OK, I take it back. Well, some of it anyway. In June, 2010, I posted an essay on Core77 entitled "Design Thinking: A Useful Myth." (Got a lot of responses, that one did.) Since my essay was posted, I keep encountering people who jump to solutions and who fail to question assumptions—engineers, business people, and yes, designers (and design students). These encounters made me reconsider. I observed design students who were acting mindlessly, simply doing their assignments as presented. No creativity, no imagination, no questioning. That's not what design thinking is about. As a result, I have changed my mind: Design Thinking really is special. Alas, it isn't embraced by all designers, but where it exists, it is powerful. However, if we call this "design thinking," then shouldn't all designers do it? I am here to say that I now have rethought my position. I still stand by the major points of the earlier essay, but I have changed the conclusion. As a result, the essay should really be titled: Design Thinking: An Essential Tool. Let me explain.I've spent the last few months pondering the way designers work while I was hidden away, revising my book The Design of Everyday Things (DOET). The book is 25 years old, and although the fundamental principles described within it are unchanged, the examples were so much out of date that they referred to technologies today's young generation of students have never experienced (phonograph, typewriter, slide projector, etc.). Moreover, design has changed a lot in the past 25 years and I, myself, have changed with it. When I wrote the book, I was an academic teaching in a department of cognitive science and did not call myself a designer. Today, I do (proudly) call myself a designer. Moreover, I am now experienced in the world of business. All these changes have informed the revision of DOET. In particular, I added two new chapters: one on design methods, the other on the reality of design practice in the world of business. Design methods. Hmm. I originally called the design methods chapter "Human-Centered Design." But the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of design thinking. Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example by using the "Five Whys" approach to get at root causes). Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don't try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called "Design Thinking." Design thinking. Hmm. I decided it was time to rethink my position. I re-read my essay and all the many comments to it, most of them on the Core77 location, but some at other places as well. As before, I found the responses interesting (although some people didn't realize that I am (always) intentionally provocative). Design thinking has been the subject of an incredible number of articles and books. What is it? Opinions vary, but I like the description given by my colleague Bill Moggridge in his essay arguing against my position: seven paragraphs, plus diagram. (Alas, Bill died in September, 2012.) Although I still stick to my major point that design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators have practiced it—I now do believe that designers have a special claim to it. Design thinking has become the hallmark of the modern designer and design studios. Two powerful tools of design thinking summarize the approach: the British Design Council's "Double-Diamond, Diverge-Converge Model of Design"; and the iterative process of Observation, Ideation, Prototype, and Test called "Human-Centered Design." Of course, there is more to design thinking than what is described by the double-diamond or the iterative cycle of HCD. One has to do with a deep understanding of the people for whom the product is intended, which means observation—not questionnaires, not focus groups, but observation and deep empathy with the target users. Another is ongoing experimentation—continual sketching, testing and trying out concepts and ideas. Another is the process of critiquing, whether of one's own work or of others. And yet another is the emphasis on questioning: question the problem, question the assumptions and implications. What should this collection of techniques be called? Design thinking, perhaps? So, OK, I admit it. There is something special about design thinking. I was correct in my original article: what we call design thinking is practiced in some form or other by all great thinkers, whether in literature or art, music or science, engineering or business. But the difference is that in design, there is an attempt to teach it as a systematic, practice-defining method of creative innovation. It is intended to be the normal way of proceeding, not the exception. The Power of Stupid Questions One of my concerns has been design education, where the focus has been centered too much upon craft skills and too little on gaining a deeper understanding of design principles, of human psychology, technology and society. As a result, designers often attempt to solve problems about which they know nothing. I have also come to believe that in such ignorance lies great power: The ability to ask stupid questions. What is a stupid question? It is one which questions the obvious. "Duh," thinks the audience, "this person is clueless." Well, guess what, the obvious is often not so obvious. Usually it refers to some common belief or practice that has been around for so long that it has not been questioned. Once questioned, people stammer to explain: sometimes they fail. It is by questioning the obvious that we make great progress. This is where breakthroughs come from. We need to question the obvious, to reformulate our beliefs, and to redefine existing solutions, approaches, and beliefs. That is design thinking. Ask the stupid question. People who know a lot about a field seldom think to question the fundamentals of their knowledge. People from outside the discipline do question it. Many times their questions simply reveal a lack of knowledge, but that is OK, that is how to acquire the knowledge. And every so often, the question sparks a basic and important reconsideration. Hurrah for Design Thinking I close by quoting Moggridge: the last paragraph of his reply to my original piece:
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. (Moggridge, 2010.)
So three cheers for design thinking, for those practitioners and schools that are using these techniques, that encourage breakthrough thinking, and that encourage asking the stupid question. Not all schools teach design thinking in this way. Not all students learn it. Not all designers practice it. But for those who do teach, learn and practice all of the techniques of design thinking, it can be transformative.
