The power struggle behind big data: forfeiting emotional autonomy to the machine

I encounter a lot of debates between myself and those who defend the authority of big data. It made me begin to wonder what kind of perception we are generating and what kind of attitudes we are embedding into our practice due to this desire for a quantifiable truth. Logical positivism states that only deduction or direct observation is meaningful. Big data provides us with direct observation; a tangible source for which we can point and deduce as reality. But what are we really doing in this process, and what kinds of attitudes are being shaped and are shaping our approach to work?

Much of my own design work involves direct engagement and documentation of peoples’ thoughts, lives, reactions and emotions. I am a messenger and a representative of someone else’s story. Ethnography is the methodology I often take in my work and with it comes an attitude that both aims to accurately describe the reality and perceptions of individuals I have studied, or sometimes, to emancipate those who are marginalised by a source of power. Yet, more and more I am asked, reading, and witnessing the attempt to introduce quantitative information into the accounts I produce on behalf of my participants.


The push for data-driven design

Surveys, sample sizes, statistics and predictive analytics are a few of the big data-inspired demands that are infiltrating human-centered design. Qualitative information is not enough. The growing perception is that qualitative, “small” data- such as the stories and insights that emerge from ethnographic practice- require the “validity” and rigour of cold frequency and hard numbers. At its extreme, qualitative research is not even needed. Numbers tell a story, and this story is edited by computer processing. Statisticians read this story received and report back. A kind of double hermeneutic is at play, except the co-creative conversation we are having about our reality is with a computer.

Reducing what is human- into a code or a number to be quantified- is in essence an attempt to stabilise and transform emotionally driven (irrational) human behaviour into predictable (a la economic) beings. This of course is only a superficial representation of what we think is true; the kind of boiled down, reductionistic approach to make sense of that which cannot be controlled and predicted (much like the foundations of ecology). In an attempt to find a handle for control, big data and quantification is often used to assert authority and preserve hierarchy; data is used to leverage and exercise authority over a project, client, community and even society. Furthermore, this increasing preference for data not only reaffirms the immediate power and authority,  but to a greater extent, requires us to forfeit our emotional autonomy to a machine.

The craving for big data to serve as an ‘authority’ over our reality means we value and trust an algorithm over that which should understand and represent us the best- a human. For any one who is worried about AI replacing our jobs, this fervent and blind faith is doing nothing but accelerate this destiny.


Because the data said so

The persistence for data portrays an underlying desire for an objective authority- a highly rational and unemotional super parent. We see the computer as greater than us, our own motherboard Messiah that we have crafted to liberate ourselves. I find this liberation often results in laziness as people point to figures rather than figuring out problems, and in the process, lose sight of the perspectives of their peers.

What kind of governance have we created and poured our trust into? We choose a machine to calculate us, and view it as an extension (and association) of the human brain (this makes me think of Herbert Simon). This mechanical organism is a better version of us; it is stronger, possesses a more powerful processing ability and infinite memory. However, this figurehead for objective authority is rational, emotionless and lacks empathy-much like the basic traits of a psychopath.

Emotions are what makes us irrational beings. Our insatiable desire for data means we also wish to control ourselves; to contain this irrationality in order to become stable and predictable. This predictability is founded on a desire for control and control is founded through a fear of risk and loss. Loss aversion is one of the strongest human traits that drive our irrational being and we have turned to computers to parent us away from bad decisions. But as any good parent knows, sometimes you need to let your child make a few bad decisions in order to learn and grow.


Not everything that can be counted, counts 

(and no, this is not another Einstein quote)

This quote actually is owned by a sociologist named William Bruce Cameron. Cameron describes beautifully the inherent danger in big data. In a paper dating back to 1963, Cameron states:

“It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Am i saying we should abandon quantitative data altogether? No, not necessarily. Quantitative information has its purpose and place. What i am saying is, when we are dealing with what is in essence to be human (to design) we need to think twice before reaching for a number to justify our information. In human-centered driven work, such as design practice, emotions are just as much a valid source of ‘data’ as are numbers. What we really need to be strictly conscious of, is that we are not allowing ourselves to treat hard data as a superior source of information to qualitative reasoning. Both qualitative and quantitative information should remain equal. This is the reason why I had chose to use critical realism as the theoretical paradigm for analysing design practice. It provides an intellectual middle ground between our desire for control (quant) and emotional autonomy (qual), by emphasising neither and integrating both where appropriate. We must preserve our right to remain human-centered, and hold each other accountable when the temptation for big data-driven design takes control.

The design process isn’t the problem. You are the problem

(harsh, but true)

This debate keeps cropping up like a seasonal virus. Once again, I encountered a bit of chatter across the internet and amongst practitioners on the ol’ topic that design thinking  has failed to live up to its hype. This is a post explaining why I believe these reoccurring debates flare up, and why they continuously reignite.

I am in a pretty unique position. I have experience and perspective as both a design academic and design practitioner. In research I spent four years as more or less an observer; watching the design process from afar in order to elevate insights which may be buried in the day to day that often robs us of adequate reflection. As a researcher, I forgot just how much crap there is to wade through when neck deep in the detail.

I don’t mean this to sound negative. The crap I am talking about is the everyday: the admin, the mundane, the mess of life that day-to-day work seems to generate. Throw in budgets and tight timeframes and we barely have space in our brain to remember where we parked the car in a given day.

