Design Thinking is trending is some educational circles. Edutopia recently ran a design thinking for educators workshop and I attended two great workshops at SXSWedu 2013 on Design Thinking:
Design Thinking is a great skill for students to acquire as part of their education. But it is one process like the problem-solving model or the scientific method.
I just read about a fascinating new study* that examined 56 people who went on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. Of the 56 people, 24 took a creativity test before they left for the trip. The other 32 took the test out in the wilderness, on the fourth day of the trip...after four days disconnected from the grid.
I've just spent two stimulating days with a small group of architects, university professors, and creativity researchers, at a beautiful old lakeside estate called Marigold Lodge, in Western Michigan. Our goal: To collect everything we know about how to design spaces that maximize learning and foster creativity. With funding from the Sloan Foundation and from the legendary furniture company Herman Miller (which now owns Marigold Lodge), our task is to write a report that will advise university administrations and architecture firms, to guide how new university buildings are designed.
William Storage 11 Jun 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society
Design Thinking is getting a new life. We should bury it instead. Here's why.
Its Humble Origins
In 1979 Bruce Archer, the great mechanical engineer and professor at the Royal College of Art, wrote in a Design Studies paper,
"There exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems."
Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet.
Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:
Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!
This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.
What’s in a name?
The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.
However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.
Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.
To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s book, The Leopard: ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
What happens next?
But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.
It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.
Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?
If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?
The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.
To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).
What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.
Design thinking is a concept that has gained much purchase in the creative industries and beyond, but what does it mean and does it matter? Determining an answer to this question might mean the difference between advancing it further or ending the concept’s use altogether.
The Latin form of the question of “what is design thinking?”, quid nunc cogitat?, asks about what is design thinking now? It implies a sense that design thinking is a moveable, dynamic concept and might better illustrate its true nature than trying to develop a singular definition.
I’ve been struck by the concept of design thinking for some time and this week I began a two-year journey towards a Masters degree in design at OCAD University in Toronto where the concept will be placed at the centre of the curriculum. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first course of the program is Business and Design Thinking. This was the first week of classes and after spending a few days with my classmates it might be expected that this group of mid-career professionals interested in design thinking might have a clear idea of what it is that sits at the centre of their studies, but that hasn’t been the case.
Nor was it the case a few weeks ago at the Design Thinking unconference that I posted on earlier where people from across North America (and beyond) gathered to spend two days discussing the subject. It seems that no matter where I look, whatever books I read, the answer to the question of what is design thinking seems elusive. All these design thinkers and no definition to unite them.
The simplest answer to the question of what it is might be : it is what designers think about when they work.
And a designer might be: anyone who creates something with a conscious intent.
While these might suffice for cocktail parties, they are unsatisfying to those of us who seek to explore the concept of design thinking further than the hors d’oeuvre tray.
Among the best examples of what design thinking is about are conveyed through metaphors, like the Periodic Table of Design (twice!) or the design enzyme, both by social designer Andrea Yip. Roger Martin and others have considered design thinking to be a form of abductive reasoning around complex problem solving. Richard Buchanan suggests that this is the kind of thinking that is applied to wicked problems.
These examples either illustrate the concepts in specific terms or generalized ways of thinking, but do not in themselves provide a definition of design thinking. It seems we are very good at delineating the key elements of design thinking (Andrea Yip), the ways of approaching design problems (Roger Martin) or defining the types of problems that design thinking works best at addressing (see Richard Buchanan), but we are less good at saying what it is.
Perhaps we are left with the paradoxical answer and question posed by Faith No More
What is it? It’s it.
Sudhir Desai has argued that we need terms that have little or no prior meaning to define what design thinking is, lest we risk creating more confusion resulting from pre-conceptions like the words “design” (design what?) and “thinking” (isn’t it about ‘doing’ things too?). Taken further, this argument suggests that we will not find a suitable definition using the existing terms.
I am not so sure. There is another road to take. Consider DT’s close peer, systems thinking. Although not uncontested, many systems thinkers and scientists agree that systems thinking refers to a class of theories, methods and tools that address systems-level issues in a coherent manner. Complexity science, system dynamics, soft-systems methodologies, and cybernetics are among the fields that fall under the broader systems thinking rubric. This organization is best articulated in Michael Jackson’s 2003 book on Systems Thinking, cited in the Censemaking library.
Another good example (also in the library) is the work by evaluators Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner on systems concepts in action. In this concise and articulate work, the authors illustrate the various concepts that fall within the larger realm of systems thinking in a manner that allows people to appreciate the breadth and depth of the concept and its multiple ways of understanding systems.
Design thinking may be ready to make the leap to this style of conceptualization. Rather than seek to kill the term and replace it with something else, as some have argued, perhaps its time to expand it while putting the effort forward towards articulating its components and the relations between them rather than seeking to come up with a gold-standard definition that suits everyone. The latter idea is one that has already suggested its doomed to fail.
Using this example, design thinking might be ripe to be re-defined as an umbrella term to support concepts like human factors design, plan-do-study-act approaches to change, and strategic foresight. Rather than design thinking be conceived of as a specific thing, it might be better off described as a set of things of which design and thinking are two of the central, unifying features.
Leaving my first full day of school, I walked a classmate to the subway and we discussed this fuzziness with the term and, prior to us parting said “it really is making things with some intent behind it, isn’t it?” to which the response was “yeah, pretty much “. Behind what seemed like a pat answer on both of our parts is a sense that we know design thinking is real and offers something of value that other concepts do not. That is the reason why the search for a definition is important and why this is not just an academic exercise in semantics, but a larger journey for understanding the role creativity plays in finding and addressing problematic issues and how we can better tackle them all.
