Design Thinking.

There are many interpretations and approaches towards DT. It's actually ridiculous. Collectively, DT is a term that can incorporate anything you want in it. The more I look into it - the more I think it's just another attempt to explain the old age question of 'well.. what is design' ?

Why am I blogging about this? because I want to be able to articulate an appropriate reply when people ask me what 'Design Thinking' is, instead of just rolling my eyes.

Firstly, the origins of the term (in it's most widely used/POPular instance)

DT's origins spring from IDEO and is geared towards bringing design into business. We can thank Tim Brown for the buzzword (which some now claim is a meme)

From a distance one could say it's about big corporations incorporating 'creativity' into their 'mindset'. At closer inspection it is about enhancing value creation and response time (innovation), so that business' can adapt to changing user needs and trends. One of the advantages DT brings in an emphasis on the user, a humanness - and a fairly analytical way of incorporating this element.

It comes down to value. and values. "To respond to external change is to innovate. To innovate, businesses must have the capacity to design. The vision of DT is to fuse design internally within the organization to create a culture that fosters creative thinking and actions with design methods and tools designers use." (J. Tjendra)

Now I don't know too much about value creation. But in shifting the role of design in business from noun to verb businesses hope to gain a competitive advantage that will impact bottom line and drive growth. Design thinking is meant to compliment existing value management capability.
Apparently design thinking is 'special' in it's capacity to be "able to produce new values in ambiguity where there was never a concrete set of predictable process." (Tjendra)

This leads to my biggest criticism of IDEO's  DT and why it ultimately does not and will not work or be easily adopted. Design is not linear, clean or purely analytical. It cannot be taught in a hour, a day, a week, or a year, and the thinking behind it certainly cannot.

Even if you come up with a generalised best practice model that includes iteration, there is no one universal method that will suit every context.  Changing the variables based on context effects the overall design framework, furthermore this happens during the design process, and the designer must have the skill to react to this, constantly changing the way they work.

It's like trying to fit a fat kid into a small suit. One size does not fit all. The Design method must be based on and reactive to your content (this is why there are so many different methods people!) The process may be bottom up or top down or a combination of both. There's an interplay between top and bottom, they inform each other. IDEOs DT is largely bottom up, and doesn't include the complex flexibility necessary in allowing the top structure to be realised.

IDEO'S DT reflects a larger issue within modernism and the concept of a universal design, it seems like since FOREVER design has wanted to 'design design' from the Bauhaus to IDEO. The idea of a pure process which is free or error and subjectivity - is bullshit. Why do we feel like we have to legitimise our existence?

Design is no quick fix.

"Interest within business schools in how designers 'go about' engaging with problems pre-dates the economic crisis (eg Boland and Collopy 2004) but rests on the idea that established ways of thinking about managing and organizing are not adequate to dealing with a fluid business environment (Tsoukas and Chia 2002), let alone any number of global challenges from climate change, to resource inequality, to peak oil." (Kimbell) I can recognise the quest for innovation by the adoption of a creative class who have a privileged place within contemporary capitalism, additionally I am critical of this quest.

I agree with Stefanie when she blogs "There is money to be made off design thinking right now, and many are trying to cash in on the fad. I use the word ‘fad’ here because design thinking, throughout this recent wave, has been supported purely by hype than strong empirical evidence. It is safe to say that we can thank IDEO for popularising, or rather, realising and advertising the potential in this new form of development. Since IDEO pushed design thinking into the forefront of innovation, practitioners, academics, scholars, professors and designers have all crawled out of the woodwork to claim their piece of the design thinking pie. It has resulted in a royal mess, with arguments thrown about by every tom, dick and his dog as to why design thinking is or is not associated with design." (S. Russo)

More than IDEO? How designers design. Exploring the etymology of DT.

There is a lot of research on how designers deisging. What began as the design methods movement (Jones 1970; Buchanan and Margolin 1995) gradually shifted towards investigations in design thinking (Cross 1982);  researchers sought to understand the processes and methods by which (successful) designers went about design activity.  This exploration also lead them to study the nature of design problems in more depth. Kimbell and others suggest that "to understand how design thinking emerged, we need to understand how design is understood in different stages of history".

