Why the World Needs Anthropologists 2018

PechaKucha: The Future of Design Thinking


This year Stripe Partners sponsored Why the World Needs Anthropologists conference in Lisbon, an annual symposium exploring the different applications of anthropology beyond traditional academia. This year’s edition, entitled Designing the Future, focused on design anthropology, its methods, practical applications, and its potential for framing the future of humanity around the world.

For the first time in the WWNA history, 17 designers and anthropologists were invited to share their thoughts during the Perspectives: Powered by PechaKucha – a 20x20 presentation format – 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. As the theme of my 6 minute and 40 second presentation I decided to choose Design Thinking – a method that’s rather unknown among designers. Please scroll down if you want to know why it is.

Today I would like to talk to you about the future of design thinking – a method that is relatively new to me. My aim today is not to point out what is wrong with it, as the web is filled with design thinking hate speech, but why and how I believe we could make it better and more applicable to current issues and questions.

Prior to my research career as a designer, I had never heard the term design thinking. None of my teachers, colleagues, employers and employees had ever used it. Only when I started to work on strategy and innovation projects, I realised that design thinking is a thing. How come I had never heard about it before?

I quickly discovered why. The first reason was because the method was initially developed for non-designers in mind. Secondly, because that is actually not the way designers work, because one of the most important things that I always tell people about design is that it is not only about problem-solving.

The beauty and power of design lies in experimentation, challenging the status quo and being critical. As a designer and a researcher, I am more interested in design that asks good questions rather than provides mediocre answers. And that is where I noticed design thinking falls short.

When looking at the diagrams associated with design thinking, it becomes obvious that the process is too structured. The 5 or 6 simple steps make it dangerously easy to focus solely on problem-solving and producing repetitive and unchallenging results – and that is true in spite of what shape the diagram takes.

One of the things that’s missing in design thinking is what good design process prides itself on – critical reflection and invitation to discussion that facilitates the emergence of insights. Current design thinking processes are too goal oriented to allow for alternative insights interpretations and development.

What this means in practice, is that design thinking solutions often only end up repackaging existing products or adding unnecessary features. What I am trying to say is yes, we can keep on redesigning the good old radiator, but how about thinking how else can we keep people warm?

Asking a question that starts with ‘how else?’ opens up a whole new arena of exploration going beyond here and now. Why is this important you may ask? The answer is simple: because we’re making and consuming products and services faster than ever before.

We are able to come up with a product concept today, test it tomorrow and produce it the day after. The length of that process has decreased to such timeframe, that thinking about the near future is almost the same as thinking about the past.

What it simply means is that we have to put more focus on designing for more distant futures. Firstly, because we have to address the issues of sustainability of all sorts, and secondly, in order to affect more positive change we have to start exploring the future that is beyond current socio-political and economic structures.

One way of exploring more distant futures is to use design fictions as an idea generation tool. Design fiction is about investigating how larger, external factors will impact the world as well as specific groups of people within it, for example product users or consumers.

Unfortunately, the insights supporting design thinking as we know it are solely rooted in the traditional ethnography that severely limits how far ahead we can look. Because naturally the signals from the present become weaker and weaker the further we try to look into the future.

Taking current trends and extending or superimposing them onto our visions of future worlds is embedded in our human nature and restricts us from thinking really creatively. Using design fictions can stimulate us to think differently and more innovatively.

Doing so is much easier than you might expect. If you think about it for a second, you realise we are virtually surrounded by vast amounts of fictional storytelling and a lot of it is actually worth analysing. Let me show you a few examples.

Films: Good storytelling that makes it easy for us to accept what is on the screen is a great source of insights that opens up a space for discussion. The story is often hard to recreate and prototype in real life but carries the same sense of credibility and emotional investment forces us to think reflectively.

Another source of design fiction are exhibitions and artefacts. My favourite example is of Sedric – Volkswagen’s driverless car displayed at the V&A recently. As a visitor I was not only able to sit in the car, but also experience and understand its possibilities and potential impact through pre-recorded scenarios.

The third example from my favourite sources of design fiction are speculative games that use scenario thinking that forces the audience to make informed choices about the present that will lead to the preferable future in 20 or even 50 years’ time. It is a great tool in helping us understand the larger factors that are at play.

What all these three examples have in common is that they are all highly visual and auditory, engaging and emotional. All of them provide valid use case scenarios, personas and their journeys at once. The design fictions should not be thought of as solutions but stimuli.

Using design fictions in my design practice challenges and teaches me new things and often leaves me thinking about the world differently. Design fictions can make design thinking more applicable and the whole process more engaging and effective going beyond post-its and PowerPoints.


// Aga Szypicyn