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Thinking through Design Thinking

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Overview: The author is taking on the idea that Design Thinking is actually part of  Design as the Design discipline actually is and historically has existed.  Several different areas of thought are introduced, and contrasted with each other.

Thoughts on this: I would have to agree that the general notion that Design Thinking is simply a by product of Design is an incomplete/incorrect one.  Design Thinking is more like a child that has been born to a parent.  It is a young discipline that has the DNA of several established disciplines (most notably Design, (specifically Industrial Design) and Psychology/Sociology.

Thinking through Design Thinking

IDEO /Tim Brown, Bruce Nussbaum and Stanford call it Design Thinking.

Michael Speaks, Michael Shamiyeh, Bruce Mau talk about Design Intelligence,

Nigel Cross writes about Designerly ways of knowing (one of the best books i’ve read so far on design thinking).

All these ideas deal with design as process rather than object. They all articulate and confirm the idea that there is a ’specific way of thinking that is unique to design’ and ‘that this way of thinking is applicable on any problem’ It is a way of seeing, understanding and making the world, and the ‘design way’ is a universal way, there is no problem that can not be solved, … or so it seems (this is one of the claims of Bruce Mau’s Massive change exhibit and book anyway).

Although one has to acknowledge a certain naivety behind this idea, it is non the less very appealing, especially for a designer, or well … an architect like myself.

Thinking about design as a universal problem solving method radically enlarges the arena for design and provides the design discipline with a sense of authority. It provides a credibility to the discipline that is instrumental in getting designer involved in projects at a point where the fundamental decisions are made, instead of calling designers in to only deal with the cosmetics of a project. One has to read the efforts of IDEO and Bruce Nussbaum in this light, as advocating for a design discipline that is more involved at the moments and places where it matters and where it can make a significant impact.

Beside propagating design thinking to businesses, selling the design way of thinking as universally applicable, provides design with a legitimization for engaging with fields that are normally well beyond their reach, beyond the confines of the design discipline. This is something also propagated in the Volume’s opening issue (#1) under the term ‘Architectural Intelligence’ and there is also some of this attitude present in the “Office for Unsolicited Architecture” issue (#14). I think these ideas bear fruit, but suffer from overestimation, but that’s what usally happens when one advocates something, it quickly turns into a one dimensional argument.

I would like to point out a few problems I have with the current discourse around design thinking:

Design as problem-solving
The underlying paradigm of what “design” actually is in the “Design Thinking” school, is that it is synonymous with problem-solving. This is a limited view of design, and a problematic one. First of all what does it mean to solve a problem? In design there is not one possible answer to a certain question, there are a lot, see the architectural competition as example.

Also one can always question whether any problem is permanently solvable, especially when its problems have a socio-economical dimension, these are known as wicked problems. (see Rittel, Webber – “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”) The term problem solving sounds too absolutist. How many solutions from 50 years ago are regarded as the root of today’s problems?

The more design becomes technical and a from engineering in which the criteria are technical as well, where the margins of error are so small that solutions can be measured in absolute dimensions, in this sense there is a relation between problem and solution that becomes traceable. Design has a huge cultural component, often the problem is artificial, or invented by the designer themselves and is connected more to a cultural zeitgeist than anything else. In what way can we talk about the brief for a project in terms of a problem?

A problem is something undesired that needs to be resolved, but the brief is defined as a wish-list not a problem definition. The brief inspires a projection of the future, and over the course of a design process there surely is problem-solving going on, but it’s mainly a problem-solving cycle that deals with ones own invented or perceived problems, which is legitimate, but one has to acknowledge that problems are not absolute.

Design is a discipline but not a scientific one!

Design as innovation
Another paradigm underlying “design” in design thinking is the one of progress, that design is instrumental in improving our lives, society and the whole world basically. The term “innovation” embodies the believe that the new is better, that technology will improve our lives, its propelled by the assumptions that science, rationality and efficiency will move the world to a better place. It’s a very technocratic conception of design, one that fits perfectly in our capitalist society. Innovation and problem-solving are two branches that grow from the same tree.

Design thinking doesn’t tell us much about thinking.
The “thinking” in design thinking, doesn’t really deal with explaining the thinking in design, it only scratches the surface of what design thinking is really about. Design thinking as propagated by IDEO and Nussbaum is mostly deals with methodology, process, ‘how-to,’ it doesn’t deal with how design thinking actually works. Usually cases are brought forward of how a typical design approach has been successful in tackling a problem, but from this we don’t learn how thoughts unfold in the design process, how thinking unfolds.

Thus design thinking currently deals with describing behavior, symptoms, the consequence of thoughts but not what design thinking consists of itself. It is much like how the Turning Test for testing if a machine is intelligent or not doesn’t tell us anything about what intelligence itself actually is, it only shows that a machine can behave as a human does! But this tells us nothing about the nature of intelligence itself (John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room‘ thought experiment effectively exposes this flaw of the Turing Test)

Especially this last part intrigues me, i’m interested in how designer have their own rationality, how a design can have its own rationality. Just like a mathematician can say this equation is false, an architects can say, this detail doesn’t make sense in the overall concept of the building. Apparently design choices can be more or less right or wrong, within the network of choices made during the design process, while at the same time all most of the choices are more or less arbitrary! intriguing isn’t it!? What is this kind of logic that is operative in design? What is this intelligence that seems irrational but gives enough foundation for making a choice? What mode of reasoning is at work here?

