Untangling Design Thinking from Designing, Thinking, and Designing our Thinking.

In an effort to wrangle the term design thinking into submission, I’m trying to untangle design thinking from all the words…design, designing, thinking, and designing our thinking. As a model for change in the world of post secondary education, design thinking serves an important purpose: it is both a tool that can enhance learning for students, and it is a disruptive force in an arena that is ready for some change.

As a tool, design thinking can open the doors to how our students tackle wicked problems using empathy, collaboration, and a bias towards action. It can foster and support a comfort with the messiness of ambiguity within inquiry based learning, and it can nurture an increased fluency and flexibility in creating ideas geared towards innovation. It can build a practice of process in creative thinking, which is a pretty incredible thing.

And it is a disruptive force for the academy as an organization too. When an academic institution (especially one as large as a University) is ready to innovate with new ways of doing, sharing and celebrating research, new ways of teaching and new ways of learning – well using design thinking to develop and support the disruptions required to make those changes seems like a fabulous fit.

But using design thinking in post secondary education requires we move beyond the tip of the iceberg, and that we leave the sticky tabs and wacky ideation games behind to embrace the way we are designing our thinking. Because using design thinking as a tool for teaching and learning, OR as a tool for organizational disruption means more than just acting like we think a designer might act (and what is that ‘way’ anyways? Just lots of wearing black and complaining about fonts? General coolness?). It means using the ways that they actively design their thinking to approach the social and critical problems we tackle in the classroom and in the academic culture. It means designing our thinking deliberately to embrace ideation, ambiguity and prototyping in how we define our problem in the first place, and it means getting over the idea there even being a correct solution, and celebrating the thinking process itself.

When designers use design thinking, they aren’t replacing their practice with a model. Often (based on the conversations I’ve had as part of my research) they don’t even believe that the models that take their name represent their work at all. (Side note: this video is phenomenal…once Pentagram declares that they are ‘over’ design thinking, it is time to take a hard look at the models we rely on!) But what they are doing is deliberately approaching a problem by thinking about it in a way that they themselves have deliberately and strategically designed. And we can all learn from that.

I tackled a brief lit review of the world of design thinking from the perspective of the field of design studies last year – for what it is worth, here is what this oh-so-popular approach looks like from that perspective.

Saying the Unsayable: Intersections of Tacit Knowing and Explicit Knowledge
Within an Expanded Definition of Design Thinking.

Interest in design thinking as a tool for innovation, and as a mysteriously-applied art practiced by designers, has recently reached new heights within the field of design studies. But for all the attention paid to design thinking – from events such as the Design Thinkers 2016 conference in Toronto (Association of Registered Graphic Designers, 2016) to a list of over 1,500 publications since 2010 alone (Amazon, 2016), the practice of how designers come to know how, and what, to design remains hotly-contested. Throughout the history of design studies, design thinking has been understood as a knowledge practice unique to design culture. However, the location and definition of design thinking as either a tacit form of knowing, or an explicit form of visual knowledge has remained a point of debate throughout the movements in the field.

Design Thinking: Method, Process, Mindset and Practice Movements

Exactly how designers create innovative and surprising solutions to undefined and multifaceted material and social problems remains one of the major debates within the field of design studies. The designer’s process of imagining, proposing and creating change in our world is inspiring to many, but mysterious to most ­– including design practitioners and researchers. Over time, understandings of what it means to use ‘design thinking’ have shifted to reflect the changing understandings of the designer’s role and function within society, while continually focusing on examinations of design as a social act (Papanek, 1971), explorations of the creative thinking practices of designers (Cross, 2011) and the material enactment of design as conception and planning of the artificial (Buchanan, 1992; Margolin, 2002).[1]

To better understand their field, designers and design theorists alike rely on Simon’s distinction between design and the social sciences. In his oft-quoted passage from The Sciences of the Artificial (1969) Simon proposes design as a practice of action and change, undertaken by a wide variety of professionals:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. … Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design (p. 55).

At the crossroads of design practice and creativity lays a field of research focused on design thinking as a form of knowledge and a way of knowing. First proposed by Archer in 1965, and popularized by Rowe in 1987, design thinking is understood to be a mode of inquiry: both a way of knowing and a form of knowledge. This proposal, as Kimbell explains, prompts examinations into “describing how designers do design, how they think, and what they know”, asking us “to examine our assumptions about what constitutes design; it forces us to define design itself” (2011, p. 299). As the dominant epistemological position within both contemporary and historical design studies, design thinking has long been understood to be the basis for all innovative, creative and cultural production conducted by designers (Cross, 2001).

A review of the relatively short history of design studies reveals four key movements or eras of focus in the discipline, each of which locates and defines design thinking in a different manner, repositioning the term through an expanding cycle culminating in our contemporary understanding of design thinking as a collaborative, socially-informed, creative process.

Design Thinking as a Method

Design thinking’s roots are planted at the beginning of design studies – an era marked by the “methods movement” (Margolin, 2002) that focused on developing a scientific approach to the practice of design. Beginning in the early 1960s, scholars such as Archer (1965), Simon (1969), De Bono (1968) and Osborn (1957) focused on systems, scientific analysis and use of pattern in creative thinking, outlining the concern at the time with the designer’s knowledge about methods and how to employ them in a scientific manner. Design thinking was understood at the time to encompass a unique knowledge of design methods, and though the term is often attributed to Rowe (1987), Archer’s Systematic Method for Designers (1965) serves as the true birthplace of “design thinking” as a unique description for a designer’s process. In his examination of industrial design, Archer defined a series of phases within design methods, proposing that:

“… there has been a world wide shift in emphasis from the sculptural to the technological. Ways had to be found to incorporate the knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking” (p. 57).