Two states of design thinking

There are two manifestations of design thinking and design practice; internalised (lone) design thinking and externalised design thinking that manifests collectively and collaboratively from a group. I wrote a bit about collaborative design thinking in my thesis, and this is certainly where much of the discussion about the practice of design thinking is situated. What intrigues me is that there is a lot of writing on the benefits of adopting design/thinking, equally as many articles against design thinking, yet little has been discussed about the specific reasons why design thinking may not work.

Most often when things are mysterious, intangible and elusive like design thinking, it helps much more to know what design thinking is not in order to understand what it is. Here is my take on the topic.


The 5 commandments on how to kill design thinking (and obliterate innovation)

1. Formalise the process

The generic framework of the design process (discover, define, develop, deliver) and its many variations is a great way to try to articulate the process designers adopt in their practice. I don’t believe these stages were ever meant to be applied in a strict, orderly fashion, because for most designers the interaction between each phase is not clear cut and can often intuitively swirl back and forth. Yet, I have witnessed many designers and design teams within organisations cut clear deadlines and metrics against each phase which hinders much organic growth.

It is understandable that when presenting design to a client or upper management who are not familiar with the process one becomes tempted to report against fixed phases. This makes you look like you have direction and status metrics by which you can report on a regular basis. But most often than not, this formality robs creativity, adaptation, experimentation and discovery-particularly in novice teams. It not only sets a precedent and expectation that design is predictable, fixed and linear, but it also sets a cultural tone that you cannot step outside of the square.


2. Suffer from Steve Jobs syndrome (or just be an a$$)

Unless you plan to operate as a lone designer, you are single handedly going to kill design thinking in the team you work with with a bad attitude. I am surprised (and annoyed) by how many self-proclaimed design thinkers narrow-mindedly spit on other ideas in favor of their own. And I am not just talking about ideation sessions where you explicitly state that ideation time is to defer judgement. I am surprised about the behaviour around this sacred, creative ‘safe’ ground. A true designer, or design thinker, is open and encouraging. He or she will build upon ideas or at least be open to the possibility and opportunity of an idea no matter how far-fetched. This encouragement and support is what spurs creative ideation, and as time passes on a project, lowers inhibitions amongst members so that the design team can freely climb higher and more innovative pursuits.


3. Be uninspired by creative people and ideas

This is often interlinked with the previous point and is probably the most surprising anti-designerly attitude that ails many teams. If you scrunch up your nose at creatively silly ideas, feel embarrassed to laugh at yourself, or shut your mind off from exploring unrelated fields of knowledge and activity, then you are sorely limiting yourself to the mundane. Which is surprising since most individuals working in a design process want to describe themselves as an innovator, entrepreneur or artist. I feel much of this comes down to fear of failure which is perhaps the most destructive mindset…


4. Fear failure

I have argued many, MANY, times that fear of failure is the absolute kryptonite to a designerly approach. This fear is also the kryptonite to your success in life, in general. This is why a design approach is liberating for many- it allows, encourages and accepts risk and knows that risk often results in failure. Failure is a good thing, it equals strength and knowledge. Failure helps you make decisions just as much as success does (and is a better teacher at it). Often fear is propagated within a team due to the issues described above and in conjunction with the understandable anxiety around reputation, job security, and the like. If your boss or organisation does not support and understand that the design process is not a one track trick to success- that it also actively encourages failure- then you need to step back and ask yourself if the culture is ripe for the implementation of a design approach.


5. Put all of your expectation into a designerly approach

expectation is the root of all heartache

-a really cool guy from the 1600s

The design process won’t save you. It is not a panacea, and it is naive to assume that it will be the saviour of your troubled business and/or project. This is perhaps why i never understood the continuous debate over the success/failure of a design approach. No model, method or fad to emerge will ever be the answer- it is knowing when and in what context that a method will best achieve the desired outcome. This is why we have experienced design professionals and consultants whom understand if the characteristics and strengths of a design approach will be suitable towards the context and project at hand. Thought needs to be taken when deciding whether to use one approach or another, and design thinking is no exception to this consideration.


The Jerry Springer ending

I’ll admit that as a researcher I took design thinking for granted. I believed so much in the process of design and design thinking that I lost sight of the fact that design is incredibly delicate and sensitive. Sensitive to people’s attitudes, behaviour and application. A designerly approach in itself is not the answer; design needs the right people to manifest the qualities that so many business professionals admire. In either the midst of the meta through academic research, or distracted by the detail in practice, we have lost sight of the real fragility of design thinking.

but hey, what do i know


My PhD thesis

Hello world. My thesis is finally available for web via the link below:

It is not perfect, but it was enough for a PhD. I hope you enjoy

The end of an era: reflective practice

I am entitled to be just a little dramatic with my headline as I have now officially completed my thesis. Those who follow me on twitter would have noticed the excited tweets. I know that many have been asking me for my thesis, and I can assure you that it will be published online within the week- there are just a few more hidden hoops to jump before i can publish it, but more on that in a bit…

So, I figured now is a good time to reflect on the journey that was the almighty PhD pilgrimage into academic enlightenment. This is less of a practice-based post and so perhaps it will be of more interest, or use, to those considering an academic pathway or who perhaps are curious as to what to do after a PhD. I have chosen to write this based on the most common questions and comments i received during and after my studies and will conclude with hopefully some helpful advice.


