Design thinking: Can good design begin with the question of needs?

This post can be regarded as a further thought about design thinking. I may have something else to say about problem-based solution thinking in a couple of days.


The innovative design thinker, Tim Brown of IDEO, suggests in a number of places that design thinking occurs at the intersection of desirability, viability, and feasibility, with desirability being foundational. He identifies desirability in his TED talk with human needs and on IDEO’s website it is implicitly defined in terms of ‘latent needs, behaviors, and desires.’ Viability relates to economic considerations and feasibility to technological considerations. Rightly, he wants to center design thinking on the lives of human beings, for neither financial viability nor technological feasibility can be a foundation of good design. We know that profitable design may pollute local groundwater (hence what is profitable may not be desirable), and a newer, sleeker espresso maker may not be a significant improvement on the already-existing ones that work just fine (hence what is feasible may not be genuinely desirable).

Now, we might inquire whether needs–be they explicit or latent–can be a basis for good design. To see whether they can, we do well to first consider the following questions: what are needs, and how do we distinguish needs from mere preferences? ‘By ‘’needs,” the philosopher Charles Larmore writes, ‘I shall mean desires that are ours not in virtue of our having adopted them, but rather in virtue of our being the sort of beings we all are (so desires for food and sleep, for example, would be needs). Preferences, by contrast, are desires we have because we have adopted them” (Patterns of Moral Complexity 139).

So, needs are ‘givens’ whereas preferences are voluntarily adopted. To remove needs from being human would, in the end, make it impossible for one to be a human being. To minimize our preferences, however, would do no such thing: should I no longer prefer Gucci bags to Hermes bags, this lack of preference would make no crucial difference to my life. But is a human life identical with or reducible to a set of needs?

Which is to say: can design thinking take its point of departure from needs? I do not think so. Human beings may have all their needs fulfilled and still not care about how their lives are to go. One fairly simple thought experiment could run that a State could administer to all of its citizens’ needs, yet no human being would have a reason to get up in the morning. One form of dystopia would not, as it were, be hell on earth but would involve living without caring about how one is to live.

It seems clear that design thinking cannot begin with what needs are not being fulfilled but with the more basic question: why bother? What, ultimately, makes life worthwhile? It is essential or, indeed, vital for human beings to live in accordance with a robust conception of the good life. Given such a conception, we would have plenty of motivation to deliberate about what would best satisfy our needs.


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