we educate our students to see the design in the systems they are witnessing, experiencing, and impacted by. Seeing patterns of design requires more than 6 steps in a prescribed cycle, while looking into the past as well as the future. Design Thinking aligns well a certain kind of neoliberal enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and start-up culture. I question how well it lends itself to addressing social dilemmas fueled by historic inequality and stratification. Again, Erikson offers some important insights by contrasting how Design Thinking prefers beginning with the question ‘What if?’ rather than ‘What’s wrong?’:

There are many reasons to start with “What’s wrong?” That question is, after all, the basis of critical thought. Belief in a better future feels wonderful if you can swing it, but it is passive, irrelevant, and inert without analysis about how to get there. The only people who benefit from the “build now, think later” strategy are those who are empowered by the social relations of the present.

According to Erikson’s analysis, Design Thinking favors those already positioned to benefit from and claim the best of what society has to offer. It stands to reason then those places where Design Thinking finds its most ardent supporters and enthusiastic practitioners will be among those with the resources of time, money and opportunity who can contemplate ‘What if’ questions in relative existential safety.

In his study of the lives of the vulnerable, Marc Lamont Hill challenges us to go beyond the headlines and video capture of numerous awful human interactions to see the system designs already in place which made those encounters more likely, more predictable, more damaging. He shows us the histories and patterns of disenfranchisement and exclusion of America’s vulnerable that are hiding in plain sight. Embedded in those patterns are hundreds of local, statewide and federal design decisions in urban planning, municipal budgeting, school district allocation, law enforcement strategy, and social service delivery all with the potential to support or suppress affected communities. The question ‘What’s wrong?’ is ever present in these contexts but when addressed with the kind of careful analysis that Hill provides we can name the elephant in the room, trace its origins, learn how it grew and was nourished over time.

Our students can see inequality. Many of them experience its injustices on a daily basis. Precisely here is where I would like to see us focus our educator energies: on helping students see and identify the faulty designs throughout our society that plague the most vulnerable among us. In order to dismantle and correct these designs and patterns, they must first be able to notice and name them. That’s the kind of design thinking I hope and wish for: Where ‘what’s wrong?’ drives our pursuit of ‘what if?’

I also imagine that would be a pretty tough sell in the current marketplace of ideas.



Sherri Spelic

Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop presenter & facilitator, avid reader & writer @ home on the edge of the alps. Publisher of "Identity, Education and Power"