Monthly Archives: November 2011

Forget Design Thinking, but not design thinking [The Facts]

I have read many articles over the past year on design thinking and realised that we need a bit of a reality check. Articles on design thinking are just that- articles- and articles are often embellished opinions. Some are more informed than others, but the rest (at this moment) are too busy  butting heads in hope that they will conquer.

Design Thinking is a turf war

Which makes sense considering there is money to be made off design thinking right now, and many are trying to cash in on the fad. I use the word ‘fad’ here because design thinking, throughout this recent wave, has been supported purely by hype than strong empirical evidence.
Why? Design thinking is still trying to find its feet. We are still in the stage of trying to determine who coined what, who’s who and what it actually is. With any new arrival of a process and way of thinking, many competitors come out of the woodwork to fight their position in the battle ground, debating who has ownership rights (or cashing rights) to pin their flag firmly in its fertile soil. It is safe to say that we can thank IDEO for popularising, or rather, realising and advertising the potential in this new form of development. Since IDEO pushed design thinking into the forefront of innovation, practitioners, academics, scholars, professors and designers have all crawled out of the woodwork to claim their piece of the design thinking pie. It has resulted in a royal mess, with arguments thrown about by every tom, dick and his dog as to why design thinking is or is not associated with design.
Before I get into the core of these debates, I want to highlight what we know as being hard, undeniable facts on design thinking to date:
The Facts – As we know it:
Fact #1. All propaganda supporting design thinking has been written based on opinions through mediums such as (personal) blogs, magazines, websites and books- none of which are peer reviewed. This means that fundamentally, what is being written is very much biased opinions based on personal motives under no external scrutiny.
Fact #2. Almost all material writing about what design thinking actually is, has had some bias towards personal career. This means those who come from a business background will write about how design thinking is great for business, likewise those who argue DT is not about design (or designers) do not come from design backgrounds. This is a territory war, and one that is (for the most part) about advocating DT in perspective from personal career motives. Why would someone from a design background argue design thinking is not about design, similarly, why someone from a social science background argue it is entirely about the unique talent of designers?
Fact #3. Without any proper, empirical literature/study on design thinking, most of the fundamental literature academics and practitioners turn to don’t actually explicitly come from the field of design. Interesting!
Fact #4. The fundamental literature used by academics come from areas such as policy design, architecture, cognitive science and engineering. The term, in these disciplines, was coined not as a reference to the discipline as we know it today, but as a description of the process of resolving (wicked) problems.
Fact #5. Design by definition (thanks Websters dictionary) is described as:
and even more interesting under examples and synonyms….
Which within this broad perspective, can be applied to every day life. This (verb) ‘doing’ definition is what fundamental literature (fact #4) was referring to- not designers and their prototypes or sketches. Somehow along the way, we read into the word ‘design’ too literally to mean design-ers and the design discipline, which then began a wave of literature exploring how designers design and what process they undertake.

The basic gist of the design process. For a more in depth analysis I recommend viewing Dr.Charles Burnette’s, ‘Seven Ways of Design Thinking’

