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As scholars, practitioners, and students of design, we are likely familiar with the triadic framework of Design Thinking, which underscores desirability, feasibility, and viability as the key dimensions to consider when approaching a design problem. This model is praised for its pragmatic, user-centered, and iterative approach, often positioned as a universal key to unlocking innovation across disciplines. However, have we ever paused to critically examine the underpinnings of this widely accepted model?

What if the framework we embrace so readily is, subtly yet powerfully, imbued with a neoliberal ethos, aligning our design practices with the inherent tenets of capitalism? This hypothesis may initially seem jarring, as the Design Thinking model is often presented as an apolitical tool for problem-solving. Yet, upon closer inspection, the connections between the ‘holy trinity’ of desirability, feasibility, and viability and capitalist norms and values start to emerge, suggesting that this model might not be as neutral as we assume.

  1. Neglect of socio-cultural and political dimensions: Critics argue that the design thinking model, with its focus on desirability (what people need), feasibility (what is technically possible), and viability (what is financially possible), often neglects the socio-cultural and political dimensions of design problems. This can result in solutions that, while technically feasible and financially viable, may perpetuate existing power structures or fail to address underlying systemic issues (Escobar, Arturo. “Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds.” Duke University Press, 2018).
  2. Reductionism: Critics also point out that the design thinking model can oversimplify complex problems, reducing them to issues of desirability, feasibility, and viability without considering their full complexity and interconnectedness. This reductionist approach can lead to solutions that address symptoms rather than root causes (Tonkinwise, Cameron. “Design Studies: What Is It Good For?” Design and Culture, 2014).

Capitalist trojan horse

Design Thinking, with its emphasis on user-centeredness and innovation, can be seen as a Trojan Horse of capitalism. It appears to offer a critical and human-centered approach to problem-solving, but underneath the surface, it subtly reinforces capitalist values and norms. Just like the mythical Trojan Horse, it enters the realm of design, seemingly offering a valuable gift, but ultimately serves to perpetuate the existing capitalist system.

  1. Desirability as consumer preference: The desirability dimension is often interpreted as aligning with consumer preferences, a cornerstone of market-based capitalism. Under neoliberalism, consumer choice is often depicted as the primary mechanism for achieving societal wellbeing. However, this focus on individual desires and preferences can obscure the structural and systemic issues that shape and constrain these desires, such as social inequality, power imbalances, and cultural hegemony.
  2. Feasibility as technological determinism: The feasibility criterion often emphasizes technological solutions, reflecting a form of technological determinism that is prevalent in neoliberal thought. This perspective assumes that technology and innovation, driven by market forces, will provide solutions to societal challenges. Yet, it tends to neglect the ways in which technology itself is socially constructed and can reproduce existing power relations and inequalities.
  3. Overemphasis on market viability: The viability criterion, which assesses whether a solution can survive in the market, can result in an overemphasis on profit-making and marketability. This can limit the potential for design to address issues that may not have immediately apparent economic returns but are crucial for social equity and environmental sustainability (Manzini, Ezio. “Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation.” MIT press, 2015).

Taken together, these three dimensions of the Design Thinking model can subtly but powerfully structure the design process in line with a neoliberal, capitalist mindset. It encourages designers to frame problems and solutions in terms of individual desires, technological capabilities, and market dynamics, potentially sidelining considerations of social justice, cultural diversity, and environmental sustainability.

In response to these criticisms, some scholars and practitioners have proposed more holistic and critically engaged design approaches that consider a wider range of factors, including social justice, cultural diversity, environmental sustainability, and political agency.

These approaches aim to extend design thinking beyond its traditional boundaries and challenge its capitalist underpinnings.