Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Brief History of Design Thinking: The Theory [P2]

The Second Wave (1980s-1990s)

After its initial breakthrough on the academia scene, design theory shifted into a somewhat soul searching phase that saw many scholars reflecting on the cognitive aspects of design; what it means to be creative, how much relies on intuition and how personal is the process.

Design theorists that emerged during this period remain household names today. This is potentially due to the fact that design theory has not undergone much of a revolution since this reflective phase. In fact, we (academics and practitioners) are currently in the midst of shaping the early stages of a new wave of design as we speak. More will be explained in a separate post at a later date. For now, we continue our academic journey through the theoretical landmarks that were developed during the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s.

Nigel Cross: The instinctive one

Nigel Cross

Nigel’s work surrounds the investigation of intuition in design- but not just IN design, UNIQUE to design. Nigel believed that the design process was special due to tacit knowledge and instinctive process, arguing that design can stand alone as a craft independent from other disciplines- especially science.

We have come to realize that we do not have to turn design into an
imitation of science, nor do we have to treat design as a mysterious,
ineffable art. We recognize that design has its own distinct intellectual
culture; its own designerly ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and
ways of finding out about them’ (Cross 1999, p. 7)

Yup. We designers are a unique breed. We have our own way of knowing, sensing and… thinking. Thinking? Thinking! OH SNAP! What Nigel’s describing here is design thinking!

Nigel favoured the designer in the design process so much that he described the designer as the core of the process. The privileged mind of the designer was central to the process and relied heavily on his or her intuition.

Business, engineering and all other non design folk: you can stop rolling your eyes. Whether it be called intuition, instinct or design thinking, this issue of what makes a designer a ***DeSigNeR*** compared to mortals is still a hot topic of debate. But it might cool your blood to know that Nigel also realised that the ‘creative leap’; the spontaneous burst of creativity scholars previously defined as central to the design process, was not so elusive after all.

anyone can build a bridge

It appeared through Nigel’s investigations that creativity (design thinking) was more about building ‘creative bridges’ than it was about being touched by the inspirational light from the design Gods.  Creative bridges was more about analogical thinking and abductive leaps. Where Papanek described bisociation as a process tool to inspire creative ideas, Nigel thought that this was a natural thought process unique to a designer.

Richard Buchanan: He who popularised “wicked problems”

Richard Buchanan

Pretty much anyone who is familiar with design or better yet design theory would’ve heard of the term ‘wicked problems’ being abused thrown around. Buchanan’s widely influential paper published in 1992 titled, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, busted out ‘wicked’ and ‘design thinking’ into mainstream design culture. Now is time to spare a thought for poor ol Rittel and Webber who not only coined the term ‘wicked’ but also (in their own way) described design thinking. But it so happens Buchanan’s paper was in the right place at the right time to make the right impact. However, Buchanan like most of his peers during this period rejected the notion of design as a science. He describes design thinking as a ‘liberal art’ reflecting contemporary culture and used by professionals as ‘insight’ into resolving (Rittel’s) wicked problems.

Im going to have to remind you readers that this period was a pretty self indulgent time for designers and design theorists. The following quote might make you gag/be filled with pride depending on your stance or experience on the matter:

[design thinking is] Mastered by a few people who practice the discipline with distinctive insight and sometimes advance it to new areas of innovative application (Buchanan 1998, p. 8).

But perhaps one of the main reasons why this paper was so influential is it explicitly connects design thinking to innovation. For Buchanan, this was largely attributed to the fact that he realised design thinking is a multidisciplinary mindset and discovered four primary disciplines where it could be found- regardless of whether design is directly involved or not:

1. Symbolic and visual communication

2. The design of material objects

3. Activities and organized services

4. The design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning

(Buchanan 1998, p. 9)

Buchanan predicted much about the nature of design thinking today, however one idea has fallen short of hitting the big time and that is the collaboration between research and practice. Buchanan’s idea of innovation was not exclusively multidisciplinary in practice, but multidisciplinary across practice and research. I know I harp on about this a lot, but this is one area where design practice falls short and the collaboration between design industries and research is only vaguely implemented in very specific areas of industrial development. Anyhow, to reflect on Buchanan’s characteristics in context of design today we could interpet the previous points as follows:

1. graphic design

2. product design

3. service design

4. policy/urban planning/ design

Furthermore, if you have heard about the design industry described as stages/phases/levels/etc, this would have to be the source of such interpretations which is helping us define new heights in design practice and research.

