Thinking about Design Thinking

“Design Thinking has come in to at least give the ability to discuss Design at a strategic level. I would just prefer that over time we move back to Design as the term, after we move the business community with us.” Tim Brown, IDEO

Over the past several years, a diverse range of design communities have been actively discussing the anatomy and value of design thinking. The term “design” and “thinking” as concepts have a high degree of possible meanings and interpretations. It is these meanings that have led to interesting discussions on possible futures, as well as troubling implications about managing expectations of the benefits of design thinking.

As a member of several groups that are focused on innovation and design thinking, I have been shadowing hundreds of posts and entered a few discussions on specific topics within design thinking. My overall impression is that there are many well intentioned people who believe that the design mind is needed to solve a wide variety of contemporary problems.

With the emergence of “d schools” like Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and an ever growing list of international schools, there is acceptance that the concept of design thinking could be the “glue” to spur corporate and social innovation. Integrating design with other disciplines to find connections through interdisciplinary classes as a core curriculum is a focus of these programs to create new value for 21st century learners.

Many believe design needs to move beyond creative and intuitive qualitative methods towards a more rigorous series of approaches to be of strategic value. Design thinking seems to have hundreds of borrowed attributes from a number of fields and reconstructed in synthetic ways both compelling and polemical. Bringing together left and right brain, qualitative and quantitative thinking, and many other cognitive models, the goal is to create a holistic & humanistic approach and response – by design.

Individuals such as Roger Martin, Tom Kelly, Tim Brown, Thomas Lockwood and many others are associated with writing directly about design thinking, or exploring specific attributes. These authors have embraced the idea of design as a purposeful plan or scheme of the mind that aggregates experience, belief, opinion, and judgement. These are curated as a series of processes, protocols, methods, and tools to create models and outcomes of higher value.

Based on reading many posts and books, it seems as if design thinking:

• is exploration-based
• is a form of intellectual scaffolding
• is a flexible protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities
• is human-centered problem solving engaging the whole brain
• tries to understand the “theory of mind” of others
• is multi-disciplinary (for cross functional insight)
• places design in a context rather than as an isolated expressive function
• involves experience, perception, intelligence, interpretation, and application
• helps create informed decision making

While design thinking is not as broad as what Edward Wilson articulated through his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that the “sciences, humanities and arts have a common goal: to give a purpose to understanding the details,” the implications of design thinking can be elasticized to such a scale.

Design Thinking communities seem to be cataloguing the diversity of knowledge and mapping them to design thinking. However as most trained scientists know, observed coincidences do not mean a direct connection or causality. Many of the individual comments about design thinking have interesting ideas or concepts, but that does not mean that these ideas can or should be connected or that one even knows that the other exists.

Many of the themes voiced by design thinking communities can be associated with ideas and models that were suggested by people associated with design methods from the 1960s. Design Methods originally drew from a 1962 conference called “The Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering” as many participants were from the sciences (like Gordon Pask, E. F. O’Doherty, G. M. E. Williams and D. G. Christopherson) as from graphic, industrial design or architecture (like John Chris Jones and Christopher Alexander). They were searching to address contemporary problems in new ways, many of which were not immediately associated with design, and approach problem solving and problem seeking through humanistic, multidisciplinary and integrative models. Design methods was never embraced by the design community, but was adopted by certain software communities in the 1970’s and 1980’s to link qualitative and quantitative methods in software development.

In the late 1960’s, Herbert Simon and his lectures on the “Sciences of the Artificial” articulated that anything man creates is in a sense artificial, including the concept of design. If everything that man thinks or creates is artificial, then what are the operating rules behind these activities? Simon critiqued many ways man rationalizes his/her created worlds, and how man mitigates or rationalizes uncertainty.

In 2011, the world is very different, but the desire to develop new approaches to deal with contemporary challenges are the same. Design thinking communities seem to be discussing the many operating rules that could govern the practice of design thinking. A diversity of terminologies, influences and models voiced by many types of collaborators bring many professional languages, models and skills for more enlightened approaches. Design thinking seems to have many operating rules based on the diversity of individuals the believe in the concept.


Is there design thinking fatigue?

With all the discussion around what design thinking could be by a wide variety of individuals and groups that use the term to package their ideas, in many ways design thinking has been reduced to a mnemonic with metaphorical interpretations. The epistemological dimensions of such an endeavor exploring the philosophical dimensions of knowledge-making can easily become complex, counterintuitive and not repeatable. Design thinking has ever-changing boundaries and languages which lead to statements that sound certain and assertive, but are not.

Bruce Nussbaum in Fast Company wrote an article “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?” described the challenges to design thinking. Bruce suggested using the terms “Design Intelligence” or “Creative Quotient“. Design by its very nature is an applied art and has a utility value derived from clients, markets, and users. While design thinking has definite value in solving business problems or opportunities, the language and advocates of design thinking have had difficulty demonstrating a utility value to business because it is difficult to package creativity. Design thinking groups rebutted Nussbaum’s claims by listing the core attributes of design thinking and that Nussbaum is not a designer and missed the point.