Common question #238: What is the point of doing a PhD, let alone in design?

Depending on your definition of influence and impact, this question is (imho) often expressed out of naivety and ignorance. However, I can see how someone can construct the argument that a PhD is pointless, but it all comes down to value and perspective. If you value the pursuit, tradition and history of scholarly practice, you will understand how humbling it is to contribute to a long history of reflections, insights and theories from many scholars and practitioners committed to evolve and expand knowledge. But if you are of a more practical nature, the analysis, reflection and documentation may seem superfluous, and often at times, outdated to current trends.

It is true that you do a PhD in order to obtain a license to work as a researcher. It is also true that in many instances research is often a few steps behind practice. But what is not true is the assumption that the skills you acquire in doing a PhD are impractical for the “real world” (my most loathed statement. What is the “real world”, anyway? and to whom?). I am in the very fortunate position to have come out of academia and be able to return to industry practice in the field that I studied. So I can attest to the many transferrable skills developed in studying for a PhD:

(These are particular to qualitative/case-study PhD’s and to design practice)

  1. Writing skills. This is a highly valuable skill in general, but particularly if you are required to write reports, proposals, thought leadership, etc.
  2. Strategy. I really believe most PhD’s are highly strategic. You have to scan the field for untapped opportunities then assess many multiple theories, options, and methods for your plan of attack. As I now work in strategy (or strategic design), which involves both strategy and design research, I have realised that much of the formative ‘fuzzy’ front end of design thinking is very similar to the process of PhD research.
  3. Critical thinking. Well, you can’t find a better place to develop critical thinking than through graduate research. And I challenge anyone to dispute how valuable critical thinking is in most industry based practice (except, maybe, for the arts?)
  4. Public speaking and presenting. I also don’t think anything could prepare you better for client pitches like a review board of professors and/or conference presentations. PhD’s are perhaps best adept at forming and presenting arguments whilst defending anticipated rebuttals.
  5. Field research. This is specific to those who conducted primary research and may end up working in a design field or industry applying a design/thinking process that requires field/ethnographic research. As mentioned earlier, the design, methods, analysis and synthesis inherent in design practice are the fundamental building blocks for completing a PhD.
  6. Articulation of ideas. Particularly if you are client-facing, being able to clearly and coherently articulate your point/ideas across and in a way that is intellectually accessible to those around you who may not come from your depth of knowledge, is an incredibly persuasive asset.

I am sure there are many more I could think of, but these are the PhD skills I use most often on a day to day basis in my work.


Common question #592: Why didn’t you stay in academia?

There are a few reasons why I didn’t continue down the academic path right now. To be brutally honest, I wanted a rounded career and feared that if I continued with a career in academia I would be labelled an ‘out of touch academic’. This is unfortunately a reality for most academics, even if it (most often) is not true. It is very hard to return to industry after a PhD, (at least in Australia, it seems) let alone after working as an academic for many years. Despite the fact that I already had industry practice, I wanted to obtain more industry experience related to my thesis. I am still open to the idea of returning to academia (hint hint) and will continue to publish from my thesis. Right now the thought of remaining on a very low salary after four years of a near-poverty-wage scholarship is simply suffocating.


id like to know what having money feels like


Common question #475: What are your reflections on academia and practice?

I will keep my thoughts brief, as I am currently writing a deeper blog post on this topic. But the TL;DR of it is that, as an academic, you have much more time and freedom to exhaustively reflect on a topic and come to a deeper and more insightful conclusion. Industry has no tolerance for time-consuming, self-indulgent activities like reflective practice. For the most part, this reflection is not needed.. but I feel it is incredibly important if we are going to aim for creativity, let alone innovation, in any kind of practice. Again, this is where a PhD graduate could really add value and particularly if from a design background.


So to those still studying for their doctoral thesis- know that you have a choice and that there are options beyond just a post-doc. Present your skills in the right context and language to the industry you are applying and you will find that you have much more to offer beyond the assumption that academics are “just thinkers”. One good thought is worth more than a thousand mindless prototypes.


(Watch this space for a post that contains my thesis)


The underrated writings of Bruce Archer

Well looks like we can all just pack up on design thinking and call it a day!

There is an author that i had left out of my initial posts on the history and development behind design thinking, and his name is Bruce Archer. Bruce is not as well known as some of the other fundamental theorists in design such as Schon, Rittel and Webber and Simon….and frankly, i dont understand why he isn’t a household name. Mr.Archer’s writings and thinking on design are as innovative and groundbreaking (imho) as the authors we commonly associate with design theory. This is because everything that we are still struggling with, writing about today has been discussed and clarified by Bruce, way back in the first generation of design theory. The innovativeness of his thinking at such an early and formative time for design is reason why i believe he deserves more accolade than current researchers have provided.

So why did i leave Bruce out of my posts on the history of design thinking? Well, like most of you, i had undervalued his ideas…primarily because he wasn’t as widely cited and referenced as other authors. If researchers don’t get the citation ball rolling by deeming an author appropriate and worthy of recognition, it can create a vicious cycle of ignorance. As i have been cleaning up my thesis for submission i had read over a few references that i scattered around from Bruce. Upon re-evaluation i realised that his ideas were quite innovative, and upon further research, came to the conclusion that Archer is one of design’s hidden gems. I make it sound like he was a nobody, and he certainly wasn’t. Bruce’s name is known within academic design circles, and even has a place in the timeline of design thinking on Wikipedia, (heck, he was part of the establishment of the design methods movement). Yet, i still feel (from reading many theses in design) that his significance is disgracefully under represented.

