SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
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Design, Thinking? Or How Design (Really) Wants To Make It In The Business World – SVA MA Design Research

Lorena Canales

Design, Thinking? Or How Design (Really) Wants To Make It In The Business World

Part of Vital Signs

Image courtesy IDEO, from Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit.

“Design thinking” emerged in the workplace as a management practice, intended to codify and package designers’ way of thinking and doing into a step-by-step approach. The term tapped into executive, mid-management, and entrepreneurial anxieties about perpetually being innovative. But as companies adopt the fun and fast approach to innovation, a new myth about design is constructed without much designerly input. Design thinking’s ideal point of entry is the experience itself, so workshops are designed as short, immersive experiences that compel participants to think in terms of Post-It Notes. The choreographed exercises, like brainstorming and ideation sessions, highlight the fun and entertaining aspects of the creative process and willfully disregard the “actual work” of a designer, undermining the complexities of creative work.

This research analyzes design thinking workshops in entrepreneurial and corporate contexts to understand how the self-help and D.I.Y. rhetoric creates expectations about design’s role in the business world.

In the summer of 2009, Tim Brown, British designer and CEO of IDEO, a global design and consulting firm with headquarters in California introduced the concept of “designthinking” to an audience in Oxford at TED’s international spinoff, TEDGlobal.

Wearing a pair of relaxed-fit blue jeans, nondescript sneakers, a white t-shirt with an illustration of miniature Italian cars on its front and an oversized blue jacket, Brown attempted to convince his TED audience, usually made up of thought leaders from technology, entertainment and design industries, about the possibility of moving from design to designthinking.1 Noting that designers can “do more than just put an attractive shell to a (any) new technology,” and advocating for designthinking as the much needed approach to innovation that is “powerful, effective, and broadly accessible,” that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas in business and life through inspiration, ideation and implementation, Brown painted a picture of a design utopia.2

For the business world in particular, designthinking presented an attractive strategy to tackle the newfound obstacles in the market right after the global financial crisis of 2008. Designthinking tapped into entrepreneurs’ and business people’s anxieties and aspirations about innovation, creativity, design and social good, while the Stanford D-School characterization of designthinkng as five-step process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test—appealed to manager.3

This research examines designthinking as a managerial practice and how it has been tailored for a non-designer audience as it ventures in the business world. In particular, it takes a look at the role of the workshop as the quintessential entry point for designthinking education for a non-designer audience, especially entrepreneurs and companies.4

Designthinking promises that by following these steps companies will come to the best solutions for their customers, all of this by virtue of its human-centered approach and by having empathy as a core value. However, it also comes off as ambiguous and loose; there is no definitive definition or processes. The steps depend on whom or what organization is relaying the message and even then it is often treated as doxa, an undisputed common belief or popular opinion.5

It quickly pollinated and found a large audience through books, executive education, graduate programs, boots camps, webinars, and toolkits. It also appealed to a wide range of industries, from the Embrace Baby Warmer in the realm of social innovation to the Mayo Clinic Center of Innovation in the field health care and design thinking at schools to designthinking for children’s education.6


The Designthinking Experience

Designed as short, immersive and sweet experiences and regardless if they take three hours or three months, workshops have an expiration date. They are sold as educational, fun, fast, effective and instantly actionable. The Design Gym sells their Design Thinking Crash Course as follows: “This is an incredibly fast-paced introduction to some of the tools and mindsets of Design Thinking.  In this three-hour session we’ll collaboratively take a problem through the Design Thinking process. You’ll leave with a basic understanding of how to conduct user interviews, generate ideas with groups, sketch your solutions, and how to tell the world about your concept.”7 They’ve become a preferred format for training thanks to their flexibility, their ability to accommodate differently sized groups, budgets, and venues; it is as easy as putting some chairs in a room and calling it a workshop. Even so, venues for designthinking workshops tend to follow a similar aesthetic: open floor space, forgettable designer furniture and an over use of inspirational jabber on the walls and glass doors; all reminiscent of a design studio or a technology start up. Tables are set with mounds of Post-its® and Sharpies® and usually flanked by at least one rolling whiteboard.

Organizers and facilitators present participants with a highly choreographed set of exercises, including the classic improvisational exercise of “Yes, and..” in which a participant’s role is to follow with a “yes, and …” from whatever storyline or movement their partners suggest. The exercises also include empathy interviews, solo ideation sessions, group ideation sessions and dynamics that yield quick, often hypothetical, results. In its compact format, a workshop presents the easy and attractive attributes about creative problem solving but little of the actual creative doing. Workshops are a happy place where creativity and problem solving converge. They function as the trailer to a movie, giving away highlights, funny moments and creating high expectations.

