Reflections on Design and Worldmaking

Legitimacy in Design


In the last year or so, I’ve witnessed some needs in the business of design that shape our relationships with clients and project teams.

Visualize the outcomes

Don’t just tell clients how you’ll solve the problem, show them what it could look like. Models cover a lot of ground, producing abstract representations of process and visual explanations of solutions. Examples of past projects boost confidence.

Legitimize design thinking

Make creative thinking and behavior stick in the organization. “Legitimacy” is an important theory to consider in this day and age of design thinking because its use as a toolbox to inspire fresh thinking may soon be nearing the end. Sociologist Mark Suchman breaks legitmacy down to three constituent parts:

  1. Pragmatic: the extent to which a particular practice leads to results that are in line with the self interest of the audience and the organization
  2. Moral: positive, normative evaluation of structures, results and actions in relation to the value system of an org; can be created by pointing out the relation to already established practices and/ or pointing to a tradition of trying new practices
  3. Cognitive: rests on the plausibility of explanations addressing how a practice fits within the audiences experienced reality and larger belief systems; established by explanations that render the new practice as an incontestable way of addressing challenges faced by the organization

In a recent DMI paper (Making It Happen: Legitimizing Design Thinking in Large Organizations), Rauth, Carlgren, and Elmquist explored Suchman’s theory of legitimacy as a means to frame and evaluate the efficacy of design thinking in an organization. 

Help us work through the uncomfortable ambiguity

Vagueness and uncertainty often characterize the process of creating something new. Designers learn to accept these feelings. Many of our methodologies arise from the tension between an idea and a practical constraint such as a deadline or a key performance metric. Although we impose designed structure in pretty heavy doses throughout a program, this equivocal feeling doesn’t dramatically subside.

Help us convince others

Ideas and concepts put forth in the organization can hit a roadblock if a.) they are not properly framed, and b.) they don’t align with how certain managers or the company as a whole, incentivizes creative thinking. Deeper and wider exploration with direct/indirect stakeholders throughout the lifecycle of the project can help build the understanding, empathy, confidence, and support your idea will need to make an impact and see the light of day. 

Be flexible

From us, clients want an authentic approach, a confident plan with a certain amount of rigor, and pliancy, or the ability to adjust their teams and schedule if needed. The last need could be fulfilled through new and interesting engagement models.   


In the photograph below, aspects of the designer’s terrain including rough, externalized notes/ideas, dialogue, sketches, and lingering change in the air.

Eighteen Sensemaking Techniques

The Emergent Nature of Empathy