Who is Bruce Archer?

Bruce was scientifically gifted but an artist at heart. He was educated as a mechanical engineer, a career (according to Wikipedia) he was pushed into and away from the arts which was where is interest lay. Soon enough, he was able to transition into industrial design and became a design researcher, establishing a department for design research at the Royal College of Art that ran for 25 years. Bruce contributed significantly to research on establishing design as an academic discipline, and in doing so, contributed towards the definition of design as a practice. This is what i want to highlight here in this post. Most of what i will be discussing here are ideas from an article by Bruce titled, Systematic Method for Designers, found in Developments in Design Methodology that was first published in 1965. Cutting the ramble short, here are my reasons for why Bruce needs to be elevated to design Dumbledore status

1.Bruce is perhaps the first to use/coin the term “design thinking”*

(*to my current knowledge- fyi THIS IS A PRETTY MONUMENTAL DISCOVERY!!)

Design thinking, as a general concept and theory underpinning design practice, has been discussed in various depths throughout design history. Hopefully i have made this case clear in my history of design thinking. But the exact term itself, that is the exact words “design” and “thinking” used together and in context of a designerly approach, was first known to be published by Peter Rowe in 1987 in his book Design Thinking. Some people have tried to establish an earlier reference of the phrase, and perhaps there does exist some exact references prior to Rowe’s 1987 text, but i have doubts if there is a reference that can be found earlier than what i found from Archer… In his article Systematic Method for Designers first published in 1965, during the first generation of design theory, Archer comments on the changing landscape of industrial design:

In the face of this situation 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)

Here is a screenshot if incase you don’t believe me

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.24.30 pm

!!! ! Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 2.25.03 pm !!!!

Here, Bruce relates the term “design thinking” to the cognitive and multidisciplinary practice becoming of industrial designers. Let’s just all take a moment to let this sink in. #mindblown.

2. Bruce offers us a damn good definition of design

Us design research monkeys have chased our tail and thrown a few faeces tantrums, trying to assimilate the often disparate characteristics and disciplines of design. Bruce had already established his definition of design that perhaps could have saved us a lot of time and trouble

Before we can look at the systematic methods of designers, we must know what we mean by ‘design’. An architect preparing plans for a house is clearly designing. So is a typographer preparing a layout for a page of print. But a sculptor shaping a figure is not. What is the difference? A key element in the act of designing is the formulation of a prescription or model for a finished work in advance of its embodiment. When a sculptor produces a cartoon for his proposed work, only then can he be said to be designing it. (p.58)

Now compare the above phrase with:

The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.” (Simon, p.111)

 Sounds a lot like Herbert Simon doesn’t it? Simon published the above text in Sciences of the Artificial in 1969 mind you, a good four years after this article.

Bruce goes on in his discussion on a definition of design, adding details and characteristics that paint a pretty good holistic picture of design practice and thinking that (unlike some other historical attempts) is applicable to design practice today. I have summarised Bruce’s definition of design for you:

Bruce Archer’s definition of design:

1. There has to be a prior “formulation of a prescription or model for a finished work in advance of its embodiment” (p.58)

2. The prescribed formula or model must be embodied in/as an artefact

“ Hence the formulation of the idea for an office filing system may be designing, so long as it anticipates the laying down of ‘hardware’. Similarly, the discovery of a chemical formula in general is not designing, but the prescription of a formula for (say) a new plastics material may be” (p.58)

3. There must be a creative step in the process

“There is also a sense in which the act of arriving at a solution by strict calculation is not regarded as designing {…} it is characteristic of creative solutions (and often the most successful designs) that they are seen to be apt solutions- but after completion and not before” (p.58)

4. It must have purpose. Intent over exploration.

“ It implies purposeful seeking of solutions than idle exploration” (p.59)

5. It is intuitive but not spontaneous

“ In this sense the composition of music, for example, although in many ways analogous, is not designing” (p.58)

6. It must begin with a need

7. It must reconcile

“We have already said that the art of designing is the art of reconciliation […] reconciliation implies that conflict is resolved” (p.60)

8. It must be holistic and consider the artefact in a system and not of itself

“The current tendancy in design, as in many other fields, is to try to consider the whole system of which the product is part, instead of considering the product as a self contained object” (p.60)

9. Design problems are complex (oh hey Rittel & Webber who published wicked problems 8 years later…)

“A single design problem is a complex of a thousand or more sub problems. […] But although each sub problem can be resolved so as to produce and optimum solution, or even a field of acceptable solutions, the hard part of the task is to reconcile the solutions of sub problems with one another.” (p.62)

10. Design is about the optimisation of solutions (sorry simon you were also 4 years too late)

“Often, where the optimum solution of one sub problem competes the acceptance of a poor solution in the other, the designer is forced to decide which of the two take priority” (p.62)

3. Bruce recognised that computers could never replace design thinking and judgement

I find this a rather silly argument that many from engineering/computer science fields still like to throw around. Artificial Intelligence isn’t at the stage of achieving complete rational and emotional judgment and i hardly think it will happen for some time (and if it does, it wont replace designers).