Donald Schön: Caught in his own reflection 

Donald Schon

This man is a favorite amongst design researchers. Schön was the ultimate of thinkers. He reflected so much about the process of design its any wonder he didnt get caught in an existentialist thought loop. But alas, he emerged with his thoughts in a book titled, The Reflective Practitioner.

Schön aggressively refuted the idea that design needs to ground itself in science to be taken seriously. Like his peers, he made an attempt to individualise design as a unique practice through cognitive reflections and explanations on its process.

Look at the frame, not the painting

Schön’s main shtick on design practice was not focused on analysing the process but rather framing and contextualizing it. He describes the idea of ‘problem setting’ as a crucial component that holds together the entire process. The point of focusing on this was to allow designers to best understand how to approach the problem before they go about processing how to solve it.

Side note: Much of my theory (and inspiration for the Sustainability Jam Toolkit) comes from Schön’s theory of design process methods. A quote from his book explains this philosophy:

”When ends are fixed and clear, then the decision to act can present itself as an instrumental problem. But when ends are confused and conflicting, there is yet no ‘problem’ to solve”

And what do we call problems that are confusing, conflicting with no clear problem to solve? Altogether now: WICKED PROBLEMS!

If you read Schön’s book, you will notice he rephrases wicked problems as ‘swampy lowlands’. It is exactly the same concept. BUT! Where analytical design theorists love to dissect the process, Schön believes in preserving the mysterious and intuitive aspect of design, another reason why he focuses on just ‘framing’ the problem and not examining how to solve it.

Let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in
the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to
situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict
(Schön 1982, p. 49)

This might sound a bit airy-fairy, but in the thick of countless debates in design, the issue of intuition vs science still has scholars throwing punches. For certain areas within design such as graphic design, the intuitive argument Schön likes to put forth is appropriate. But for areas containing wicked problems with results which could affect people, intuition just isnt going to cut it.

What now?

As for my two cents, I personally believe that design can ground itself within science AND art, it just needs to adapt its approach depending on the context and situation. Thanks to scholars in this period we have successfully created some kind of ground theory on design, independent from theory in art and science. The problem today is we have not fully investigated into the practicality of design, the design that does not lean towards intuition but calls for rigorous evaluation.

Hopefully i have made it blindingly obvious that through this journey of fundamental design theories design thinking isnt anything new. What we perceive as some hot new trend has been a topic of discussion for the past 50 years. Despite this fact, design thinking was not ready for our society until now, as the design industry has matured enough to bring this concept into light. As such, we find ourselves sitting on the shore, overlooking a new wave in design; the development of design thinking and its manifestation into methods, minds and all that has come before it. So how do we evolve ? We finally turn to investigating outputs rather than internal processings of the designer or team. In other words, we now evaluate the result of design thinking rather than the thinking itself. We ask ourselves if design thinking really is all it is cracked up to be, and in order to do that we must attempt to quantify its impact.

And what happens next..?

In the posts to come, I will run through the 1990’s to date describing the race through a field of methodologies, finishing at design thinking!

N.B: I am forced to note that the writings in this post (and those that follow) are summaries of research writing undertaken during my PhD. If you wish to refer to these critical examinations, please do so but with with mindfulness that you must reference my work and/or ideas discussed here. All images are also my own. Thanks and goodnight! 🙂

Global Service Jam 2012

Ah yes. A little delayed but here nonetheless…

My role at this years global service jam was not dissimilar to my role at the sustainability jam. I was asked to be involved by one of the primary organisers, Gin, who i had met from the sustainability jam.

