The predominant image of design in the 21st century is that cliché of the empty conference room or studio—just after some feverish brainstorming extravaganza—plastered with Post-it notes … as if the act of design had suddenly morphed into some strange game of pin the Post-it on the mind map. How is it possible that the wonderfully complex process of design has devolved to the point that we now commonly represent it by the leftover artifacts of quickie ideation? Is that all there is?
I point the finger of blame squarely at Design Thinking, that aspiring little brother of design that has recently been getting all of the attention. The rise in Post-it portraiture has more or less mirrored the infiltration of Design Thinking into the boardroom. And as creativity becomes the lubricant of the innovation economy, what says it better than a crazy quilt of Post-its smeared to the wall? It’s no surprise that this version of ideation is particularly salient in a business context, where outputs are more often intangible strategies, financial instruments, services, and information flows. An array of Post-its does make a more vivid photo than a bunch of suits with their ties off ruminating. The Post-it portrait accomplishes the work of saying, “creativity and leaps of imagination happened here.” It puts the gloss on innovation.
The problem is that in serving as a substitute for the whole of design, the Post-it represents only a small fraction of what makes design uniquely effective. It papers over the fact that ideation without materialization is not design. Designers discover as they turn ideas into thing (even when those things have no physical form). We gain true insight in the act of making a mark on a page or pushing pixels on the screen. We don’t need to over-hype those processes, but to ignore them means that we shortchange the practice of design.