But ill let Bruce do the talking: “Although resolving a large number of sub problems and their combinations and permutations is the very thing that computers are good at, it is unlikely that any computer will replace the designer in the role of criterion giver or judgment maker – at least for a very long time to come.” (p.63)

4. Bruce realised we could never come to some kind of agreement on a definition of design

“Unfortunately, the science of design method has not yet reached a degree of sophistication which will permit the use of agreed axioms, or even the use of an agreed terminology. The several scattered research workers in this field each have their own favorite models, techniques and jargon. However, a certain amount of common ground is emerging. For example, a basic breakdown of the nature of design procedure is largely agreed, although there are some differences about whether it should be described in threes tages, four or six. The present author favors six” (p.64)

I like his no BS approach, stating that there is “jargon” in definitions of design, much like we find today in design thinking. What i find humorous about this statement is “a certain amount of common ground is emerging”. I think i have read this about design practice and design thinking in texts over the last 20 years. Yet, in particular to design thinking, there are more publications stating that there is no consensus or common ground on a definition. I think its funny that the fundamental core of our research and practice has been consistently confused since 1965.

5. Bruce recognised that design problems are fuzzy and unclear

“Most designers, good and bad, find that the problems they are asked to solve are seldom clearly defined by their clients” (p.67)

This situation will probably always remain the same and central to design practice. Here, Bruce acknowledges the fuzziness and ambiguity in design and particularly during the formative phases of design practice.

6. …And as such, realised the importance of problem-definition

Bruce references heuristics as an important element behind the formative phases of design practice and thinking, particularly when the problem is unclear. In his discussion he makes quite explicit the nature of problem-solution co evolution that is famously attributed to Kees Dorst and Nigel Cross’ research in design:

“To have defined the problem properly- even to have put a finger on the crucial issues- is not the same as having solved the problem itself. Nevertheless, it has gone some way toward a solution and, having formulated some sort of plan, the designer can offer estimates of time and cost.” (p. 70)

I believe much of the reason behind why many scholars don’t cite Bruce Archer more than they do is that it is freaking hard to get a hand on many of his texts. This article i have referenced from is one of his earlier texts and shows the early stages of his thinking towards design definitions and establishing design as a distinct discipline. His later articles evolve on these lines of thought, centering on why design is a practice distinct from the sciences and humanities.

Much like the other theorists of his time, Bruce predicted many things that continue today. However, difference of Bruce is that where other theorists identified one or two aspects common or fundamental to design that may apply to today’s practices, Bruce clearly identified and articulated a very close holistic depiction of design as it currently stands. You have to admit that this is fairly impressive, and it is the reason why i feel we should hold Bruce Archer at the forefront of our mind when we think of fundamental figures in design theory. For me, at least, he is front and centre.

**again this is taken from my thesis, please cite where necessary and blabla.

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Hello all!

Just a quick update to say that more posts are on the way in the coming months. I am in the final stages of wrapping up/editing the PhD and once it has been submitted I will have plenty of new and interesting content that I hope you will all enjoy.


Stay tuned.

The Fabs and Fads of Design Thinking

Hello all! I want to alert the internet to a recent panel-slash-discussion I participated in for DESMA. I will cut and paste a brief description about DESMA from their website:

DESMA is a trans-disciplinary network of 12 researchers, 4 universities and 8 industry partners. We want to build a vibrant and sustainable community across Europe of high quality research in the intersection of design + management to be driving the discussions on the future of the field, to exchange knowledge and to support collaborations between academia and practice.

One of the initiatives to “support collaborations between academia and practice” was the recent introduction of DESMA chats. This is an informal panel discussion hosted by two great DESMA PhD researchers, Andreas Benker and Andrew Whitcomb. The DESMA chats invite academic and practice based experts to participate in a half hour discussion on a chosen topic. I was lucky enough to be invited along with Cecilia Hill, general manager of design practice at Telstra, to participate in the first episode of DESMA chats, The Fabs and Fads of Design Thinking.

My response was fairly basic, as we are only afforded half an hour and I didn’t want to confuse the general audience. I believe that half an hour is a good length of time as much longer would become tedious to a viewer. However, suggestions as to how to improve either the content or structure of DESMA chats are more than welcome. Would you like to see more complex discussions, or prefer easy to digest information? Follow @desmanetwork to keep up on the latest episodes, or to participate in the discussion.

Anyhow, here is the full episode. Hope you enjoy!


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Exploring Design Thinking


Well there has been quite a break between posts, but I did not forget to write. Like an amateur lover struggling to express oneself, I have been debating what to post that would seem useful and of interest to you internet folk. I know most of you are here to learn about design thinking, but I recently realised that I have not spoken much (in depth) about the nature of my research besides that it focuses on design thinking. So this post is going to act as a summary and explanation of what exactly I am doing every day- and with all of your hard earned tax.

The only account I have from my thesis is the brief history of design thinking which was a summary of my literature review. I am very grateful that these posts have been so well received, but I now would like to push your focus to where we go from the history. Cue the research question:


Understanding the impact of design thinking in complex environments


Sounds pretty broad, eh? Well it is. Generally in academialand it shouldn’t be, but in the case of design thinking it needs to be. My question is an exploratory one; meaning that I am investigating a “new” area that is under researched (i.e: does not have a large enough body of literature to build upon, hence the exploration). So you could argue that any kind of information I document on design thinking in complex environments is a contribution, but this wasn’t satisfying enough for me.

