Design Thinking: From Cognition to Craft

Design thinking is not just a way of approaching problems, but a series of habits we nurture in everyday practice.

Design thinking, like other types of thinking, is something we do consistently.

My experience is that design thinking is best approached as a habit, not as an exercise. Just as ‘critical thinking’ isn’t meant to be applied sporadically to one’s life, neither is design thinking. This isn’t to reduce it to a binary (either you’re a design thinker or you aren’t), but it is about making it clear that to truly engage in design thinking one must go beyond mere episodic participation in some event, task, or project.

This is where much of the debate around design thinking comes down to. Speaking at the recent Business Design Exchange (BDX) 2020 event at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, designers Bruce Mau, John S. Couch, Angèle Bausoliel, and Clay Chandler spoke to the state of design in business. In that conversation, the topic of design thinking came up, which elicited some discussion of how many corporate leaders get excited about the idea of design, yet have a difficult time maintaining it as part of their culture (see the video below).

Just as a new way of thinking about anything requires learning and unlearning to become a regular habit of mind, design thinking must be considered in this same light. Design thinking is really about praxis as much as it is cognition and that is what distinguishes it from many other types of thinking.

From Cognition to Creation to Craft

Design thinking without design making (or rather, design) is futile. The fundamentals of design can be taught in seminars, workshops, and courses, yet without actual design practice, design thinking is simply impotent. It’s like trying to learn how to ride a bike by reading a manual and getting a ride on the back of someone’s 10-speed. Yes, we can generate lots of ideas, maybe even draft a framework for a product or service, but real design is about making. It’s about taking ideas and developing them into products that are put into the world and evaluated against real-world use.

That making is only part of the journey. Once we start making we must learn how to learn from our creations. This means being able to evaluate the form, fit, and function of our creation and, preferably, its impact in the world. This is what creates craft, the designer’s ability to design consistently and with excellence. Whether this is about creating services, products, systems, or policies – a great design thinker is one that has engendered a sensibility about design where they think, act, evaluate, and learn consistently from what they do.

Design thinking is a habit of mind and a craft. (Think: the new mindcraft for innovation 🙂 )

Design Thinking and Cultures of Innovation

To build true design thinking capacity consider how you can integrate not only the learning about design thinking, but the integration of that learning into practice opportunities within your organization. Provide yourself and your team with the means to apply what they’ve learned, reflect and share their experience, and evaluate their work in the world. This is a lot, yet the dividends can be enormous including the habits of mind of a designer. Thinking and conducting yourselves as designers is also the most efficient, effective, and sustainable way to create a culture of innovation from the ground up.

Design is about inspiring people. Without inspiration, change efforts go nowhere.

Inspiration is about leadership. Therefore, great design is an act of leadership and that is what creates, sustains, and powers innovation in an organization and shapes a culture.

Design thinking is the lead toward that outcome. Start building your design thinking habits and what follows might be transformational.

If you’re looking to to develop design thinking from idea through to execution and evaluation, contact me and I can help you out.

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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