Workshops become an act of performance, bringing in together corporate trends in designthinking and consumer trends in self-help and entrepreneurial trends in D.I.Y. culture; they are the ultimate designthinking experience. Workshop organizers and facilitators don’t need to go to great lengths to activate the designthinking feel good rhetoric, but production value does augment persuasion and membership.


Post-Its® and Sharpies®

A blue wall holds a noticeable amount of Post-It® Notes messily arranged as they form five different lots where the headers read “PRE, PLANNING, PLATFORM, EXECUTION, and SUCCESS.” It is natural to see the portrait of Post-It Quilts as the result of a perfectly choreographed ideation session, and as a symbol for thinking, just as Post-Its, at rest, are the promise of innovative and creative work.

In the same image you can see the back of the top of the heads of the people in front of the wall, they’re looking at the Post-Its® and at the center of the image, a hand is raised and points at the wall. On the forefront, three linguistic messages attempt to seduce and inspire: “Learn Design Thinking”, “Do Design Thinking” and “Lead Design Thinking.”8 The text directs the viewer and by means of an obviously painful dispatching, it steer his attention to a chosen-meaning: LEARN, DO and LEAD by Design Thinking.9

This is the advertising image for designthinking in general: it sets a group of people in inspired and pensive poses, looking happy and concentrated, pointing to a wall or with a Sharpie® in hand. Semiotician Roland Barthes has discussed the notion of the advertising image in which the “signifieds” of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.10 These people are very likely to be hanging out next to a table with stacks of Post-It® Notes or a whiteboard hanging on the wall; ready to take action. The image is a symbol for designthinking and it not only informs people of what designthinking but also of what design is; it makes a synonym of both.

Past the ubiquity of pens and notepads, these objects carry a meaning with them, whether acknowledged or not. They become designed objects in the context of a designthinking workshop, especially, when they are black fine felt tip Sharpie® pens and 3” x 3” Post-it® Notes.

At IBM there are two reasons for their preference for these supplies. The first is that it gives the perfect level of fidelity, “you can fit just enough on a 3” x 3” Post-it® note but not too much” says Seth Johnson, design advocate and lead facilitator at IBM Design, the group heading the IBM Design Thinking initiative, over a phone conversation, “you can get somewhat detailed while drawing with a fine point Sharpie® but not too detailed. Putting those two things together (a 3” x 3” Post-it and black fine felt tip Sharpie® pen) keeps you at a high enough level that you don’t get down to the technical.”11 And the second reason is that it functions as democratic leveling mechanism, which at IBM they use intentionally. Johnson expands “everyone has the same surface to draw on, the executives in the room don’t get a bigger post-it note, the executives in the room don’t get a fatter, bolder sharpie pen, which would visually indicate a louder voice” and assures that “when everyone has the same tools, and space to write on and instruments to write with, it’s a very leveling experience.”12 The ultimate case for Post-Its® and Sharpies®, according to Seth Johnson is “that everyone’s ideas are just as valid as everyone else because you are using the exact same tools to express your ideas.”13 How valid can this be? Office supplies can hardly erase work hierarchies.

Even at workshops, facilitators engage the participants competitively to use as many Post-Its ®as needed; it’s a game of quantity over quality, as if the number of Post-It® used by a participant directly correlates to how much of a designer he or she is or how many good ideas they will produce.

Settling things straight, in a recent interview for Techonomy, Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Design and Architecture and Director of R&D at The Museum of Modern Art, said “Putting lots of Post-It® notes on the wall is not going to make you a designer.”14

  1. Tim Brown, “Designers—Think Big!” Filmed July 2009. TED video, 16:50. Accessed February 10, 2016,
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Our Point of View.” Dschool. Accessed November 30, 2015,
  4. Lotta Hassi and Miko Laakso, “Conception of Design Thinking in the Design and Management Discourses: Open Questions and Possible Directions for Research,” Proceedings of IASDR 2011, 4th World Conference on Design Research, Delft, The Netherlands, October 31– November 4. 2011.
  5. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
  6. Tim Dodd, “Design thinking: the new way to boost school kids’ performance,” Financial Review, April 1, 2016, accessed April 17th, 2016: ; Sarah Soule, “How Design Thinking Can Help Social Entrepreneurs” Stanford Business, October 30, 2013, accessed April 17th 2016, ; Mayo Clinic Center For Innovation Website, accessed April 17th, 2016

  7. The Design Gym website, accessed April 16th 2016,
  8. Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, Translated by Stephen Heath, (Great Britain: Fontana Press, 1977), 34
  9. Ibid., 40
  10. Ibid., 33
  11. Seth Johnson, design advocate and lead facilitator at IBM Design, in a phone conversation with the author, February 2016.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. David Kirkpatrick, “Without Design, Innovation Doesn’t Happen: A Conversation With Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Design and Architecture and Director of R&D at The Museum of Modern Art,” Techonomy, April 6, 2016, accessed April 15, 2016,