A few gaps surfaced from my review of the literature. These gaps normally form the basis of your research investigation. What struck me from my literature review in particular was learning about the kind of evolution (or cycle*) design thinking appears to be taking. There is a lot of literature examining how designers work; research on students and professionals in “traditional” design fields such as product (engineering), graphic communication and architecture. But as practice evolved focused towards “higher” levels of design, such as service design, the amount of research literature available was pretty thin. Not a lot has been examined empirically on higher levels of design practice- systems and services- and so it is this very current stage in the evolution of design thinking that I am investigating.


Complex Environments are fun!

What exactly is a complex environment**? This is tricky to define so I had to create my own boundary (definition) for my thesis. In a nutshell, a complex environment fits majority of the following criteria:

(N.B: a complex environment should not to be confused with complexity theory)

  • 10 characteristics of wicked problems

  • Buchanan’s third and fourth orders

  • affects or includes a large number of individuals in the design process

  • emphasis on intangible design and/or sustainable problems. Operating in social networks.

  • Open system and/or problem (which relates back to wicked problems)


So referring back to my typology of design thinking (which I have now inverted upon the advice of a supervisor) the criteria for complexity is commonly evident in the fourth and third quadrants (system and services). You could argue that objects (products) may fit the above complexity criteria, but the design process of an artefact largely “ends” when the product needing to be made is constructed to the satisfactory requirements dictated by the client and/or materials (e.g: a new logo or chair)- and the brief provided is often more concrete. With systems and services, the requirements are extremely vague and ambiguous, often ill defined, and thus the solution is never complete as there are no hard specifications to design against. Furthermore, the design ‘object’ in complex environments is more conceptual than physical; with brainstorming sessions emphasising high-level ideas around experiences and connections, than textures, colors and size. In other words, the conversation does not begin as product/artefact centric.


Typology of DT. inverted

do you think this makes more sense inverted?


The most interesting part about this area of complex design activity (3 and 4) is that the design project includes some kind of design activity from all levels of practice. There is often an overarching intention where a design team will create a high level design solution (or sometimes just intent). Once this high level solution is agreed upon, the focus converges towards specific deliverables (as the project is refined, design activity shifts down through the pyramid). The design work that follows supports the high-level design. Yet, in each level, dedicated and specialised design teams will often run through a full design process within the boundary of their project task in order to fulfil the overarching brief. For example: a dedicated design team will focus on service design and run through a design process methodology; drafting, prototyping and perhaps user testing the service idea. Similarly, when the service is complete and products have been built for it, a dedicated design team (level 1) required to communicate the new service offering through graphic communication (posters, websites, booklets)  and will work through a design process of sketching, iterating and prototyping in order to come up with a final solution. BUT! These mini design methodology sessions all make up the broad, overarching design process. Think of a big daddy design (project) methodology cuddling little mini methodologies.



It’s a big daddy design process squiggle, with his mini squiggles


So, it is not a matter of a higher level being “more important” or “more design thinkery” than another, but that the focus of designing becomes more specific, concrete and less ambiguous as it moves from higher levels to lower ones. Each level is needed for the success of the entire design process system. Here is an example where I have placed a rather typical high-level design project within this typology:




This kind of structure was evident in the first two case studies I have analysed. In this example, you can see how the focus of design activity becomes more concrete and specific as you move through each level. A complex design project will begin at level 4 or 3 with a broad, holistic and systemic focus around the problem at hand and the intention behind resolution. It is interesting to note that design activity at its highest level is really all about the (design) thinking. Design methods are involved but become more prevalent as the solution shifts through each level, gaining tangibility. Once the high level design is established, the project will (generally) move to some sort of service design, before shifting into a product design phase and finally a communication design phase.


Enough of that. What exactly are YOU focusing on?

Depending on the epistemology and methodology, a research student might narrow case study research to one particular industry/context, say, large private organisations or public sector services. Doing so has a range of benefits (rigour, consistency, etc). Of course for me I hate consistency and love a bit of intellectual masochism, and as a result, chose three different contexts to study.

So for my thesis i am focusing on three different contexts that include high level, complex design practice:

1. Private sector (Large scale organisational design)

2. Public sector (Policy design)

3. Open source sector online collaboration (OpenIDEO)

(For confidentiality reasons, and to be on the safe side, im not naming the first two cases. The third case is published, open access material)

Adding another layer to the focus of my research, I have also chosen each case deliberately for the position of design thinking in relation to the problem. That is, the first case explores the application of design thinking external to the organisation (problem), the second is an example of the application of design thinking internal to an organisation, and finally the application of design thinking in an open collaborative environment (without a perceived governing design agency or organisational body). I will have to explain in more detail in another post why this collection of cases is so interesting.

Geez… I’m sorry guys. I lured you into a blog post about my research and kind of ended things just as I was about to tell you what my PhD is all about. Long blog posts are pretty time consuming to read, so I think it’s best to end things here and follow up later with a deep explanation on why I chose the cases that I did and why research into design thinking in complex environments is important. I did warn you all in my about page that I like to ramble, didnt I?


