Quid nunc cogitat? In search of a definition of design thinking

Design Thinking?

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.

3 thoughts on “Quid nunc cogitat? In search of a definition of design thinking”

  1. Design thinking has far more fundamental operating principles at play. At least two critical premises differentiate what you’ve described:

    1. Good design is not just about a ‘thing’ but includes consideration for the impact of that thing in a larger environment (there’s a lifecycle of creation, exploitation, and disposition that must be considered).
    2. Once a focus of design is raised to this ‘broader’ perspective (and/or is focused on more ethereal outputs, such as business strategy and the like), no one person can effectively provide that perspective, therefore a ‘collective’ of participants contribute to the discovery of a design.

    We’ve actually had several discussions about the relationship to Systems Thinking, and indeed one of the current LinkedIn Systems Thinking groups was a spinoff from our discussions. And yes, fundamentally there’s a relationship. Clearly the description above suggests same.

    The problem is that what has become known as Systems Thinking and how it is typically practiced is entirely not effective for the type of approach described above. Indeed, when some of us tried to engage in the systems thinking conversations and help shape what they were saying to address the perspective noted above, we found that we could not reach a common ground for discussion. I’m not sure where the disconnect was, it was simply quite obvious that there was one.

    The ‘placeholder’ for my observations at this point (open to be replaced) was that there simply was not the level of ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘willingness to challenge all assumptions’ (which is critical to design thinking) to allow for design thinking to occur. I still haven’t determined if the issue lies with the discipline itself or the people who practice it. At some level the fundamental holistic premises of Systems Thinking are inherent to Design Thinking.

    For that reason, I simply suggest, “It’s in there”. What additive purpose does Systems Thinking serve (until and unless we’re then designing for a mechanistic output, which then might need more ‘structure’) above and beyond Design Thinking?

  2. It’s just occurred to me that some of “design thinking” resembles Piaget’s concept of “accommodation”; instead of trying to change people or their behaviour, design thinking involves bringing extremes towards the common reality. For instance in health care it might mean bringing people whose health seems to require enormously expensive medicines closer to people who are basically in need of little extra healthcare. Governments who believe in universal care “accommodate” these extreme cases by designing a payment system (in concert with drug companies) so that everyone can be supplied with most medicines regardless of individual expense/need. When I was working in the rehab engineering section of an NGO that cared for kids with physical disabilities, I was charged with encouraging the maximum integration of those kids into the state public school system while minimising expense/work by teachers. At first I observed kids in the NGO’s “special” classes and spoke to the OT, physio, rehab engineers, night carers, parents, teachers, teaching assistants, pediatricians & orthopedic surgeons, psychologists & social workers! They all had different ideas on what it was most important to do, and what to do first to achieve more integration. Once I noticed that all their ideas depended on other ideas and innovations, I saw that there was a system involved which could only be seen by stepping back and putting the requirements in order. WhatI needed was a hierarchy of “needs” such that nothing at the beginning required anything further down the track in order to work & serve its purpose. To me, this was where “design thinking” came in- designing a system to accommodate the extremes and bring them closer to “normal”. While I understood that some kids, eg. the barouche bound spastic quadriplegic youngster, V, [for whom the rehab engineers could not even construct a wheelchair seat], would probably never achieve integration to a mainstream classroom, V’s needs IN ORDER represented everyone else’s needs collectively. SO I constructed a flowchart that was later adopted when considering the feasibility of integration, starting with getting a child up in the morning, enabling them to breathe, take nutrient, wash, dress, toilet, mobilise, get out of the house, onto a bus/van, out of it, into class, watching a board/listening to teacher/following action on a screen, holding a pencil/pressing symbols on a board/typing/eye-direction selection of characters etc etc. I researched [in 1982] all the adaptations from all over the world, sourcing aides where they existed (eg. self warm/wash/wipe/douche toilets from Japan), electronic-eye taps [such as are common now in public washrooms] and featured these on a text-based computer-driven line-printed flowchart. The computer posed questions and the answers led to more questions and/or suggested remedies & aides to enable whatever behaviour was required of the child. Many children were integrated into school, including a very young Quentin Kenihan, who was a famous kid here with Osteogenesis imperfecta and a brilliant mind- he now lives in the community in his own flat & works in communications & tech.
    So- was that “design thinking”? or am I deluded?
    My health blog is at Blogspot, not here on WordPress [http://healthforhumans.blogspot.com]

  3. Kay, thanks for your very detailed response to this post. Accommodation is very much design-in-action and the application of a set of reasoned responses to a situation. What I see as the distinguishing feature between the two concepts is that one uses an existing situation and its resources to serve as the point of change (Accommodation), while the other (design thinking) does not necessarily restrict itself to those resources available in the initial situation. I would also suggest that design thinking is a more generalized approach to a problem solving situation than Piaget’s Accommodation concept.

    That said, there are remarkable points where they overlap and we can learn a lot from Piaget’s work — which is far more developed and mature than DT is at present — to inform the next stage of Design Thinking.

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