‘Design thinking’ pronounces the final rites of the heroic designer

Tugendhat Villa

We are all enculturated in the mythology of the master architect, the grand designer, the silver-haired visionary. Stories from design history depict larger-than-life figures, towering over grand designs, by virtue of their superior designerly powers, like design deity. Some historical figures were indeed geniuses. It is said that Frank Lloyd Wright’s reticence in revealing his concept for Fallingwater was making Kauffman (his client) increasingly nervous. With just hours before Kauffman was due to walk through the studio door, Wright apparently gathered his apprentices around the drafting table and sketched the concept in all its cantilevered glory before their eyes, narrating his thoughts as he drew. What this story says about Wright’s power of mental conceptualisation is inspiring. Myths are built on the exceptional, not the mundane.

Some design deities of the modern era must have been very influential personalities, the kinds of men it is hard to say no to. Herbert Simon of ‘The Sciences of the Artificial’ fame records how he once asked Mies can der Rohe, then a faculty colleague at Illinois Institute of Technology, how Mies got the opportunity to build the Tugendhat house —a startlingly modern design at the time of construction. The prospective owner had come to Mies after seeing some of the quite conventional houses he had earlier designed in the Netherlands when he was still an apprentice. ‘Wasn’t the client shocked’, Herbert Simon asked, ‘when you put before him your glass and metal design?’ ‘Yes’, said Mies, viewing the tip of his cigar reflectively. ‘He wasn’t very happy at first… but then we smoked some good cigars… and we drank some glasses of a good Rhein wine, and he began to like it very much’. (Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, p. 175).

If design thinking leaves any kind of lasting legacy it might be the end of the era of the heroic designer. Design thinking democratises design, opening up the previously mysterious processes of designing and re-contextualising design amidst everyday concerns. Design thinking promotes design as no more special than any other business tool. We are all designers, to some degree. That’s not to say that there aren’t still great or even genius designers, particularly great architects. But when the processes of ‘design thinking’ start appearing on populist magazine covers and on the screen-savers of multinational corporations you know something has changed.

Allies in this argument for design democratisation can be found in some unexpected places. Donald Norman has been talking down the specialness of celebrated designers for some time. The central premise of his recent piece Technology First, Needs Last is that innovation breakthroughs result from technology developments and not as a direct consequence of user need. In a nutshell, the technology juggernaut rolls on and innovation occurs at the nexus of technological capability and pre-existing user need at a particular time and place. Innovators are people who find applications for technological crumbs dropped by the great locomotive of progress.

Donald Norman’s position bears some similarity to Richard Gabriel’s Designed as Designer, a superbly written essay on the point that the great designs occur not as a stroke of a heroic designer’s genius but as the result of capable mortals standing on the shoulders of their forebears.  Gabriel’s essay was motivated by claims on heroic design made by Fred Brooks, pioneer of operating system development in the 1960s at IBM, whose conference keynote left Gabriel with the impression that the design purity and longevity of OS/360 was all of Brooks’ making.

Section and elevation of Brunelleschi's dome

Brunelleschi’s dome

Gabriel deconstructs the designerly mystery surrounding Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect credited with the completion of the magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) and its mighty and ethereal dome, the largest, most perfectly formed and improbable structure of its time.  Gabriel’s argument is wonderfully simple:

Conceptual integrity arises not (simply) from one mind or from a small number of agreeing resonant minds, but from sometimes hidden co-authors and the thing designed itself.

Gabriel explains how Brunelleschi and his forgotten counterparts took the final step in an evolutionary journey of design and construction commencing with Arnolfo di Cambio (the cathedral’s initial designer) over one hundred and fifty years.  This does not belittle the masterstrokes of Brunelleschi, van der Rohe or Wright.  Nor the design leadership of Brooks.  But the facts of their apparently heroic designing are mostly lost to us today. Gabriel and Norman remind us that real world design of such complex structures and machines is almost always the work of many minds, including those long departed whose concepts and intentions could only be read in the artifact itself.  There is no doubting great designers’ brilliance, but their dazzling achievements are not theirs alone.

Everyone loves a hero, and the master designer is a ‘hero myth’ we love to believe. In reality, most designing is messier and less glamorous than the myth would have us think. If design thinking leaves us only one lasting legacy, it might be the end of these kinds of fairy tales.


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