But if you look at this process objectively, it is a fundamental step towards human evolution and one we all do both consciously and unconsciously every day. So it is natural that almost everyone has claimed to some degree to be a ‘design thinker’ or to be doing ‘design thinking’ and for others to argue it is not about designers or design. So why did we adopt this term, and not others, such as architecture thinking or planning thinking or strategic thinking?
Using the synonyms above, we could substitute design for plan, intend or aim. It just so happens that the word design best describes both a process towards a planned intention or desired outcome.   This can be applied universally and independently of any type of discipline. So if this is the case, then how has design thinking lasted so long as an advocation of designers way of thinking?
Two reasons:
1. As the fundamental literature (not related to design field) evolved towards design literature, more papers were exploring the ‘designers logic’ or ‘designerly way of thinking’. This muddled both the objective use of the term (from other industries) with attempts of finding direct examples (from the design industry) into a quasi theory of logic that is neither here (designer) or there (everyone else). We are currently stuck at the cross road of defining design thinking as a designerly logic posessed by designers, or as a fundamental process towards desired goals.
2. In both areas of literature, design is spoken about as a process. This is inherent as it is defined as planning with aim and intent. So what exactly is this process and how is it designerly or not? Right now, we are fighting between using designers logic to express this process and the general logic of man (which is essentially hard to define). We have to point to a source and say: ‘that is what design is about’ and this is where all other disciplines have a say.
My attempt to conceive an impartial and objective rationale:
My opinion and theory on this subject (in an attempt to come to some sort of resolution) is that the term ‘design’ was used not just as an objective description of human intentions to achieve desired goals, outcomes, and needs, but that this process is instinctively non-linear and a non-linear process is the fundamental process method of resolution in the field of design. Design as an industry is the most obvious reflection of the primitive and instinctive nature of design as a basic process to reach desired goals. Yes, architects, businessman, anthropologists, scientists and artists can argue they all do it. Everyone of us performs the act of design to a certain degree in our work and personal lives, but the best and most blindingly obvious example of individuals who actively and reflectively perform this process, and which the process is fundamental to their work, is exemplified in designing. Designers reflect and repeat this proces every day, they are most ‘in tune’ to their actions as they need to actively engage and reflect on their process to perform their work. Can you argue business men or sociologists put as much mental effort and reflection into the ‘design’ process as much as designers do?
This does not mean that all designers are good at the design process, or with enough reflection, business types couldn’t achieve the same critical understanding of the design process. This is ground where we also find different professionals arguing. I would like to add, that it is not a matter of design thinking being designer centric, or about designers being in sole possession of this intuitive gift that no one else could comprehend, it is just a matter of fact that designers engage in this mentality every day. Most designers over time, have developed an intuition on the process- this takes practice and development. Just like there are talented musicians who can pick up an instrument without any prior teaching or understanding, there are individuals-non designers- who ‘get’ design thinking, and there are designers who may never get it at all. But speaking in general terms and for the mass, businessmen and others who are used to certainty and linear logical development struggle to adopt and perform design thinking naturally. This is why the most successful (or commonly known) design thinkers are designers who are comfortable and familiar with this logic through everyday practice. This also has been enabled because these designers can support themselves through successful projects that they can claim exemplify design thinking, as opposed to theorists who argue against the ‘designer-centric’ but have no industry or empirical practice to support their claims.
BUT! The funny part is…
The irony in todays situation is that design thinking has not evolved according to its own process. Self proclaimed design thinkers have jumped from highlighting a problem to proposing a solution- with no iterative development in between analysing whether their methods and tools really work in industry or not. We have just jumped eagerly with trust that what is being sold to us comes with a lifetime warranty. I find it disturbing that not many individuals have asked for research and evidence on what it is exactly that makes design thinking ‘successful’. And without any research or evidence supporting this method, we are merely throwing around opinions and theories and jeopardising what could potentially be a valuable aid in development in different industries (notice i did not say INNOVATION but development). Design is about desired development, not waving magic wands. If we don’t start to critically analyse our own methods with support of research, DT will be walking the plank to drown in a sea of failed fads. We won’t get there however, until we settle the turf war and can objectively evaluate ourselves. It may threaten those wanting to make a buck, but it will save a lot more heartache and finger pointing from future failures.

Global Sustainability Jam: The theory behind the toolkit [Part 1]

Image courtesy of Will Donovan

On the last weekend of October, I helped facilitate the global sustainability jam in Melbourne. A few weeks prior to the event, I was approached by the local organisers Marina Paronetto and Talita Trindade to assist with development, along with two other professionals.

My role in the organisation of the event was to share my knowledge on design thinking to help structure the two day workshop, which Talita and Marina wanted to be based on a ‘designerly’ process. Additionally, I was asked to put together a toolkit that could assist participants in developing their ideas over the weekend.

Constructing this toolkit was a valuable little exercise for me to start thinking about the types of methods that would be most appropriate, useful and efficient in this context. What I realised is that this scenario had five main contexts that the methods toolkit needed to address and assist in an efficient and user friendly way:

1. Time limitation

2. Sustainably focused

3. Open to any form of outcome

4. Open to any problem definition, no project boundary

5. No prior knowledge on design methods

It is important to note that the weekend was not about creating a sustainable service outcome, but could include products, applications, technological solutions – anything! Hence the methods i could use did not need to be explicitly service design related, but since it can be argued that all man-made needs are a type of service, i have used this terminology to explain the process in the following.

Why these contexts were important to consider

Time limitation

Most design methodology toolkits are constructed for long term projects. Most of the methods are useful, but time consuming and demand hours if not days to properly analyse and complete. I noticed a lot of the most popular tools couldn’t be adapted to fit a two day workshop and adaptation of such methods would lose its usefulness and intent. So rather than try to adapt successful but time consuming methods to fit the two days, I chose to collect the most rapid and effective methods I could find from various toolkits. It seemed a wiser and more logical decision to use existing methods that are rapid, than attempt to disfigure the more ambitious tools to fit- without any knowledge on whether they would prove useful.

Sustainably Focused

Obviously the most important concept i had to keep in mind was that the aim of the weekend was to create sustainable outcomes. Business-driven methods would be of little benefit in this scenario, when a holistic and human-centred perspective is understood by many researchers and practitioners as the key to creating a ‘sustainable’ solution.

current service solutions are 'holistic' within themselves and don't consider their position or impact on the external environment

The mindset needed to attack the problem expands beyond just a holistic understanding of the solution in and of itself, but the wider implications that the solution has on the community and environment.

services need to open up their ecosystems and include the external environment as part of their holistic cycle

As such, the solution should ideally feed back in and out of itself, creating a holistic [sustainable] lifecycle that leaves as little negative impact as possible.

