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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! 🙂


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  3. Lisa

    Your series on design thinking is brilliant, so accessible and enjoyable to read. Thank you for sharing! There is a small part of this post where you mention the lack of collaboration between areas of design research and practice. This concept really interests me, my postgrad work has strong connections between my theoretical research and design practice and at the moment I’m writing (or trying to until I got distracted by your blog) a paper about how graphic design might be used to diseminate academic theory. Wondering if you know of anybody writing about these areas? Or, better still, any practitioners working on such malarky? All the best

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thank you so much for reading and your kind words. Im going to guess that when you mention using graphic design to disseminate academic theory, you are referring to visual representation of complex theory/ideas? And the purpose for this is to make these theories/academic research accessible to the general public? Perhaps like a meme?

      Let me know if im on the right track and if so i might be able to point you in the right direction


      • Lisa

        HI Steph,
        Sorry for the delay, damn change to my gmail inbox put your response in a weird folder. Yes and yes to your articulate paraphrasing of my rather blunt words. However the meme part is arguable as I’m not sure what context you’re using this in. Of late people seem to refer to memes as those wee internet images with some witty text over the top. However my understanding of meme chimes in with the ol’ wiki explanation “A meme (/ˈmiːm/; meem)[1] is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” So if that’s what you mean then, yes, kind of.

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