Sorry to all you design nerds out there but I am going to actively avoid giving you a history on design methods. Because it would take too long, and also because I'm not convinced it holds much connection to how DT is understood today. This is because I sense that people are looking back in order to justify or give meaning to the term.

There's something in this mode of thinking that just doesn't gell with me... The way DT arose I'd argue is not inclusive of history in the first place. Just sayin'. Prove me wrong.

I did however, come across a thought provoking blog site by a PHD student at Swinbourne who is studying DT. I do respect how she owns her own historical approach to the topic (always historicize design!) I recommend that you read her brief history of design thinking. More than defining where the recent 'DT' term comes from per se (and debating it's semantics) Stefanie instead uses the term as a framework (or lens) mapping and correlating through time, up to today.
I can't say I agree with her approach but it is helpful, more than anything, in highlighting the historical struggle and meaning making of design practice.

The etymology of DT is fragmented, it includes: 'the history of design', 'thinking', 'how designers think' and 'thinking about design'  - geeze -  People have focussed on one, or have conveniently conflated these aspects. As Rylander (2009) points out, it’s hard enough understanding design and thinking, let alone design thinking.

It is said that other than IDEO the term became popular in the 1980s at institutions like Stanford and MIT, others highlight the 1960s claiming it began to evolve from participatory design (where the user's needs are an integral part of the design process itself, not an afterthought).

So, below is a bit on DT as understood within the design field.

On what designers do:

  • 1971 Christopher Alexander argues that design is about giving form, organization and order to physical things.
  • Herbert Simon - “design” of human action in the realm of the artificial. “what ought to be” contrasted with the sciences which are concerned with “what is”. Focus on problem solving.
  • 1970 Jones -  Changing how a problem was thought about in order to develop a new solution.
  • Donald Schön introduced the idea of framing and making moves when problem-solving during professionals’ reflection-in-action (Schön 1983).
  • Peter Rowe’s Design Thinking, (1987) “procedural aspects of design thinking,” including descriptions of the design process, and then introducing generalized principles. 1) Design professionals have an episodic way of approaching their work; they rely on hunches and presuppositions, not just facts. 2) The nature of the problem-solving process itself shapes the solution.
  • Nigel Cross, “designerly ways of knowing.” Design as solution-focused  (1982; 2006). Problems and solutions co-evolve. Abductive reasoning.
  • Dorst (2006) understanding of a problem shifts during a design process, designers should construct designs that transcend or connect paradoxes.
  • Burnette (2009) describes different kinds of thinking within a design process. One focus has been to discern different levels of expertise among designers, from novices to visionaries (Lawson and Dorst 2009).

"In short, while there has been a sustained effort to understand and describe what professional designers do in their design work, this has not yet generated a definitive or historically-informed account of design thinking, nor any explanation for why they might have a particular cognitive style." (Kimbell) (I'm quoting Kimbell a lot as it's one of the only half decent critical articles on DT I found)

Defining design:

  • Buchanan’s (1992) paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” is seminal. He shifted design theory from craft and industrial production towards a more diffused “design thinking.” The concept was that DT could be applied to nearly anything, object or system. "Drawing on Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, Buchanan sees design as a liberal art, uniquely well-placed to serve the needs of a technological culture in which many kinds of things are designed, and human problems are complex. For Buchanan the designer brings a unique way of looking at problems and finding solutions. Design practitioners tend to work on: signs, things, actions, and thoughts. This version of design thinking is less concerned with individual designers and how they design, but rather seeks to define design’s role in the world." (Kimbell)
  • Rylander (2009) is also pragmatic, concluding that Dewey’s work on aesthetic experience is a way to explore designers’ skills in detail.

As Stefanie states on her blog "Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the simply proves that design thinking has a history. " (If you choose to define DT that way)

or things we all need to work through.

