The Science of Design Thinking

My colleague and design collaborator has proposed a way of viewing design thinking as something akin to a periodic table of elements. Beyond just posing a brilliant way of explicating and organizing the multiple facets of design thinking, Andrea Yip has shown the world that there is much we can learn from science, visualization and how they both apply to design. 

Last weekend a group of design thinkers got together to discuss the concept of design thinking and what it means. The conference, summarized in another post, explored the language of design thinking, the need for visual thinking, and the importance of understanding the context of design and design thinking.

While this was going on in Vancouver, another designer (my colleague, Andrea Yip) was back in Toronto taking these same ideas independently and transforming them into an organizational structure that should create much room for thought among those interested in design thinking. The model she has developed is one not based on areas that are familiar to design — architecture, art, graphic design, business strategy, or engineering — but science.

Designers often speak of a need for multidisciplinarity in their work. While laudable, this commonly refers to the inclusion of multiple perspectives on a design problems from within the broad field of design. It is indeed rare to find such multidisciplinary teams comprised of scientists. Andrea has turned that upside down by proposing a model of design thinking based on the periodic table of elements. The table, shown below, is a first draft, but a highly sophisticated one and something that ought to be taken seriously.

Periodic Table of Design (version 1.0) by Andrea L. Yip on DrawedIt

By using the structure and format of a bedrock of science, Andrea has shown that there are ways of thinking about design that transcend the boundaries that we often unconsciously bind around it. This new model inverses the terms posed by the creative arts or the applied disciplines of engineering or architecture, each that have made enormous contributions to the field, yet all rely on a level of subjectivity, and replaces them with a model based on a more universal language: science.

Science and design are uneasy partners. Some, like Nigel Cross, have pointed to the challenges with the use of terms design science and the science of design, while others, like Buckminster Fuller,  use the term design and science in ways that are open to challenge from those who identify as practicing scientists. Ms Yip, a designer trained in science (biology) and social science (health promotion) fields, sees things in ways that transcend these perspectives to propose using science as a guide to inform the way we understand design.

In doing so, she provides a bridge between the worlds of science, with its emphasis on evidence and strict adherence to protocols, and design, with its flexible, rapidly evolving, yet often non-specific methods. Indeed, Andrea’s blog showcases many examples of how design and fields like health promotion fit together and differ. It is time for both designers and scientists to listen more intently to this conversation.

By using methods, theories, analogies and conceptual models that extend our thinking beyond the realm of conventional design and science, we offer opportunities to make things better — and in doing so shape our world for the greatest benefit for us all.

Andrea’s blog is called Drawed and can be visited at: . She welcomes feedback on her ideas.

And if the Periodic Table of Design is not enough, Andrea’s also developed a prototype set of trading cards based on the table for those more inclined to school-yard forms of collaborating around design that are also up on her blog.

For more dialogue on design thinking, stay tuned to this space and the Twitter feed @d_bracket for the upcoming launch of the Design Thinking Foundations project and corresponding site. And wouldn’t you know? Andrea Yip is the coordinator of that project.

9 thoughts on “The Science of Design Thinking”

  1. Thanks for the shout out Cameron 🙂

    I’d love to see if the periodic table sticks and can be shaped and re-shaped into something useful for designers, non-designers, scientists, et al. Look forward to exploring this further with you and other design-inclined folks!

  2. sencillamente me encanta y el trabajo esta en la linea de la disciplina DT. Valga el modelo de la tabla periodica, hasta que pueda ser diseñado el suyo propio.

    1. Interesting question. Design science is the scientific study of design practice and outcomes, while the science of design is the application of scientific principles or ideas derived from the scientific study of design to its practice.

      1. Hi, thanks for you reply.

        Based on your reply, it seems that the science of design is more practical than design science. The design science is about design methodology, which is more theoretical. The science of design is about how to use design science principles into industrial production. Am I right?
        Would you mind give me more details and examples?

      2. Hi Kirk, Perhaps the best examples of what one might call design science is Herbert Simon’s work on the Science of the Artificial or the work by Buckminster Fuller. They were looking at creating a scientific foundation for creation and believed that a field that was created around scientific principles could advance far more than by cobbling together ideas from other disciplines and applying them to design (as in the science of design). The science of design would look at evidence for things like prototyping, incremental change, group collaboration, creativity research, and things like that — not always research that comes from design itself, but more tangential areas. Keith Sawyer’s work on creativity is a great example of research that fits design, but comes from psychology. Another example of these two discussions can be found in reading Nigel Cross’ work as he is big on looking at the distinctions between design science and the science of design. You’re inspiring me to write another post on this. I hope this helps.

      3. Thanks.
        I know another term called “research through design”. What is the difference betwren it and design science? It seems that “research through design” uses design science as an approach to discover new theories in some areas, such as Informstion Systems.

      4. I’m not as familiar with that last term. There’s a lot of design research methods that could be the answer. You’re assessment seems reasonable to me.

      5. I read that “design science” is to create innovations that define the ideas, practices, technical capabilities, and products through which the analysis, design, implementation, management, and use of information systems can be effectively and efficiently accomplished.
        So it seems that the output of design science is a solution for a problem or an artifact.
        But I can not find such kind of description about “science of design”. How is it different from design science?

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