I figured that participating in the organisation of a jam (again) would strengthen my understanding of workshopping, teamwork and facilitation. I didn’t expect to learn anything more insightful than i did from the sustainability jam (as both events are pretty much identical in nature) but i kept my mind open. I also knew that pulling together a service design toolkit might actually be trickier than the sustainability toolkit i had collated previously (will explain later).


We held a meet-n-greet event prior to the jam. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

Our initial meetings included the two initiators of the Melbourne jam as well as a few employees from Melbourne based service design company Huddle. Huddle offered to host the service jam in their office and meetings leading up to the event grew in numbers with more employees offering a helping hand. By the time of the event, we had 8 organisers on board; 6 Huddle employees, the two initiators and myself. This was a tremendous effort compared to the sustainability jam, which had only 5 organisers helping out.

The extra aid was beneficial for keeping multiple tasks running with momentum, such as media and promotion.  Aside from organising the toolkit, structure and facilitating at the event, I was asked to invite a “professional” to speak at the opening night on design thinking and service design. There was no better person in my mind to invite than my secondary supervisor, and Swinburne’s go-to-guy for academics studying design thinking, Gavin Melles.

The network wall. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

Other organisers were also asked to hunt around for speakers and “mentors” for the event. It was decided that all organisers would be ‘facilitators’, i.e., people offering general help over the weekend, and that we would also include mentors – people who are ‘specialists’ or ‘professionals’ in a specific area.


Prior to collating the toolkit, I needed to create the structure of the jam that would run over the weekend. This is because the toolkit is inherently the structure of the jam as well as a guide of methods that groups can work through over the 48 hours. I still cant stress enough how important this was for the jam in general, because after now having witnessed 2 jams I can say with confidence that the most organised and developed concepts were groups that stuck to the process structure and used the toolkit as a guide.

Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

I do not enforce the kit on anyone. It is a choice for participants to make; if some feel confident with the service design process, they need not use it. But most of the participants at the jams are new to these sorts of process methods and want to learn, and as such need a guide to help them stay on track.


Collating the toolkit was not as easy as i first thought. This was because service design is so iterative that it was difficult to clearly define methods as belonging to a specific ‘phase’ of the process. Almost all of the methods could have been used in any stage of the process, and i pointed out to groups that it is OK to feed  back through previous phases as their projects develop. This was one of the the primary differences between the service jam and the sustainability jam. The sustainability jam toolkit required more research from a broader range of methods as it was open to any sort of outcome. As a result, participants didnt have much time to ‘feedback’ through phases and it was easier to clearly define phases and collect methods that suit specific steps in the project (which also ensured participants didnt go back and forth through phases and waste time).

The business model canvas. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

The other issue I encountered was a lack of service design resources. I realised that there really wasnt much out there that i could draw upon to put into the toolkit. As a result, I borrowed a few methods from marketing and business disciplines because there simply wasnt enough service design methods to collect. Fortunately, keeping the kit thin was key and I managed to fill out 5 phases with approximately 3 methods in each phase:

1. Inspiration: 

-This includes the theme given to the jammers to work with
-Brainstorming techniques (taken mainly from design thinking: so similar to the susjam brainstorming section…a lot from, IDEO, etc)
-In this section participants decide on a type of service they want to go with, or even an existing service they might like to fix or add to, etc.