The external environment must become a part of the holistic service system. A continuous feedback loop will maintain a more sustainable balance between the service and the environment around it

If the feedback cycle of a solution can be isolated in a specific area it would have a much greater chance of monitoring and managing impact. To take every factor and variable into account is unfeasible in any context, however, this meant to me that the easiest and most successful solutions were ones that focused on a localised environmental issue or community, than attempted to introduce bigger issues and wider (global) demographics. This theory echo’s Ezio Manzini’s writings on localised and creative communities, which discusses creating solutions that use and rely on resources in and around a localised community for production- a small but vital step towards a more sustainable future. I have taken this general ideology and reintroduced it into existing service design theory. This recontextualises the ‘holistic’ focus of a service, to include the external environment as part of its ecosystem. This creates a dependance loop that has to coexist in harmony for both the service and the environment around it to survive.  The methods needed to assist and inspire this type of outcome had to take these theories into account.

Call it what you want…

The collation of methodologies for the toolkit was largely an experiment. Since my thesis focuses on design thinking process methods applied in a sustainable context, it was valuable for me to try and understand what methods could work better and might work differently. It is also worth noting that the definition of design thinking has no concrete source (as of yet) so i have refrained from calling this exercise ‘sustainable design thinking’ or ‘sustainable service design thinking’ for the time being. In broad and general terms, design thinking houses all sorts of design methodologies and was the mindset that was used to structure and empower participants for the weekend. However, it is crucial that a (good) design thinker knows what methodologies will work successfully in different scenarios and tailor these to each unique context.

Hurrah! You got this far so you may as well keep an eye out for part 2. The next installment will cover remaining contexts and present the toolkit in all of its glory. Oh joy!

Here is a snappy little video to keep you occupied in the meantime…

Research Vs Practice…the ugly truth

There is something almost forbidden when you mention research and experience in the same sentence. It is usually towards the end of our undergraduate that we make a choice on whether we should continue studying or dive into the pool of professional practice. Today, our society (at least in Australia) is largely driven by industry experience. Depending on what field you come from, research is either the instigator of innovation or a back-seat observer. With exception of industries whose practice is based and relied upon on ongoing research (sciences/medicine) no side of the research vs experience argument is-in reality- any more valid than the other. But considering this is a blog about design, i am going to focus solely on the (un)importance of design research in design practice.

You can’t innovate in a vacuum

I am a big believer in not doing any type of work in a vacuum. I dont believe anything insightful or innovative can be created without knowing what exists, how it exists and comparing creations to others insights, work and suggestions. When i was studying to become a graphic designer, my tutors drilled it into our heads that research was imperative towards making better designs. So it makes sense a field that is grounded on an iterative and reflective process, would reflect through research to better its craft. Logically speaking, this field would also adopt and respect research.

This is far from the case.

Towards the end of my degree when students were excitedly planning their future, i suggested continuing with study towards a masters. The room divided. Half of my classmates cried, “More study?! What a waste of time! It does nothing for your career or the industry!” and the other half mumbled, “perhaps it will make me a better designer?” When i graduated from my masters, the same discussions were in motion- this time with most of the students feeling prepared enough to go into the workforce, the large majority ‘burned out’ by uni, and a handful considering the long haul into a PhD.

Intellectual war

I already had it set in my mind that i wanted to continue studying. This is because i love to learn and i love to discover and analyse findings i have made. But when i began asking industry professionals their opinion on my chosen career path (the people who i was certain would respect my decision) i received an overwhelmingly negative and unsupportive response, more so than what i had received from my peers.

So why the turf war? To me, it all can be summarized in three simple sentences:

1. Industry professionals don’t like their years of experience being undermined by a few years of study conducted by a researcher.

2. Research is usually too abstract or detached, detailed or impractical for industry professionals to adopt and employ in practice.

3. Research isn’t classified as experience, largely due to number 2 and 1.

Now im not blog bashing industry professionals. I too would take the same attitude as most exhibit. But even those who have clocked years of experience and returned to uni to complete a PhD are met with the same bemused expression from colleagues. The reasons for this i believe comes down to:

1. Ego

2. Misunderstanding

Ego works on both ends. Both researchers and professionals like to believe they know better about their practice. More importantly, misunderstanding on the nature and the value of outcomes from research is the greatest issue students face when justifying doctoral study. Too many times have I heard fellow classmates question the ‘point’ of doing a PhD, observing friends climbing corporate ladders (whilst shaking their heads in pity at all of the students below), and receiving criticism that researchers do ‘no real work’ and simply ‘bum around uni’.

The reality of our field today

The reality is that the design field is cutting its nose to spite its face.

There are not many cases where i can say that a practitioner and a researcher have met with mutual respect for one another, with an equal understanding of the value behind their chosen mode of acquiring knowledge they both have of the field.

Right now, the design industry wants to evolve. It wants to be better, a more serious practice. But like individual development, design as an industry cannot evolve in a vacuum. When professionals and researchers decide to acknowledge both modes of knowledge generation as valuable experience, the question of whether to study or practice will no longer be an indication of right or wrong/poor or successful paths- but needs that are chosen in order to advance the industry. We need professional and research experience to better inform and shape the path of our design industry. This will not be achieved alone- either in a studio or in an office.