Generalisation simplification and myth making (a narrow funnel):

  • Design thinking is western and privileged.  What of india, japan..lower socio economic solutions? This is where a lot of innovation actually occurs - for example, disaster zones. 
  • What influence does culture have? The idea of a generalized design thinking ignores the diversity of designers’ practices and institutions which are historically situated.
  • What philosophy are we taking? are we thinking nominally, universally are are we design realists?What do we believe about design, and what are our beliefs based on? Design as a universal must acknowledge its awkward position. "The problem of universals is itself a universal, the universal problem of accounting for the relationships between mind, language, and reality"
  • Taught DT can, paradoxically, lead to a predictable and less creative outcome.
  • The hyped expectations and assumptions of DT are simplified and therefor unrealistic.
  • The history of design is not linear and cannot be neatly bundled into 'stages'. Design is complex to grasp, springing from multiple histories rather than from a single track - design history is iterative and socially constructed.
  • The Paradox of structure has not been considered. (Whatever its nature, any structure is both enabling and limiting at the same time) what would the structure of DT as a phenomenon look like?
  • DT implies a 'quick fix', this is not the reality especially with Wicked problems.
  • How does failure actually fit into DT ? if DT is continually made out to be a saviour, how are people going to react - say if it doesn't work? how can we be honest as designers in respect to failure when we hardly ever highlight it ourselves in our own practice?
  • Statements like this: "The most successful businesses in the years to come will balance analytic mastery and intuitive originality in a dynamic interplay ... called design thinking" from the book, The Design of Business, by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
  • "Organisations initially cannot comprehend the nature of creatives. Designer's creative process and mindset are too ambiguous, messy and unpredictable for businesses to follow and embed as part of their organisational process" (J. Tjendra).
  • From the moment we start to 'define' creativity it seems to loose it's spark.

Design Ego:

  • If we restrict DT to only the design field then we are neglecting the true interdisciplinary nature of design.
  • What is designer-centricity and how can we attribute it to our understanding of DT?
  • We need to be sure we are not just duplicating what has already been written about in other subject areas. For example, Applied Creativity has its own history beginning in the modern age around 1940. 
  • How can we objectively evaluate ourselves?
  • Design thinking rests on theories of design that privilege the designer as the main agent in designing. This is arguable and has implications especially in co-creation. 

DT as apolotical:

  • DT threatens to turn design into a ford-esque mindset. Concern with design’s place in the world and thus with larger social or political questions is lost when design is mobilised within a managerialist framework. As Sam Ladner (2009) puts it: “Design is attractive to management because it is a de-politicised version of the well known socio-cultural critique of managerial practices.” Let's not pretend - design is political. design is not objective.

Lack of evidence:

  • The biggest problem I see (that is conveniently unaddressed) is the lack of evidence for design thinking. Or what design thinking is not.
  • How is DT (cognitively) different from other forms of thinking? Perhaps DT is simply critical thinking within a design framework. If so, let's call it that. Some studies, for example, suggest that medics exhibit qualities associated with design thinking (Kimbell) Such assertions implicitly undermine design’s claim to uniqueness (Cross 2010).
  • "Researchers who focus on the individual designer and his or her cognitive style rarely study the world within which the designer works (cf Bourdieu 1977). Such researchers usually cultivate objective rather than subjective knowledge; moreover, their research assumes there are clear boundaries between the designer and the world s/he is in; further, the researcher is construed as remaining outside this world. These studies describe what designers do and trace how their thinking develops in the course of a project, but they often ignore key aspects of the designer’s world. For example, several studies of design thinking as a cognitive style rely on protocol analysis based on recording and then analysing what designers say about what they are doing.  This is usually monitored during an artificial exercise in which the designers are given a problem to solve. While these studies may produce interesting findings, this approach sometimes presents a version of design thinking as a simple form of information processing with inputs and outputs (eg Badke-Schaub et al 2010)"(Kimbell)
  • "Design thinking can be presented as a process that is supposedly applied to an organisation (eg Brown 2009), though this approach never clarifies how easy it is to import it from one context to another"(Kimbell)
  • We need research and evidence on what it is, in fact, that makes design thinking ‘successful’.
  • Creativity, no matter what pseduo-research is out there, cannot be measured observed or verified as a 'particular' phenomenon. I am increasingly thinking that what we know as creativity is actually more of a socio-cultural practice more-so than a cognitive one.  The neuro-centricity is narrowing academias pursuit towards truth. 
  • Design is spoken about as a process. So what exactly is this process and how is it designerly or not? Right now, we are fighting between using designers logic to express this process and the general logic of man (which is essentially hard to define). We have to point to a source and say: ‘that is what design is about’ and this is where all other disciplines have a say. (S. Russo)