What Bruce Nussbaum reduced design thinking to was “creativity”, when based on design thinking community conversations, it is about integration. Sibyl Maholy-Nagy stated “Creativity to me, is the rare ability to produce in any given field new constellations form whatever its raw materials may be . . .”  Yet the delta between creativity and integration is large. This glaring misunderstanding demonstrates many gaps between large ideas, models and frameworks and their meaningful practice in actual situations. Based on the interpretative nature of design thinking, two individuals could put into practice the same model and experience different results. To understand “why” there is a lack of evidence-based design and feedback loops on the success of design thinking.

With the rise of social entrepreneurship trends, applying design thinking to social problems where externalities are difficult to identify or control, possibly there could be more room to demonstrate the value of design thinking concepts. This can be seen as a positive alignment, but it can also point to that the world in general is embracing innovative strategies and do not view it as design thinking. The design community has had mixed results being effective facilitators in multi-disciplinary teams.

A large challenge to exploits in design thinking is the sheer diversity of borrowed knowledge that is put under its umbrella. Victor Margolin, a leader in the definition and practice of design studies has articulated the difficulty in defining design due to “design’s inherent multi-disciplinarity has made it hard for a single research community to lay claim to its investigation . . . (which is) ungoverned by any single set of disciplinary values.” Given the diversity of individuals who are in design thinking communities, there are many disciplinary values and languages, without a clear set of statements and tools to frame and practice design thinking. Without an agreed set of core principles that transcend individual and personal opinions and knowledge, design thinking will have inherent weaknesses and a large credibility gap associated with designers and individuals who like the general idea of design thinking.


Is Design Thinking just another way to use critical thinking?

Designers usually focus on artifacts and the process of exploration through media experimentation. While this approach is appropriate for problem solving well understood artifacts and situations, in many others, thinking needs to be separated from making – even for a short period of time.

Critical thinking is a platform that creates a dialogue between “what is” with “what could become.” Motivated by a better future, desired benefits can create criteria for critical thinking to address and validate by balancing intuitive memories with rational definitions to gain new insights. These ideas reinvigorate and expand understanding and create new connections. Critical thinking helps us move beyond individual-centric viewpoints into a framework that can be shared with others.

Critical thinking fulfills five key criteria :

1) Active Listening & Observation
Active listening is concentrating on what is heard and what it could possibly mean. Observation is actively using all the senses to take the current situation in, without immediate judgment.

2) Asking Appropriate Questions
Listening and observing can raise specific or fundamental questions that need to be clarified and implications explored. This is an extension of the Socratic Method, which asks leading questions to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. These questions can be asked during listening and observation to get clarification, or can be asked afterward as a reflective activity. From these questions, one can begin to develop a hypothesis, which is a proposition put forward as a basis for reasoning or argument, without any assumption of its truth.

3) Gathering Relevant Information
Three types of research can be used to further expand understanding. Secondary research is reviewing what others have published; observational research focuses on specific behavioral or physical evidence; and ethnographic research focuses on larger cultural issues that give meaning to behaviors and artifacts.

4) Efficiently and Creatively Sorting Information
Listening, observing, questions and research amasses many data points that may not be immediately relevant or even connect together. It may cause confusion and stress due to new ambiguities that cannot be resolved. From research activities, one can clarify speculative ideas by comparing original assumptions with research data to create information that can be clustered together to tell an emerging story.

5) Connecting Information to Experience to Create New Insights
Intuition is the sum total of all personal experiences (primary and secondary) and needs to be linked with rational models of proof that transcend personal meaning into transferable insights that a larger group can build upon. Insights can come from a theory or framework, which is a systematic statement of rules or principles to be followed; they can be used to make predictions; they can’t be proven true, but can be made false.

Critical thinking is a framework and approach to exploring and developing relevant individual and group insights and can provide specifications for action. These can either inform how an artifact is created, or embed an artifact with additional narratives that inform users how to value and use it. Proponents of design thinking may quibble with such a basic armature of a more sophisticated idea. However some of the greatest concepts could be reduced to simple truths that could be easily communicated, even if the concept could not be directly easily observed.


Next Steps

In thinking about design thinking, the core ideas of what makes the concept compelling and the many challenges it faces moving forward collide with one another. Moving past the compelling into a structured approach will be the main challenge to design thinking communities if they want to have credibility outside the community and into mainstream society. While ideas don’t know what discipline they are in, but are usually associated with people in disciplines, design thinking needs to move past cacophonous diversity and towards a unity of purpose.

There will be a conference “DesignThinking unConference” in Vancouver which will bring together many Design Thinking LinkedIn members. I am hoping that a core outcome from this gathering will be an agreed upon armature and shared language that can then be built upon.

From my perspective there are six key skills that work as an integrated system which productive people should possess in the 21st century:

1) good formal skills (to express)
2) ability to collaborate (to share)
3) understanding of basic research skills (to verify)
4) development and application of critical thinking skills (to connect)
5) facilitation skills (to bridge)
6) innovation skills (to envision)

Together, these six skills allow for productive and adaptable people to lead and/or collaborate with others on a wide variety of contemporary challenges – by design. Attributes of design thinking, or greater tools, methods, and protocols to support design thinking would be of great help in these collaborations.

When Victor Margolin reviewed this post, he stated ” . . . design thinking should have some product in the end, no matter how material or immaterial. Critical thinking need not.” I agree with this statement and further that design thinking needs to have utility value beyond the individual that applies it to a situation. And an organization needs to find the process of design thinking integral to the end response and desired outcomes and benefits. Otherwise design thinking will be viewed as a distraction.

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Published by
6 years ago