Adios for now!





*i say cycle here because if you take into account the history of design thinking, particularly papers during the 60s-70s (i.e: the first wave) many actually discussed high level  design. For example: Rittel and Webber’s paper, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.
**I deliberately chose the word environment rather than problem as using the word problem would be confused with the term ‘wicked problems’. Furthermore, an environment can contain complex problems and situations. For example: a basic problem in a very complex network of stakeholders is still a complex environment. Using the word ‘environments’ allowed my research to look at both complex problems (in simple contexts) and complex contexts (but simpler problems).
*** if you have read this far i really commend you on your patience and concentration. Hit me up on Twitter and i will send you a virtual high five
**** I should also add that the ideas presented here are my own concepts taken from my thesis. Thus, if you like please cite!

Reality Bites

You guys are just going to make me go right ahead and say it, aren’t you?

Yes. Design thinking has hit a bit of a plateau. I’ll be the first to point out the elephant and admit that over the last year not much has happened. At least, not on the surface…


The same hype slash propaganda promoting the idealistic process and practical methods is continuing its rounds which is why design thinking is starting to seem a little stale. Stale because we kind of know enough about what it is (process) and how to do it (methods). We get it. You have variations of the general process of: fuzzy front end, empathize, problem frame, ideate, prototype, and iterate. You already understand that its about people, its human centered and its collaborative and participatory. You know its about facilitation. You know that sticky notes should be your best friend and lego may be taken seriously by adults in business suits. And yet, we are still circulating this same information, with very minor tweaks and/or novel ideas (use blue sticky notes instead of yellow/ try bodystorming instead of brainstorming/add more emphasis on ethnography and anthropology) in an attempt to differentiate what is, and has been, essentially the same information packaged with slightly different bows.

What have we learned in the last year and a half?

Well, honestly? Not much. That is, nothing new in terms of empirical insights on the process+method behind design thinking. But there have been some papers published around cognition which echo earlier research. In updating the literature for my most recent review, I (and other researchers) struggled to find significant ‘breakthroughs’ and/or developments in pragmatic and non-theoretical design thinking research. When i mentioned in an earlier post that design thinking is still being discussed in academia, it is mainly in conferences and forums such as the PhD design list. Charles Burnette recently published some new (cognitively focused) interpretations that may be of interest to those of you seeking a more psychological stance on design thinking literature. For me, the most interesting development is that design thinking is really powering forward in public service and policy design areas. This may not sound particularly new, but the fact that it is gaining traction within governments as opposed to external agencies specialising in public or policy design consultancy, is a major improvement for design thinking.

So what can i add to this conversation? Well, in an attempt to contribute some new research on the topic i re-structured and revisited the section of literature that i had written on recent developments in design thinking. The history has largely remained the same, but what i rediscovered is that design thinking is now generally accepted as an approach than a description of a set of methods. This may seem obvious, but there was still debate around whether design thinking signified a set of methods or a mindset or both. What is also interesting is the opinion that design thinking shapes multidisciplinary design practice, and is also shaped by practice (See Gumienny et al. 2010, p.246). This adds more weight to the ideology that the characteristics of design thinking may be transitory and that the designerly approach evolves with new and emerging areas of human concern. Again, this situation brings up the same pesky questions: how do we define design thinking practice? what skills does a design thinker need? are there fundamental characteristics of design thinking, or will it forever change and evolve with social needs?

In response to the last question, i tried to distinguish a rough list of fundamental characteristics for design thinking that could classify as ‘staples’; elements that (up to now) have and should remain part of the description of design thinking despite advancements in research and transformations of approach. Im kind of going out on a limb here because these characteristics may change, or over time become obsolete. But i feel that despite the observable evolution of design thinking we can see recurring characteristics that underpin the approach. The benefit of trying to articulate foundational elements of design thinking creates a focus framework. This means that no matter what direction design thinking takes, it will always protect itself from disintegrating and/or deviating from a designerly approach. Because if the design approach evolves dramatically in the future, who can say it is any more design than it is science, business or art?  (Perhaps the real question is: do we want to preserve it as part of the practise of design, or let it adapt, evolve and transform over time?)

So think of this list as base ingredients in cooking- with just a few staple ingredients you can create many different dishes. I settled on these core characteristics because they were consistently discussed in both historical and current research on design thinking:

*Preference for the design of intangibles over tangibles

*Innovation (***this needs a special disclaimer: refer to end of this post)

*Holistic perspective

*Comfort in the uncertainty around “wicked” (i.e complex) problems

*Emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration

*Human/user-centered focus

*Emphasis on user/human centered methods for data gathering/analysis (fundamentally ethnographic)

*Preference for creative visualisation; particularly manifested in methods for sensemaking/synthesis

*Positive/Optimistic attitude


*Open and iterative in both process and mindset (non linear)

Just to emphasise that these design traits are characteristics fundamental to design practice, i have placed them in my nifty pyramid so you can see that the characteristics we know now as design thinking are in fact fundamental to design practise as a whole:



i acknowledge that each level can potentially carry more/less characteristics, but i am focusing on the general nature of design work in each level