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So how could designers, collaborating using effective design thinking, solve our biggest and most challenging problems in the world today - climate change, poverty, education, water - i.e. all the things which mean our society is clearly not sustainable?
Some designers, like myself and MIT scholar John Ehrenfeld (author of Sustainability by Design) are already working on these problems. Not just at the product and UX level - but at larger levels of organizational design, process design, business model design. How do design principles, such as the ones you espouse, work in this context?
I believe your work and John's could be highly mutually supportive in accelerating the use of design thinking to help achieve John's definition of sustainability: "the possibility that human and other life might flourish forever".
As a result of a recently blog post of mine (http://blog.edwardjames.biz/2013/03/collaborating-designers.html) John Ehrenfeld has now read your most recent book "living with complexity" and would be interested in a dialogue (see the comments he posted on the blog entry)
Are you game?
Warm regards, looking forward to the 2013 DOET - my 1990 copy is looking very dog eared from use!
Sustainability Business Architect
if the right tool is for the right job...then as you lay out conceptually.... Design is in some serious need of thought;)
Design as a medium... clearly has some ID problems.;)
Your ideas have guided me since the beginning. A challenge after my own 25 years of practice has been maintaining a healthy, ignorant approach to each new problem. Your article reminds me how important this is, and refreshes my resolve to continue working in this way. And the courage you display by honestly readdressing your own ideas and continuing to seek truth in design is refreshing in today's know-it-all world. Your humility is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I agree with Bill's comment that most people do not yet understand the value of Design Thinking and Roger Martin's view that those future organizations that can harness abductive reasoning through Design Thinking will have a competitive business advantage and are more likely to design useful products, services and experiences.
then again why think when apple/autosesk/abode or google will do it for you.;) and that sadly ,truly has been the larger 25 year truth for the "designers thinking".
Virtualizing the workplace and time management challenges still hamper design thinking taking root in many organizations.
The design process described by so many is what others (notably kolb) identified some time ago as the learning process.
That this process is not always present in organisations won't come as a surprised to a lot of us who still see the so called learning organisation as an elusive concept in many of today's corporations.
This is in no way a criticism of designers who have managed to make a concept resonate far better than many psychologists had (which I guess is a good thing given their job is to make things resonate). It is just meant as a thought to add to discussions.
Thank you as always for provoking thinking in others and your continued work.
It's always refreshing to follow the way you fearlessly challenge your own ideas, as well as those of others.
While Design Thinking proved the most potent pitch of design to business in history, I'm not a fan—although I do think the best designers do have something very special to offer.
Never mind the woolliness of its many definitions, design thinkers have struggled to deliver on their overblown promises in practice. Former evangelists like Bruce Nussbaum have distanced themselves from the idea—calling it a 'failed experiment'.
A pioneering client of Design Thinking in the UK is Geoff Mulgan—one time advisor to Tony Blair—who experimented with design for social innovation, and now warns of design becoming the 'fad that failed'. He gives a few reasons why, including a process essentially developed for product design being over stretched to a wide range of applications. He also fingers designers' naivety in the fields they often tackle under the guise of Design Thinking. For him asking stupid questions, have hit designer's credibility in the real world. Definitely worth a read:
Let the debate roll...
I re-read the old essay and comments. This strikes a real chord with me, as it is something I have given much of my thinking to since being in school as an undergrad in the late 70's. After nearly 30 years in the field I am only now finding out what I am both good at and what I enjoy. And its two things, and they are seemingly opposites, but in reality they are much the same. I love the "thinking" part, the: "iterative process of Observation, Ideation, Prototype, and Test."
I design and build interactive exhibits for museums, so the other thing I do is the "nuts and bolts" of how do we make this concept come to life and function. In reality I see them as one in the same.
I do however see a very large void in both these areas amongst designers. I find half formed concepts that have never been vetted out in the real world and a lack of understanding of physical and mechanical properties of how the final thing would work. This is honestly not meant as a tirade of "nobody knows anything anymore." Yet...too often I have been part of projects where an idea just keep getting moved along by momentum of deadlines and in the end everyone stands back and wonders "what happened?"
What happened is exactly your point, no one asked the stupid questions, no one observed, idea-ted, tested and prototyped.
Finally...I have long thought that the "thinking" part is not exclusive to designers, or that it should not be anyway. My wife is a professor in the sciences and through much discussion over the years shares much of my thoughts about "design" thinking. We started these discussions because I was shocked to find that many of her scientist colleagues had no sense of that whatsoever. They are so narrowed down in their research that it appears they have lost the ability to open up and look around. I have this idea to develop a workshop to teach "Design Thinking" for scientists.
In my own career I have struggled with that I know I have the grasp on the "thinking" part...but have been overshadowed by those that were better "designers" if you know what I mean. And its hard to show a portfolio of "good thinking."
BTW DOET was one of my favorites books, I'd walk around telling anyone who might listen,"see, THIS is what I mean"
Thanks for the update on your thoughts,