So perhaps the new definition for design thinking now is: it is what creative people seek to find a definition for.
There is a myth that we only use 10% of our brain, but we certainly don’t use the fullest array of creative means of communication at our disposal. What if designers, health promoters and those seeking to communicate better started considering a more sensory-forward way of sharing what they know to each other?
“Pheromones?” I said.
“Yes. Think about how much we convey by pheromones?” my colleague said. “Imagine what we could explain if we knew what they told us?”
So started a conversation between three of us faculty at the annual Center for Contemplative Mind and Society annual faculty curriculum development program. The conversation was prompted by a performance by New York-based dancer and fellow contemplative Yin Mei the previous night that we found bereft of words to fully explain. The performance, and our conversation, The dance and movement performance blended film, sound, music, dance and kabuki-style masks in an interactive dance studio environment. If I wrote any more and I wouldn’t be doing the performance justice.
Here were three people who were literally involved in a performance virtually unable to share a common description of what they saw, even if it was the same thing. We three were stuck trying to come up with words to describe what we had experienced. Words, feelings, text all failed. And that is how we came up with our conversation.
Our discussion has inspired reflection on how much information we neglect and the types of information that we privilege when we design things and communicate what we know to the world around us.
Pheromones are a means of communication available to us to use. Yet, we don’t, nor have the knowledge of how to use them. We might develop an instantaneous connection with someone — even fall in love (or lust) — for reasons that make no rational sense to our brain, but it happens. We don’t have the sensory intelligence to make sense of the signals we receive, but we nonetheless transmit and receive a lot more than we are aware of.
When we seek to develop a design for something, good practice involves engaging a diversity of perspectives to generate ideas that create new knowledge, best suit the communication of those ideas, and develop those ideas into products, services and policies that best help people. However, our means of communicating these still remain with spoken and written words.
A touch can convey information that is immeasurable. A look, a feeling, a smell, a brush of a hand are all sensory means of conveying information and learning about our world. As we seek to tackle the kind of ineffable, yet persistent and pernicious problems that complexity introduces, new ways to express and share our understandings are necessary. There are simply times when words won’t or cannot do it.
The practical application of this sensory-based approach to design is not a simple venture. Western culture is not very kinesthetic making a lot of touch-based collaboration problematic. Add in the very real issues that those who’ve experience physical trauma or abuse, and such application of touch must be handled with care. But just as words can be weapons or means to joy, so too can touch if done with compassion, skill and sensitivity. Artful methods like dance, sculpture, or video could be means of communicating ideas that simple words cannot.
What if we could cultivate the means to be intimate with these methods in the service of better design and communication? What kind of design would that look like? Could we engage a much broader range of people into the discussion? Right now, we privilege those who can write and speak well, those who are forward (i.e., extroverted) and verbal, at the expense of those who might have as much to offer, but for whom writing, reading or oral communication might not be their strongest method of communication, yet that is all they are given.
We are more than our words and we can be more than what those words convey. It seems time to start taking this a little more seriously and seeing where it goes. Who knows? Maybe the best ideas are just a painting or dance away.
Of the many persistent myths about innovation, the lone genius is about the most sticky. Continued research shows how untrue this is.
When we consider achievement in science, we think of individuals. The Nobel Prize might be awarded to small groups of individuals, but they are not awarded to teams. Indeed, team science is not something recognized in the same way that we recognize individual achievement.
There is a persistent myth that discovery is best achieved through individual genius applied to a problem. The “eureka!” moment is played up in science fiction stories and films from Frankenstein to Back to the Future.
It is a myth because research on creativity and innovation consistently shows that hard work and persistence beats out raw skill (which is a myth in itself) . Indeed, people become skilled through some natural talent, but mostly hard work, concentration and consistent practice.
Yesterday, Keith Sawyer, a psychologist and researcher of innovation and creativity, asked that the lone genius myth to be put to rest. I wish that luck and support the idea, but don’t suspect it will come true. He writes (on artists):
The Wall Street Journal of June 3, 2011 reports that many contemporary artists use an equally collaborative studio system. The article (by Stan Stesser) reports that Jeff Koons has 150 people on his payroll and readily admits that he never paints himself. A long list of expensive, widely collected artists are named in the article; apparently, it is not a secret that the “artist” doesn’t actually execute the work himself. There’s no misreprentation here; gallery owners and dealers tell potential buyers the actual story, and buyers still collect the works.
The earliest return to a collaborative studio model was probably Andy Warhol in the 1960s, who called his studio “The Factory” and famously said “I want to be a machine.” So the “lone genius” model of the painter has been fading for several decades already. In the greater scheme of history, the Romantic era belief that the painter was an inspired solitary genius has been a small blip: slightly over 100 years. Painter as lone genius: Rest In Peace.
The notion that creativity is an individual thing might have to do with the uniqueness in which we all experience creativity. While each of us might create a idea from different things — ideas, feelings, abstract experience — we put such sensory stimuli together in manners that must make coherent sense to understand them. To communicate them, we need to make sure that these ideas are coherent beyond ourselves to others and the best way to do that is to get the input of others in the process. It means, collaboration.
Whether it is science or art, the notion of teams, collaboration, sharing, and co-creating is something too often denied or left unexplored in daily practice. In its place, the myths of the lone genius. It is why faculty are rewarded for being the first author on a paper or grant rather than being part of a team or collaboratory. It is why we do individual performance appraisals for most people. It is also why students are graded on their own work, with little attention to how they brought that work to others to share.
Dr. Sawyer’s declaration of the lone genius as dead is optimistic. What is needed now is something to make it realistic.
Interested in learning more about this topic? Visit the library section of Censemaking.