Behold and Beware, Design Toolkits


June 22, 2018

By Jon Freach, Executive Director of Design Research, frog design

The tools of design thinking are intellectual and conceptual, and while design thinking toolkits can be incredibly useful, they don’t guarantee “mastery” of design or design thinking. It’s a nuanced process that takes time and instruction to build design cognition, a sharp eye, and skilled hands.

The methods and tools of design are evolving at a rapid pace. Some are analog, some are increasingly digital, and, as Hugh Dubberly writes, many contemporary design tools “frame design as a conversation, with a goal of designing for conversation.” Throughout professional design practice, tools are frequently formalized and published. The tools of design thinking are intellectual, conceptual, and logic-based. Branded, formalized tools are relevant tools in the minds of industry.

What design methods and tools will universities teach their students? How can academic institutions keep pace with industry while applying a more critical lens to its craft? Why should students and professionals consider using design toolkits? This essay explores the evolution of design tools and philosophies from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, discusses their potential, describes their benefits, and outlines their pros and cons.

Design tools of the Industrial Age were produced to build high-quality, efficient things. Businesses and institutions commonly relied more on platform strategies and supply chains to scale their products, services and value propositions. Metaphors were mechanical, reflecting the traits and characteristics of the day’s technology and design intent. Products aimed to be “simple,” and “perfect” solutions were “complete.”

Design’s value was often misunderstood as only providing a surface material or expression to something that had been engineered. Consider one example: a civic design problem such as the design of the New York City subway system signs. Though its designers developed the cognitive way-finding logic, the resulting standards manual focused primarily on graphic design specifications and production details. Industrial Age design tools were often instruction manuals that users could reference to follow specifications to produce final products. The more intricate the manual, the higher the quality of the object. The 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual is a fine example from this era of design solving a smaller part of a larger and more systemic problem by enabling a discrete group of tradesmen (civil engineers and transit authority workers) to produce high quality signs for subway riders.

By contrast, design tools of the Information Age are made to catalyze interactions, build relationships, and enable diverse communities to creatively take action and innovate. Today’s problems are complicated, deeply systemic and may not be solvable. They are rife with dependencies that unfold over time. Hence, our designed solutions may never be “complete.” Our metaphors reflect the ever-changing, organic nature of both problem and solution. We now design “ecosystems,” “behavior change,” and “experiences.”

Person reading book illustration by Misa Yamamoto.

Today, design enjoys a new relationship with industry and institutions as not only critical to problem solving, but more importantly, problem framing, the act of viewing problems through different perspectives to engender new definitions and, thus, solutions. Services are increasingly a part of any product strategy. In Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation, the authors describe a process that requires continual awareness and intentional design of “a sequence or constellation of events and steps.”

While the Industrial Age produced and thrived on instructional design manuals, the Information Age builds toolkits for a diverse set of users. A contemporary civic design problem in New York City is addressed by such a toolkit. In fact, the first sentence on NYC’s Civic Service Design Tools and Tactics website proclaims, “Governments are embracing design—not as a trend, but as a way to transform how we deliver services and information to the public.” Its audience is broad (public servants), and a formal service design function, The Service Design Studio of The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, manages the offerings. On this site, you can learn the basics of Civic Service Design and access design thinking tools optimized to help your team follow a step-by-step human-centered design process. These tools are catalysts for collective action; they draw diverse communities of users into the process of design and iteration.

The connectedness of the Information Age brought with it added complexity and patterns of disruption, especially to industries with established business models, such as, for example: hospitality (Airbnb), food (Amazon) and transportation (Uber). This disruption and expanding competitiveness has caused many companies to panic and seek new methods to innovate their offerings and their cultures. This panic disrupts the organization as it struggles to acquire new methods, new processes and a new language for creativity, growth and change.

In Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations, Paul Pagano and Michael Geoghegan suggest, “It is possible for an organization to learn and grow, but only if it creates conditions that help generate new language. An organization may create new paths to productivity and regenerate itself.”

Design tools and toolkits provide the syntax and semantics for such a new language that serves as a catalyst between the design disciplines and industry. Design is increasingly becoming a part of an accepted and widely understood “business acumen,” while organizations do not typically have a “design acumen.”

Contemporary design toolkits attempt to equip organizations and teams with a means for dealing with the ambiguous and complicated nature of their problems. They can add confidence to the process of answering basic questions, such as: What problem am I trying to solve? How should I solve it? What do I need to do to solve the problem? What might the outcome look like? Can my approach and solution solve similar problems in the future?

Toolkits also provide practical benefits by:

  • Enabling teams to frame or reframe problems from multiple perspectives
  • Facilitating externalization of insight so that teams can engage in dialogue
  • Providing another way to use existing knowledge that may have been dormant, locked inside various organizational documents and employee’s minds
  • Offering frameworks for visualizing problems and solutions
  • Equipping teams with principles, practices and tools for learning more about people’s experiences

But, these toolkits don’t instantly make you a designer or guarantee mastery. Designing is a highly nuanced process that is shaped by one’s exposure to a diverse variety of problems, the personal experience of understanding them and a history of creatively solving them. It takes time and instruction to build design cognition, a sharp eye and skilled hands.

Kate Canales, Director of the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation (MADI) program at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering shares a cautionary tale about toolkits

These generalized tools can be really instructive and inspiring. . . But the application of the concepts is complex and frustrating and unique to circumstances that the authors could never cover for a massive, general audience. It’s difficult to communicate nuance or guide a user through the inevitable unpredictability they will encounter in a real project using these kits alone. I think where they have been ineffective is anywhere that they imply that usage will lead to mastery.

So we should proceed with confidence—and caution. Today’s design toolkits are often catalyzing. Designer Lauren Serota comments that “high quality work can't often be carried forward using practices associated with business as usual.” Consider the context of the problem and the environment for solving it. Think about what the team is capable of and what it aspires to accomplish. Above all, choose your tools wisely.

A Small Sample of Design Toolkits, Books, and Tutorials (links included where available):

Web Toolkits



Illustration by Misa Yamamoto.

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