From the Tanagram Archives : When Thinking is Making

Nate Burgos sent me a link about a new institute that is being created between Stanford University and the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design to investigate design thinking. They defined it as a methodology that melds an end-user focus with multidisciplinary collaboration and iterative improvement to produce products, services or experiences. Their theme is – innovation – which is no surprise.

This got me to think about how this term has fluctuated since I heard it twenty years ago. My approach to the topic was around several attributes:

• Wicked Problems
• A Focus on Customers
• Users Finding Alternatives
• Ideation and Prototyping
• Qualitative Performance

The question is how is design thinking different from other types of thinking? If we take a Western European approach to thought, then we have critical thinking models of observe, ask questions, research, make connections and create a model that integrates new insights.

If you agree with this foundation, then there would be little differentiation between design thinking and other forms of thinking. Can non-designers do design thinking? What is the role of the designer if design thinking is practiced by a wide variety of disciplines and professions?

What has remained constant about design thinking is linked to an improved future. Victor Margolin, in his book The Politics of the Artificial stated Design is continuously inventing its subject matter, so it is not limited by outworn categories of products. The world expects new things from designers, that is the nature of design.

I used to have conversations with fairly progressive designers twenty years ago about design thinking and that design was as much about frameworks, strategies and approaches as about media artifacts. At the time, they were not ready to embrace this idea and only wanted cursory approaches that could add more legitimacy to the making. Contemporary designers have finally embraced in enough of a critical mass that design is as much about thinking as making.

Even a few years ago when John Thackara ( proposed for the London Design Council an the Project Red Initiative that would have the design community address specific social, political and economic issues facing the United Kingdom. The backlash from the design community that the initiative was not in the bounds of design.

The good news is that design thinking, design methods, and design management are all coalescing to create new opportunities for designers to collaborate effectively with other professions around wider areas of interest that are not discipline specific.

Designers have an ability to interact with the the unknown, and the shifting relationships between the meaning of things. The design objects program is trying to link design (as a plan) to objects (as an outcome).  It is here that methodology can help and this is where design thinking comes into play.

Maybe there is hope after all.

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