Experience, time, embodiment and constructivism:

  • The design method is fluid and learnt through experience. We learn by going through a design process over and over and over again. It is professional practice. This, simply, cannot be passed over in a model for business to adopt. The higher order thinking that a designer works on takes a lifetime on to learn. DT is developed over time, this becomes intuitive as a designer becomes more experienced and confident in their practice and risk. Design Thinking is an embodied skill.
  • We need to look at  designers’ ways of working over previous decades, and even within their lifetime. How does expertise shape DT?
  • Explaining DT is tricky with limp empirical support (data) it's hard to justify a shift in process which ultimately can effect an organisational culture. Additionally, without an effective primer for what people are getting themselves in for there can be all sorts of teamwork issues and anti-design patterns in play. 
  • On what principles is it based? How different is it to other kinds of professional knowledge? Do all designers exhibit it? What are its effects within the worlds where design takes place? How can it be taught? What of DT and pedagogy? 

Philosophy / mixing subjectivity with objectivity:

  • Is DT external or internal? If internal, we cannot distinguish the result of 'design thinking' rather than just 'thinking' itself. The internal and external are not a dichotomy, they are interrelated their interaction is accountable to years of research into perception, constructivism, social theory and mind/body philosophies to mention a few. though interrelated, Internal thinking and external process are not interchangeable terms. Yet from what I have read on DT these two ARE being used interchangeably, with an assumption that thinking and doing are the same thing.
  • Many accounts on DT seem to rely on this dualism between thinking and knowing, and acting in the world. We are currently stuck at the cross road of defining design thinking as a designerly logic possessed by designers, or as a fundamental process towards desired goals. There are important differences in the underlying ways the world is understood and what can be known about it.

There are a diversity of approaches and no clear description of design thinking.  Just what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood, either by the public or those who claim to practice it.

From my limited foray into the subject, these are the numerous definitions I have gleaned, which I've categorised into 4 areas. This is my attempt at dissecting the messy polysemy that is DT. And yes these views do compete with each other. And yes it is a mess.

1) The thinking which drives the design process:

  • How designers think or the cognitive style of designers during the design process.
  • Pivot thinking (switching between divergent and convergent thinking ' the neuroscience of design') (Scharr).
  • The combination of divergent and convergent thinking- creative cognition.
  • Higher order thinking (Buchanan).
  • Systems thinking, Holistic thinking, Critical thinking.

2) A way to make sense and unify design discourse in the 21st C: 

  • A framework to analyse the history of design discourse (based on practice).
  • An umbrella term to unify design methods and movements.
  • A term to encompass 'user-centred', 'service' and 'human-centred' design.
  • An attempt to bind art, science and design (design as an interdisciplinary glue)
  • An approach rather than a description of a set of methods. (A way of describing what design is) - A theory.
  • The study on innovation and strategy (models, schematics, exercises and frameworks)
  • The iterative process of Observation, Ideation, Prototype, and Testing.
  • A description of the application of well-tried design process to new challenges and opportunities, used by people from both design and non-design backgrounds
  • 'Outside-in' approaches to design.
  • A reaction to co-created design practice.