I researched these questions in my graduation work, which consisted of a comparative literature research of three perspective on “reasoning in architecture“, although the findings are relevant to all design disciplines> The three perspectives come from three authors, from three different fields:

Donald A. Schön
(1930-1997) a design researcher, but trained as philosopher who succeeded in describing ‘how designers think’ in a way that designers actually recognize themselves. Shön’s work is interesting because of the categories he introduces. These are fundamental descriptions of how a designer engages in the design activity. His categories are open but still defined enough for designers to recognise the fundamental process they are involved in. It describes an iterative process, but does not specify tasks, design phases or steps from beginning to end. It’s not a method for how-to think, it’s provides insight in how thinking works in design. Schön theory is presented in his book The Reflective Practitioner (1983)

Jeff Hawkins (1957) is a computer architect turned neurologist. He is interested in making truly intelligent machines, but believes one can only do so when we understand how the brain produces intelligence. He states that in the cognitive sciences intelligence is judged by the wrong parameter: behaviour. According to Hawkins this is only a manifestation of what intelligence really is, behaviour is but the surface. Hawkins puts forward a theory that intelligence is determined by prediction. According to him the brain makes continuous predictions about the world it ’sees’ through its senses. It makes this predictions by analogy to the past, to what is already stored in our memory. Hawkins theory in presented in his book On Intelligence (2004) You can watch a lecture by Hawkins on TED and here if you want to get in a bit deeper.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was a philosopher, logician and mathematician. Peirce was interested in where new ideas came from, how the mind was able to put forward fruitful ideas, and in that way it was instrumental in the development of knowledge. Peirce believed that deductive and inductive reasoning were not adequate in describing how this worked, thus Peirce developed a third mode of reasoning, abduction, with which he tried to clarify processes of invention and discovery. Another theory of Peirce is also of importance more specifically for the work of architects, that of diagrammatic reasoning.

He developed the concept of diagrammatic reasoning in the context of explaining creativity in mathematics, but it also gives us a deeper insight in how architects reason through making drawings and models. Because like mathematics also architectural design is mediated activity. Peirce’s theories were developed over his entire career, publishing many papers and articles. For this research the explanation of Peirce’s theories is based on the readings of Michael H. G. Hoffmann and Sami Paavola.

Besides these main protagonists, Aristotle’s Rhetoric plays a significant role in describing the nature of reasoning in architectural design.

What all these authors have in common is that they deal with developing a framework for the fundamental elements and processes of creative thought, by naming them, formalizing and theorizing these they open up a possibility of discourse on these ideas. I’ll elaborate the theories these men have put forward later, for now I’ll leave you with a quote:

“. . . in speaking of logic, we do not need to be concerned with processes of inference at all. While it is true that a great deal of what is generally understood to be logic is concerned with deduction, logic in the widest sense, refers to something far more general. It is concerned with the form of abstract structures, and is involved the moment we make pictures of reality and then seek to manipulate these pictures so that we may look further into the reality itself. It is the business of logic to invent purely artificial structures of elements and relations.” (Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964)”

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6 Responses to Thinking through Design Thinking

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jan Jursa and Eduardo Loureiro, divergent. divergent said: Interesting views from @dTblog on "the current…discourse" around #designthinking: […]

  2. thank you for the article written with so much thought.

    your analysis has helped me clarify questions about the epistemological assumptions that
    surrounds the notion denoted by “design thinking”.

    more questions come to mind as i read this article: Apart from cognitive reasoning, what and whose agendas and interest, nurtured demands of “design”? Beneath the surfaces of projects and their manifestations, what do designers actually do in practice, and in what ways have these engagements interact with users?

    these are just some of my own questions which i intend to read up more about.

    Thank again for the article.


  3. Design Thinking is not a process or methodology or ‘how to’. This is the common mistake made by most. Those who propagate such views are way off the mark.

    Design Thinking encompasses creative expression of human beings to solve a problem. Solution is based on creative thinking rather than based on established models — just like any other designs — as you say architectural. So, different design thinkers would produce different outputs in response to a problem — just as it happens in arts, design, architecture and literature.

    Design Thinking consists of some fundamental principles only and the way of looking at things is neither rigid or complete in any sense. Just like any designer or artist.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jan Jursa and Eduardo Loureiro, divergent. divergent said: Interesting views from @dTblog on “the current…discourse” around #designthinking: […]

  5. […] Nussbaum of BusinessWeek. Although the essay was written in 2009 I discovered it only more recently here. Gardner first takes on design thinking as a process for problem solving (although I’ve heard […]

  6. Is it possible to “over-think” design thinking?


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