Universal Design Praxis

I find the term Design Thinking inadequate.

First, the term Design Thinking belongs to IDEO. As far as I know, they made the term up, they use it for marketing and it remains closely associated with them. It is uncomfortably too many things at once:  a semi-grassroots movement, a (vague) methodology, a bag of tricks, a style, an approach to problem-solving and a trademark.

But second, thinking is only one part of what goes on with Design Thinking. And in fact in Design Thinking thinking is demoted from its usual exalted position. In most situations in most organizations, making and doing activities are preceded by lengthy talking, making of cases, adducing of evidence, modeling, deciding, planning, and other activities of the head. But with Design Thinking, making and doing become more equal partners  with thinking in determining what will be thought and done and made. Hands and feet enter the picture and work alongside the head (and heart) to shape what transpires.

For this reason, I am inclined to characterize this way of working more as a practice than a way of thinking.

Even practice fails to go far enough, though, because a practice can still position a practitioner outside of what is being worked on. With design problems one struggles inside them, rather than working on them or puzzling over them. Anyone who has gone through the wringer of a deep design problem can tell you: design immerses, involves, challenges and changes people at an unnervingly fundamental level. This is why talk around design, design thinking and related movements like UX and service design can get a little breathless and zealous and quasi-religious: because it does stimulate — even forces — unexpected and profound self-transformations. Because of this — because the practice of doing/making/thinking iteratively feeds back into and self-modifies the doing/making/thinking and perceiving process, and the practitioners involved in it, it should be called a design praxis.

And since the active domain of design praxis is all systems involving both subjective free-willed, choice-making entities (a.k.a. people) and objective entities — and such systems are ubiquitous —  it might even be called Universal Design Praxis. According to this Perspective, most problems are actually design problems. When we limit design to traditionally define design areas (graphic, product, digital, architectural, interior, fashion, and so on) we misdiagnose problems as engineering, marketing, management, economic, etc. problems — and usually end up factoring out the crucial element of free-will, and wind up treating people as beings to manipulate, control or coerce.

There is a moral/political dimension to design praxis: it works to engage human beings as free and appeals to free choice, and this also contributes to the whole movement’s quasi-religiosity

So here are the core principles of Universal Design Praxis:

  • Any development of systems comprising both objective and subjective (free-willed) components is best approached as a design problem. (This encompasses the vast bulk of human activity.)
  • Design problems are resolved through iterative cycles of first-hand immersion, collaborative reflection, collaborative making, testing, revision, etc. Whatever the specific techniques used, they are used with this thrust in this basic framework: go to reality to learn, to make, to relearn, to remake…
  • Design praxis changes the practitioner as the problem moves toward resolution — the practioner self-transforms into someone capable of seeing a solution that initially was invisible.
  • Design praxis involves reflective collaboration — multiple people working directly with realities (as opposed to speculating or recalling or applying expertise). Abstractions are derived afresh from direct exposure to reality (the reality of people, things, actions, institutions, places — whatever contributes to making a situation what it is).
  • Design praxis assumes, affirms,  appeals to, and amplifies free-will.


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