2. Understanding: (empathy)

-Includes understanding the values and needs of the customer/user- value mapping, etc
-Who the customer is/defining the market of the service and why it is a need/of value to this customer/demographic
-A rough but holistic understanding of how each facet in the service operates (using mapping tools) so they dont focus too much on just the customer and forget about the ‘bits’ in and around the service. Ensure is just as much about holistic organisational design /business structuring as it is about understanding the needs of the customer
-This is the initial “insight” they gain from understanding their service and (needs of) customer

3. Shaping

– This is where participants start to think a bit deeper into the structure of the service, the touchpoints customers might encounter and the experiences they want to map out.
– This phase and phase 2 will be interchangeable, aka a feedback loop. After initial insight into defining who the customer is, participants may use shaping techniques and realise they might want to go back and re evaluate what the true need is with more insight and information

4. Mapping

– This is basically using a variety of mapping tools to map out the business structure, value grid, customer experience map, customer journey, touchpoints, etc…this is the final ‘draw up’ of all of these different aspects which prepare them for..

5. Presentation

– The easy part as mapping phase pretty much does all of the presentation work. All participants have to do is explain and present the maps they created for their service

In terms of a logical progression through a service design project, this seemed like the most appropriate and rapid structure for the jam that would result in a sound outcome. I also tried to make sure that each step was as simple as possible and refrained from using too much technical jargon.

The Jam

Jamming. Image courtesy of Cat Dos Santos

The service jam has a pre-defined outcome. This makes it easier for participants to focus on what they need to create (unlike the sustainability jam) but also makes it easier for participants to get lost in the details of each phase of the project.

Unfortunately for me, I became ill leading up to the event and was forced to miss the opening night. I could only devote a few hours over the weekend to observing and helping teams. Despite the short amount of time i spent at the jam, i did learn quite a few things from my time there…

What I observed

1. Groups worked more independently than in the sustainability jam. This could be due to the character of participants, but I think this could partially be attributed to the fact that everyone knew their goal was to create a service. This subsequently created a false confidence in some groups.

2. Some groups got lost in the details. Even though everyone knew what they needed to do, there was a LOT of talking, to-ing and fro-ing amongst some team members. I dont think many even realised they were getting lost until a mentor stepped in to point it out. This largely was initiated due to time.

3. Time was not dominant enough. I said this last time about the sustainability jam and ill say it again. Time was not present during the jam. There needed to be a sort of omnipresent pressure from time ticking away- whether this be done by projecting a large clock on a screen, or having a watch on each table. Something like this needed to be done. Having a clock/timer ticking down over participants psychologically pushes individuals to work to deadlines and make quicker decisions. I also realised that having facilitators occasionally chime, “2 hours to go”,  does not trip the psyche to react in the same way as a countdown might.

4. The most thorough projects were ones that utilised the toolkit. It was great to witness groups using the kit, however some only picked up the kit once they were running out of time. The more successful projects appeared to have worked their way through the kit, ticking off each stage which resulted in work completed to be presented.

5. Some mentors felt their input was more disruptive than productive. This may be true for some groups, and perhaps the presence of facilitators and mentors was not as useful as for the sustainability jam (due to point no 1). But when groups needed help, it was a tremendous asset to have a mentor step in and offer professional advice on how to swiftly move on. I wouldnt argue against using mentors in jams, but knowing when to step back and step in is vital for this role.

One more thing…

we're a team!

we're a team!

Compared to the sustainability jam, most of the ‘insights’ i learned from the service jam were based around communication amongst organisers as opposed to observations made about the jam itself. Having a larger team working on the jam proved difficult at times, as internal conversations and decisions were often made without group consultation. It proved again how important it is to include all volunteers in the decision making process and how important it is to have one person managing the tasks of the group. Some tasks fell through due to this. It is easy for members in a large group to feel that someone else may take on a role/job. These are some  of the drawbacks of having extra help on board- someone needs to constantly ‘check in’ to see if everyone is doing their bit. This would be an important piece of advice i would pass on to future organisers, wherever they may be.

And oh yeah! Here is the toolkit! Feel free to download and use at your leisure, or even let me know if you found it useful on a project 🙂

<div style=”width:477px” id=”__ss_12026976″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Melbourne Service Jam Toolkit” target=”_blank”>Melbourne Service Jam Toolkit</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>documents</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>stefanie85</a> </div> </div>