The methods movement in design studies was further defined by Simon’s development of design thinking as a unique, methods based approach to a commonly defined and understood problem (Simon, 1969) and by Papanek’s (1971) call for sustainable design practice.[2] It was at the intersection between Simon’s scientific notion of design thinking as an attempt to shift the possible to the preferable, Archer’s identification and definition of design thinking as unique aspect of design practice and Papanek’s identification of the social role of designers that the modern approach to design thinking was initiated.

Design Thinking as a Mindset

The subsequent turn toward creative practice and ability as a mindset marked the second movement in design thinking. Initiated in the early 1980s, the process-movement within design studies developed out of examinations into what Cross termed “process-creativity” (1997, p. 427), and presented design thinking as a way of knowing: a general resource for design characterized by the cognitive aspects of design practice and creative process (Cross, 1982). Of particular note in this movement was Lawson’s study of design cognition in the context of architecture and urban planning (1979) which provided the vocabulary used by Cross in his proposal of “designerly ways of knowing” (1982). This idea that “there are things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them that are specific to the design area” (Cross, 1982, p. 22) situated design thinking as a cognitive practice firmly based in instinct and forms of intuition that are unique to designers.

As Buchanan suggested, this positioned design thinking as a “neoteric art” – a new systemic discipline of practical reasoning and argumentation (1992, p. 22). Suggesting that design thinking was indeed ‘designerly’ shaped understandings of the methodology as both an explicit process in which creative practice could be vocalized and shared (Bucciarelli, 1984; Schön, 1983) and as an intuitive and tacit way of knowing based on an extension of visual thinking (McKim, 1972), ambidextrous thinking (Faste, 1994) and creative practices of leaping and bridge building (Cross, 1997). As Kimbell suggests, this era of design thinking focused on “what designers do, think and know, implying that this is different to what non-designers do” (2011, p. 298). The mindset movement also introduced a new understanding of design problems – positioning them as “swampy lowlands” (Schön, 1983, p. 42), or the widely-used “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992, originally proposed in Rittell & Webber, 1973). With the redefinition of design thinking as a mindset, and a methodological response to the wicked problems presented in practice, conceptions of design thinking as a way of knowing specific to designers began to evolve into a ‘process’ approach to innovative problem-solving that focused more clearly on the teachable and transferable aspects of the practice.

Design Thinking as Process

The third movement of design studies presented design thinking as a process, defined by researchers who grounded logic and criteria in studies of innovation from inside and outside the design studio. This shift of perspectives, marked in the early 2000s by the adoption of design thinking as a marketable skill set by innovation and management studies (T. Brown, 2009; T. Kelley, 2005; Martin, 2009; Pink, 2006) positioned design thinking as a “way of looking” (D. Kelley, 2013) rather than an ability or “designerly way of knowing” (Cross, 1982). Suggesting that a design thinker is one who knows there is never a right answer to a problem, researchers such as Tim Brown proposed that by following a proprietary, non-linear and iterative process that he called “inspiration, ideation and implementation”, the design process itself can convert problems into opportunities (T. Brown, 2009). Design thinking was increasingly held ransom by theorists focused on its application outside of the studio, despite desperate calls for its return from theorists focused on the epistemic modes within design process (Bauer & Eagan, 2008). The positioning of design thinking as a resource for organizations – an inherently empathetic and innovative act, distanced from the culture, education or community context of design practice and useful for anyone willing to adopt the theoretical approach – resulted in a call for the death of the term itself with Nussbaum’s declaration of design thinking as a failed experiment (2011).

Design Thinking as Practice

In what can be seen as a rejection of design thinking’s movement towards applied innovation,[3] new understandings of design thinking have re-positioned the term as a form of embodied, socially and materially informed practice (Kimbell, 2012; Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007). This latest movement within studies of design thinking studies has sensitized theorists to

“the embodied nature of professional design work, how designers and stakeholders involved in design processes move, what they think, what they do and how it feels” (Kimbell, 2009, p. 12)

This opened the door to considerations of the role of organizations and social context in design thinking practice, and redefined design thinking as a service-oriented, human-centered, user-focused and participatory approach within the work of designers (Rodgers & Yee, 2015). As Julier has noted, this turn from design as problem-solving activity to design as problem-processing activity mirrors the shifts in design practice from multi-disciplinary approaches to interdisciplinary approaches (2000). A contemporary definition of design thinking encompasses the practices through which designers examine and understand what people do in their daily life, as well as the social implications of the designer’s impact on material culture and the people with which they are engaged (Murphy, 2015; Yaneva, 2013). In this way, design thinking has been reframed to include not only the methods, mindset and process of creative practice, but also the co-production of knowledge and material experience through participation and collaboration.

[1] Valuable contributions to design studies are also found in examinations of the material world. Design theorists have variously found it helpful to reduce design to its product of “things with attitude” (Attfield, 1989) in order to position the output of design practice as the link between the economic and the cultural (Bourdieu, 1984), as a demonstration of a specific logic or language practiced in the design community (Chaney, 1996), or as cultural reconstruction for the meaning of what is consumed (Fine & Leopold, 1993).

[2] The design methods movement of the decades following 1960, and its focus on design as a unique, nearly scientific practice is reflected the human-centered, user-focused and sustainable design movements that define the field today.

[3] In fact, design theorists such as Shove challenge the association of design thinking with “thinking” at all (Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007).

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