***”So whats up with innovation?” I hear you ask. Well, when i was reflecting on the backlash around design thinking that peaked in 2012, i realised that there was a major degree of difference between the expectations and reality of design thinking. The expectation industry had is that design thinking would radically innovate processes and outcomes. The reality is that top agencies and figureheads have struggled to consistently publish groundbreaking insights. But this is exactly where our attitude towards design thinking was, and is, wrong. Design thinking is innovative, but it is NOT radically innovative. That is, it is not innovative in the sense and way clients/organisations and perhaps even you would like it or believe it to be. Norman and Verganti pointed out this problem in their paper, Incremental and radical innovation: design research versus technology and meaning change:

Radical innovation is the center of attention of design studies, where it is taught in design schools, and
advocated by people discussing innovation and “design thinking.” It is what everyone wants, but in fact, successful radical innovation is surprisingly rare.

design thinking isnt a fast food process

To summarise the paper for you, design thinking is *not* i repeat NOT a process for radical innovation. It never was. Stop expecting it to be radically innovative in your business, outcome, service, relationships, cat, mother in law, and any other thing you might want to fix. Get. it. out. of. your. heads. Now.

Design thinking is rarely about immediate innovation. It is, and always was, incremental. This is the fundamental underlying issue beneath all of those negative articles on design thinking you read about in 2012 and sometimes still today. Our expectations on design thinking need to shift (clients especially), and our attention  needs to move to a space where we understand that this process is not one that can create overnight miracles. It is not radical. Its methods may sometimes be rapid, but thats about as fast as its going to get. Good design thinking takes time and any innovation as a result of it will be incremental due to the nature of human centered iteration and improvement that is embedded in the mindset and process.

so would you like fries with that?

AGIDEAS Research Conference 2013

One of the (rare) perks of doing a PhD is getting free passes to research related events or conferences. Swinburne sponsored and hosted the AGIDEAS research conference this year held at ACMI in Melbourne. Lucky for us students, they had a few passes to give away.

I didn’t intend to blog about the day so i did not take notes/images of the talks and apologise for the somewhat vague recollections. But on reflection of the event, i realised there were a few debates and key ideas that surfaced which i felt interesting to share.

To be perfectly honest, a lot of the research echoed many insights already established in the design field. Now im not implying that the research was in any way unoriginal, but, even though it was an original contribution to the particular discourse outside of design (say, business or psychology that has not published much research focused on design practice), the conclusions were almost identical to what designers have been publishing for decades. It made me wonder how much literature should be read external to ones research field, if a topic is fundamental to a field outside of ones own. This is particularly problematic for new industries recently discovering ‘design thinking’.

The theme for the event was titled Design for Business. Many speakers diverged a little off topic and majority of the talks focused on branding and marketing. However, there were three dominant discussions/debates that ran through the day:

1. Emotion

There were a few speakers that spoke for and against branding and designing for emotion. Prof. Jenni Romaniuk argued that she did not believe branding should involve or evoke emotion in consumers as people have a hard time as it is relating to one another let alone have an emotional connection to a brand. She spoke quite adamantly about her disinterest in design for emotion arguing it adds a level of stress in an already confusing marketplace. Emily Wright presented an interesting paper on packaging design that discussed trying out the new or tried and true. She was sympathetic to emotional design and her research implied that evoking nostalgia through package design can influence buying behaviour. Dr Dan Formosa discussed the use of personas in design and somewhat contradicted himself by first stating he did not like the idea of constructing one persona to depict an entire demographic, yet, he preferred basing personas on ‘real’ friends and individuals he has encountered. I (and i think i speak for most designers) favor designing with or for emotion as design is fundamentally human-centered and empathetic to the user/consumer.

2. Design Thinking

This probably seems like a ‘well duh’ topic to mention but i was actually fairly surprised that academics were still (seriously) referencing design thinking despite all of the marketing bull-kak and backlash it has received over the last year and a half. Usually academics run from anything that sniffs like a fad, so for multiple presenters to acknowledge design thinking as a serious and legitimate phenomenon assures that it is growing out of the fad phase. In fact there was a presentation titled: “Design thinking to grow the market: Developing products that address industry and consumer need,” by Dr Elaine Saunders, David Jenkinson and Jessica Taft.

3. Marketing Vs Design (particularly sustainable design)

Woooweee was this a hot topic. It seems the feud between marketers and designers has not lost its fire. Dr Robert Crocker presented an interesting lecture on ethicalization and greenwashing, focusing on sustainability and indirectly blaming consumerism and marketing for fuelling unsustainable desires. Upon finishing, Prof. Jenni Romaniuk challenged Dr.Crockers blame ideas on marketing, vehemently arguing that marketers just answer to the needs of consumers which they dictate and demand. Things got heated pretty quickly, with Dr. Crocker sharply replying that he completely disagreed with Jenni’s proposal and found marketing to be a fundamentally unsustainable practice. A few more jabs were thrown from both speakers before our MC, Dr.Gjoko Muratovski, quickly stepped in to break the fight with a joke: [that] “sideline tickets will be on sale after the conference,” and suggested both academics continue their debate over wine (because that would make everything more civil!). Suffice to say, the audience were on the edge of their seats  and many labeled it the highlight of the conference.

Overall, the day was an interesting account on current research surrounding branding in design and how branding and marketing can influence and affect business and consumer behaviour. Would love to know if anyone else attended the event and could share their thoughts on the day- or even just on these topics.