The great “design thinking” hoax


There’s a big divide between the administrative and faculty caste on campus nowadays. Your typical faculty will interact with admin1 on only a few occasions: hiring, firing, and when a student complains. The gentle reader will note that all three situations involve money: when you’re taking money out of admin pockets, when you’ll stop doing that, and when you’re threating the possibility of more money going into admin pockets.

The guys at the top live in their own little bubble, and, besides money, not much can penetrate it. They’ve given themselves splendiferous titles, huge salaries, and the trappings of intellectualism, of academia…but they generally don’t have anything like the latter two in reality. They also grant themselves awards for their “bold leadership,” and give themselves many an uproarious round of applause for Vision for Excellence plans.

I suspect the gentle reader doesn’t know about “Vision for Excellence,” so a quick overview. Basically, these are incredibly self-aggrandizing plans for “excellence,” basically growth for the institution. These plans can run hundreds of pages long, and are completely rewritten every few years, with the previous plan, no matter how magnificent they declare it to be, utterly abandoned. All this plan-making takes up huge amounts of time, but that’s not a problem as our schools are hugely overstaffed with administrators desperate to find a way to spend all that student loan money the faculty help bring in.

Vision for Excellence isn’t the only way admin waste their time on campus, of course. There are grandiose new “student as customer” initiatives to follow, pretentious “industrial partnerization” presentations, and let’s not forget the pompous Diversity Enhancement programs as well. I must confess: I consulted a thesaurus for the previous sentence, faking a level of diction I do not truly possess.

I make this admission because it relates to the latest craze our leaders have begun in higher ed: “Design Thinking.” Even my own little fake community college, some 6 years ago, had the deanlings dress up in “agents of change” outfits for photo-ops because of this fad.

What, pray tell is Design Thinking and who are agents of change? The title of a recent article describes it well enough:

Design Thinking Is a Boondoggle

Ok, perhaps a one word definition of “boondoggle” is weak, but it’s clear this “new idea” is just another way to soak up money:

Stanford University’s design school (or “” — their asinine punctuation, not mine) that has become most associated with design thinking. IDEO will charge you $399 for a self-paced, video-based design-thinking course, “Insights for Innovation.” Stanford will charge you $12,600 for a four-day “Design Thinking Bootcamp” called, likewise, “From Insights to Innovation.”

The student loan scam, where schools can charge infinitely large amounts of money for infinitesimally little education, has clearly warped the minds of our leaders in higher ed…$12,600 for a four day “bootcamp”? This could only happen after years of our leaders noticing that it doesn’t matter what crap is in the classes, they can charge whatever they want. So now they’re charging yearly tuition-level prices for less than a week of “education.”

What exactly is Design Thinking supposed to do?

It “fosters creative confidence and pushes students beyond the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines.” It equips students “with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.” It’s the general system for change-agent genius we’ve all been waiting for.

It’s been a long time since I’ve mentioned the special language (“edu-babble”) that our leaders devolve into when discussing their latest crap innovative idea. Basically, they use this language whenever they’re pushing something into higher education ultimately to put more money in their pockets. The uninitiated hear all the long words and figure they’re listening to someone smarter than themselves but, having taken the time to parse the language, I assure you: it’s a laughable method of covering up how they’ve got nothing to say.

So, how does this magical Design Thinking process work?

“It’s an approach to problem-solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ ‘Focus on Human Values,’ ‘Craft Clarity,’ ‘Embrace Experimentation,’ ‘Mindful of Process,’ ‘Bias Toward Action,’ and ‘Radical Collaboration.’” He explains further that these seven points can be reduced to what are known as the five “modes”: “Empathize,” “Define,” “Ideate,” “Prototype,” and “Test.”

So, are there 7 principles, or 5? Because you’re simply making stuff up here, it doesn’t matter, of course. The important thing is to declare how brilliant you are at it, and admin have that part down.

Just because you’ve broken something up into arbitrary categories doesn’t mean you’ve discovered great wisdom. The other wondrous example of this in Education is Bloom’s Taxonomy, a completely evidence-free approach to education which has done nothing for education despite it being used for over 50 years now.

Hey, remember a few paragraphs ago where I created the illusion of greater literacy than I have by simply changing some words around? It’s the same idea here:

Here are the design-thinking “modes” juxtaposed with some rules I was taught in a freshman writing class in 1998:
Empathize Mode: Consider Your Audience
Define Mode: Pick a Clearly-Defined Topic, Neither Too Broad, Nor Too Narrow
Ideate Mode: Think
Prototype Mode: Write Your Thoughts Down
Test Mode: Give What You’ve Written to Someone You Trust to Read It and Tell You if It Sucks

Bottom line, Design Thinking is just the same stuff we’ve already been doing, but we use different words to describe the stuff.

And charge $12,600 for a four day workshop covering the material on one page of a freshman English textbook you can buy used for $10. Brilliant!

In the end, design thinking is not about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about “social innovation” if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialization. It’s about making education a superficial form of business training.

It’s also about setting up new fiefdoms on campus, filled with “Agents of Change” promising more visions for excellence…just as long as the new Design Thinking Institute on campus has at least half a dozen new Vice Presidents of Design Thinking, each paid at least six figures. And what do these VPs do for the campus?

“…change agents do on their campuses, beyond recruiting other people to “the movement.” A blog post titled “Only Students Could Have This Kind of Impact” describes how in 2012 the TEDx student representatives at Wake Forest University had done such a good job assembling an audience for their event that it was hard to see how others would match it the next year. But, good news, the 2013 students were “killing it!” “*THIS* is Why We Believe Students Can Change the World,” the blog announced…”

They give talks and then announce how amazingly successful the talks were…since they live in a bubble, there’s nobody to tell them how their activities are utterly irrelevant and insipid. This stuff has been going on in higher education for close to a decade now. I bet not one person in the country can identify a single new idea, new change, brought about by Design Thinking.

And yet we’ll keep pouring more money into this abysmal concept, even though there’s nothing here that we didn’t already learn our first week in a basic writing course.

The article spends a long time taking down this new fad in higher ed, but bottom line, it’s just another boondoggle, paid for by the student loan scam. End that scam, and we can fix this problem, like so many others in higher ed, quickly.

1. There are also mandatory meetings where faculty and admin are in the same room, but this does not count as “interaction” as faculty are understood to simply nod and applaud whatever admin wants to force down faculty throats.