. . . this column is a response to your post of June 25th, titled, Design Thinking: A Useful Myth? I believe in the utility of design thinking, but reject the idea that it is mythical. Thank you for triggering this rich discussion, with over fifty comments. You always find a way of arguing a case with enough controversy to wake us up and generate responses, but I think your idea of "myth" is in itself only a half-truth.
Design thinking harnesses the power of intuition. It is a process, evolved gradually by designers of all kinds, which can be applied to create solutions to problems. People of any background can use it, whether or not they think of themselves as designers. It uses the subconscious as well as the conscious mind, subjective as well as objective thinking, tacit knowledge as well as explicit knowledge, and embraces learning by doing. I like the analogy of an iceberg that has just a little ice above water level, with a vast mass submerged. Rigorous explicit thinking, of the kind encouraged in institutions of higher learning, limits people to conscious thinking and hence to using just a tiny proportion of the potential in their minds - like the ice above the water. The design thinking process allows us to follow our intuition, valuing the sensibilities and insights that are buried in our subconscious - like the ice below the water. This process is capable of generating solutions to complex problems, developing subtle qualities, and helping us move towards better solutions to "wicked problems." If we try to solve these problems with explicit thinking alone, our heads hurt and we are unable to respond holistically.
There's more to design than design thinking. As you said in the Epilog to your book "Emotional Design," "We are all designers. We manipulate the environment, the better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, arrange, and restructure: all this is a form of design. When consciously, deliberately rearranging objects on our desks, the furniture in our living rooms, and the things we keep in our cars, we are designing." When someone chooses what to wear, how to decorate their home or layout their garden, they are exercising skills of general design awareness. It is about how to choose rather than how to generate new design solutions. Everyone makes design choices, but that doesn't imply that they are fully-fledged designers or design thinkers.People achieve greater sophistication when they become specialist designers, learning how to design with fluency and expertise. Professional designers know how to create new solutions, based on a synthesis of all the relevant constrains. They have mastered specialist design skills, making them expert at deciding how a design can be formed, and how to create an elegant solution to the problem posed by the constraints. Most design education focuses on teaching these specialist design skills, whether the design discipline is industrial design, interaction design, architecture, graphic design, web design, or more craft based disciplines like ceramic or jewelry design. Designers learn processes that are successful in responding to the subtleties of people's needs and desires. We learn by doing, assembling a rich and intuitive understanding of restraints, knowing how to create alternatives, developing representations and building prototypes, evaluating solutions and choosing directions, rejecting unsuccessful solutions and trying another cycle of the process.
Here's a diagram that summarizes this iterative approach. The dark arrows show the general tendency to repeat the steps in more than a single iteration, but every project is different, demanding a unique version of the general methodology. The green line shows a specific example, illustrating that each project deserves its own version of the process (You can download a pdf here that describes the steps, including a credit and photo of you, Don). All of the design disciplines share a process something like this. It varies somewhat between architecture or industrial design at one end and jewelry or ceramic design at the other, but the main iterative structure is always there. Both logical thinking and intuitive inspirations are essential for successful results in the process, but that is not what we mean when we apply the recently popular "Design Thinking" label. Design Thinking describes the application of this kind of process to challenging problems, usually by teams of people from varied backgrounds, allowing them to benefit from the generative power of the methodology without having to explain it. They can come up with solutions instead of bullet pointed instructions. They can see and feel tangible results, try them out, discover the failings in particular solutions and move on to another better version.
This interdisciplinary design thinking is especially valuable for deciding what to do in the first place, so that the power of intuitive creative processes can be harnessed to stimulate innovation, solve difficult problems and develop new opportunities. Teams can use design thinking to respond to the challenges posed by complex digital technology, systems, services, global connectivity, or the need for social innovation. They can collaborate so that the output from the shared mind is more productive than the sum of individual contributions.
Team members are likely to come from the design disciplines that derive from expertise about people, such as ergonomics, psychology, anthropology, industrial design, interaction design and graphic design. They will also come from the technical design disciplines, such as computer science, materials science, mechanical and manufacturing engineering. People from non-design disciplines may also contribute to the projects, typically those with business and brand backgrounds, as well as writers, storytellers and prototype developers, for physical, digital and video prototypes.
The "Design Thinking" label is not a myth. It is 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. I welcome the recognition of the term and hope that its use continues to expand and be more universally understood, so that eventually every leader knows how to use design and design thinking for innovation and better results.
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