Socially responsible project failure and time

Rethinking Design Thinking for the Other 50%

I will get to posing my perceptions and notes from the APCI  design and innovation conference soon, but I had to share one tidbit which has been gnawing at me for days.

One of the big epiphanies I had in Paris was that in Europe, design thinking is promoted for those who do not practice design.  Jean Schneider, the organizer of the conference, told us over lunch this story that he tells to his students:

In a class of twenty students, only ten of you will make your living actually practicing in a design field. Of those ten who practice design, only three of you will make a good living from it and only one of you would be a super-star designer. We do not know which one of you the star designer will be, so we have to train you all.

He continued explaining that the other 10 non-practicing designers carry into their other fields of engagements “design thinking” as the specific sensibility they have been provided by their design training. So design thinking is for those who probably do something else besides design making.

In the US, design thinking is promoted for those who are already or emerging super-star designers. The discourse is that “design thinking” is for geniuses like Edison. This gives the perception that it is for only the best trained and most experienced designers, who are have evolved to thinking about serious problems without having to make anything.

My question is that in this framing of design thinking, where does that leave those 10 who are trained as designers but will actually never make their living in a design field (as makers)? What would it mean to promote design thinking for them, not superstar designers but the hybrid accountant/designers, mail carrier/designers, anthrodesigners, who no longer know Adobe InDesign from Microsoft Excel, etc. ?

If half the people trained in design do not find employment in the design field, how would that shift in emphasis help bring or maintain those professional design thinkers (non makers) back into the design fold, as those whose approach to the general world is colored by their design training?

Then design thinking has a clarity and perhaps nobility of purpose: embracing the, lets say 50% of, "designers" who find employment outside of the design field.



Dori, why the privileging of making in design? Is it a bad thing to be among the 10 non-superstar-designers? The thinking does indeed translate into many things... would we think of it perhaps as a lawyer who doesn't practice law but brings the analytical skills he or she gains from law school into other types of work?

Some thoughts on privileging making:

Los Angeles web design

I agree with what you said design thinking is for those who probably do something else besides design making.


Kate Gillogly

Hi, Dori,
Jean Schneider's introduction sounds like the introduction to the department I got as a student at Michigan.
We face this all the time in AAA governance, as well. Those who don't work 'in the profession' get shut out.
I would argue that in fact it's the non-stars who advance the field, because they extend ideas and applications, on a daily basis, into domains that didn't initially appear appropriate/responsive to the anthro framework of analysis.
You sound busy, I hope you're doing well!


Hi Dori

Oh I see what you mean. If that's how d thinking is being "sold" in the States then I'm quite dissapointed speaking as a design educator in a part of the world (Africa) that I feel can make a lot of use of this "new" found mood in international design.

I guess I inherently have a thing aginst "star" anything being sold as the solutions to problems. In my experience it's the "non stars" who are the real change advocates where it really matters (at the grass roots) although as you stated I understand the need for professions to have standard bearers for us to aspire to, but as I feel we paint ourselves into corners using those old paradigms.

Ours is not to be the stars I believe but facilitators of the design process weaving and bringing our unique perpectives in solving (and learning from) ordinary communities who we work with.

So to answere your question, If we placed the whole d thinking thing with "them" as the reason for it's existance I believe it would have more value in the long run.

Sorry for any typos!

Joe Schwartz

Ha - I don't know if that's good or bad - do we need to rethink our approach because I'm doing the right thing or the wrong thing? Sometimes I just don't know...


Hi Dori,

I'd like to link back to your blog from mine, which is called Stylehound and is produced by the Sheffield School of Interior Design, as I'm writing a short piece on the Design Summit. Would this be okay with you?

Thanks, and happy designing,

The Stylehound


Hi Nii,

I think that you are forgetting that every social system favors figures who bring honor and prestige to the field. Yes, medical students are given the same notions about being star surgeons, which is why in the US at least, we have lower numbers of general practitioners.

Currently in the US, design thinking is proposed as a system to create star design thinkers in addition to or in opposition to star design makers. My questions is what if design thinking was about the non-stars as its basic fundamental reason for existence. How would that change things?


Is not the whole notion of "star designer" exactly what design thinking and the like not trying to get us away from?

I find it quite sad that a design teacher in this day and age still sells the profession thus. And we still wonder why design is not rightfully respected?

Do medical Students have the same notions thrown at them by their lecturers? and so for as I am conserned what they end up doing is more important than what the 1 in 10 "star designer" will ever achieve.



Your efforts is especially why I think we need to rethink how we are approaching design thinking.

Joe Schwartz

My attempts at teaching my high school Graphics and Design students centers around the philosophy that almost none of them will actually be designers at some point in their careers, but all of them will deal with design at some point in their careers.

My goals are to teach the students enough about design thinking and practice so that when they are in their chosen career fields and they have to hire some kind of designer, they have the experience and some vocabulary to be a good client.

Personally, I think that every business school should have a class in Design Thinking. All those MBAs would have a greater appreciation of what designers do and a greater ability to tell the difference between a good designer and a hack.

I've come under some fire for disregarding the "scaffolding" process and teaching some design skills to high school students, but I believe that what I'm doing is an integral part of all our futures because I'm not prepping these kids to be design students, but to be more appreciative of design thinking and its process.

Beverly Tunstall

Hi Dori, this is your cousin Beverly Ann. I didn't know this is your profession. I got a graphic design degree in 2004. I designed a calendar for a children's cancer foundation. It was challenging because another graphic designer dropped the project and didn't leave the files. So I had to unravel it and figure everything from scratch and being it was my first big job, it was a lot of trial and error. The previous artist had used quark and I had just purchased CS3. Being a new designer, that scared me and I was almost sorry that I took on the project. It turned out great. I said all of that to say this: I am one of those designers that is looking for another job because even though I have a great portfolio, I didn't land that great designer job. I was just thinking the other day about how I really wasted a lot of money and time but this is what I wanted to do because I have the talent for it. You may have given me some inspiration just reading this blog.

Gong Szeto

the mystery 10 will get other degrees to round out their world view and likely become leaders in other fields and be in the position of *employing* said working/superstar designers. it's the whole A, B, C student thing. and 1 of those mystery 10 will actually figure out that design is but the pinky on one one hand of a body with many hands, write a book about how the entire body actualy works, and then the nobel commitee will have to come up with a new prize category.

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