3) The wider democratisation of design as a 'mindset' and transferable skill set:
(or aka the managerial discourse)

  • Design process methods that are developed to improve and extend design to other areas of practice.
  • The application of a design process towards a system, environment or complex problem.
  • A sharable staged design process for business.
  • Problem solving (especially 'Wicked') (Buchanan, Rittel).
  • The act of teaching and applying a design method to a lay person, group or organisation.
  • A business and marketing strategy (A way to package, market and sell 'design')
  • A popular fad.
  • Prioritising the iterative (prototyping and failure)
  • Aims for a 'breakthrough'
  • IDEO practices "We’ve collected … success stories …(and) linked these organisational achievements to specific methodologies and tools you can use to bring innovation into your own organisation” (Kelley).
  • “A methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human‐ centred design ethos.” (Brown).
  • A way for managers managers to “get” design (thinking about how design works).

4) Design self reflexivity:

  • A self reflection tool for designers.
  • A way of differentiating 'designerly' ways from other ways of doing things.
  • Academic construction of the professional designer’s practice.
  • Theoretical reflections on how to interpret and characterise the designer’s practice (Schon 1983:78‐79).
  • "Community amounts to a self‐reflective reproduction of the design profession.” (Krippendorf).
  • A 'mindset' (A way of reasoning/making sense of things (Bryan Lawson/ Nigel Cross)
  • Thinking about how we enact design method/s.

Gala says: Let's look at DT, critically,
as a reflection on the state of design today.

So, I ask myself after reflecting a bit on design history, Where is design at now? Designers from all walks of life as a community are asking this question, just as I am now, in order to situate who we are and what we do. Why? because design is and always has been a non-linear inter-disciplinary practice, an in an increasingly connected world, it's becoming more common practice. Design should not and does not exist on its own. The thing is, describing the workings of inter-disciplinary practice is challenging - especially if that's what you are, actually, designing.

What is new, is what we are designing for. We are increasingly designing systems and experiences, narratives and journeys. Way finding. Sense making. Services as well as things. Sure, this has always been happening, but it used to be more of a by-product of design rather than the central focus.

As we shift into a more complex, connected and knowledge driven economy driven by the so-called Creative Class and the “New Spirit” of Capitalism we shift from hierarchies to networks and from bureaucratic discipline to team-work and multi-skilling (Kimbell) (Apparently) capitalism is absorbing its critiques and remaking itself  -  The introduction of DT is part of this, whether it's a marketing facade (think of 'green' strategies) or a genuine attempt to care about people - creating sustainable and positive social change, is arguable on a case by case basis.

I agree with Stephanie in her latest conclusions in her blog "Design thinking shapes multidisciplinary design practice, and is also shaped by practice (See Gumienny et al. 2010, p.246). This adds more weight to the ideology that the characteristics of design thinking may be transitory and that the designerly approach evolves with new and emerging areas of human concern"

Academically there appears to be a movement to rethink design thinking (I know right, could this whole thing get anymore confusing?) Kimbell (2011) suggests "attending to the situated, embodied routines of designers and others offers a useful way to rethink design thinking" Hang on a minute, isn't this a backwards step? I see what Kimbell is getting at though, the concept of DT has become so conceptual that people are seeking a more grounded approach.,I'm just not convinced if looking at designers themselves is the right way to go about it.

It seems DT is destined to get caught in great reflective circle. I am drawn towards DT and then repelled from it. Like a moth to a flame. The academic in me recognises the popularity of DT and therefore something I should know about - but the pragmatist in me recoils - seeing it's a self reflective, vain attempt of the field of design to somehow verify itself and its importance.

My prediction is that we will start seeing a lot of case studies using the DT term rather than 'design methods', and that these papers will be published in various disciplines rather than just design studies. "Design thinking has captured the imagination of practitioners and educators in a range of fields; this widespread interest leads to a discussion of design based more on anecdotes and claims than theoretically or empirically robust arguments" This is OK, but now we need to improve. Interdisciplinary research is rad, let's properly acknowledge other fields. Design has matured, it's time we step out of our shell and accept that design is an ecology. We absorb like sponges, and that this is in fact more than OK, it is fabulous, it makes design diverse, holistic and empathetic and tangible.

Main Refs:
Rethinking design thinking Part I, Lucy Kimbell.
I think therefore I design, Stefanie Di Russo.
The Origins of Design Thinking, Jeffrey Tjendra.

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