Design Wars

Heeeere we go again. We are moving forward, i promise.

Design thinking took a bit of a dive in 2012 after some negative critiques (et tu, Bruce?) but has recovered in recent months with a resurgence of literature and discussions on the topic. Mainly driven by academia, design thinking is *slowly* becoming a household name, particularly thanks to new government initiatives happening globally; APS Innovation Plan, the European Commission, to name a few.

Lucy Kimbell, an intelligent and all-round respected researcher, recently published a blog post on the situation of design thinking in public services. The post comprised of comments made by herself to the  Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public ServicesI was alerted to this post during discussions with @TaylorHaig whom suggested i have a read. There was just too much to say about the subject over Twitter so i took to WordPress. Take this as my comments on Lucy’s comments on the design commission inquiry.  Of course i would also love to hear your comments on my comments on Lucy’s comments, too.

One of the first things to address is that even if you’re in design, it’s incredibly hard to define what design is. […] And even if you look at the academic literature on design, there are two major distinctions, which then come out – is design about giving shape and form to things? And that thing could be a physical product or it could be a digital interaction. Or is it about making change happen?

This is where i refer to Buchanan’s orders of design practice. I know, i know. I have posted about this many times before but there is significant value in stratifying design practice. This stratification of design allows us to better define what currently constitutes design (thinking) practice and what may be involved in the future. It also allows us to work around the tricky topic of definitions as Lucy has mentioned. In response to the above comment, design is a field that is lucky to be malleable enough to adapt and evolve quite rapidly and in parallel with the current speed of change (this can be for better or worse), but I don’t see design as EITHER ‘giving shape’ OR ‘making change’ – it is most definitely now both. Understanding how it can be both is made easier through understanding the layers of design practice. I am going to apply kind of a critical realist analysis to describe and expand upon existing stratifications of design:


If you like you may use this pyramid but with reference to moi as it is used as part of my thesis

Now you may think i have completely side stepped the issue of what exactly is design and doing design? Sure, we need (or would like) a snappy sentence that can summarize the actions, thinking and craft for the whole onion of design. Lucy quotes the famous line from Herbert Simon:

everyone who devises courses of action, to change existing situations into preferred ones, is doing design.

There is a reason this quote has kind of become the quintessential snapshot of design practice. It is thus far the best summary of what fundamentally constitutes doing design. The problem with this quote is its very broad. Is a graphic designer changing existing situations into preferred ones? Yes. Is an architect? Yes. Is a woman who devises her morning routine to change her physical appearance into a preferred one using make up and wardrobe mastery, doing design? Well, technically, yes. Lucy continues along this train of thought-

And if you say that to a doctor they think ‘well I diagnose and then I’m trying to change the state of the patient – which has a physical effect – so yes’. But then you have this problem which some designers go into of saying actually ‘design is everything’. If you push it that far you are saying design is everything, and therefore designers can tackle anything. Which is not necessarily the case. So that definition on the one hand seems right, but it also alludes to this question about design and management – are they really different?

So the problem we have here with this appropriate and famous quote from Simon, is that it is so general that it could be broadly applicable to pretty much any intentional action. This is where Lucy rejects the idea of ‘design is everything’. Unless we devise a new quote for design practice, design will be seen as the governing force behind pretty much anything. Kind of like gravity. But if we try to ‘design’ a new definition of design, it must be broad enough to allow room for adaptation and evolution and confined enough that it has its own identity. Designing a definition for design IS the ultimate wicked problem (oh the irony!). This is now where i need to point out that Simons quote only describes one half of design practice- the act of designing. It does not define the thing (noun) that is a design or objects that together make up particular designed thing. To answer this issue, as Lucy describes, we need to get into characteristics which make up what designers do- what is it that makes their work classify as design practice? And what characteristics make a designed thing?

is it design? is it art? (excuse the crude mobile phone sketch)

is it design? is it art? (excuse the crude mobile phone sketch)

Traditionally, design did have a very clear practice. Its not so much that traditional design practices were rigid and ‘boxed in’, it was that the designers knew their place. It wasn’t until the emergence of ‘higher’ level design practice that things started messing with peoples heads. If you look at traditional design areas such as industrial/product design, graphic design, architecture and fashion design, each sub-discipline knew what it needed to know in order to intentionally act to design a meaningful outcome. The characteristics of doing fashion design were dealing with textiles, understanding the body, stitching, creating garments, etc. In graphic design you work with typography, white space, publications,  logos and branding- graphic designers generally don’t deal with the contours of the body. With the exception of packaging, graphic design is essentially confined to 2d collateral.  There are technical rules and specifications that need to be adhered to in order to adequately complete each traditional design practice. Traditional design crafts have clearer guidelines; the final output is tangible and largely dependent on the ‘designer’ and/or design team. What technical guidelines are present for complex design practice; that which does not necessarily involve tangible outcomes and involve a larger number of co-creators (stakeholders)? What guidelines must this area work within? What techniques need to be learned in order to create appropriately designed outcomes? Once we sort these details out, we will be better able to define what exactly constitutes doing what Buchanan describes as ‘higher order’ design and design thinking.

Come join the rebel alliance…


Most recently, Donald Norman did a double-somersault backflip and decided that yes, there is such a thing as design thinking and yes, it is actually quite special. Similar to what I have mused about in previous posts, Norman admits that design thinking is not a cognitive practice unique to designers, but displayed by those who ‘question the norms’ and thus break out and innovate. Having the father of user-centered and human-centered design, and previously the worlds biggest design thinking skeptic, admit to turning a new leaf for design thinking is a pretty momentous occasion. Does this mean that in spite of all of the skepticism and backlash in 2012, professionals are starting to realise that there is in fact merit in the art of design thinking? Will this be the return of the Jedi?

May the (design) force be with you.

6 thoughts on “Design Wars

  1. Mark Watson says:

    Not all good news on the Australian front for Design Thinking, seems Australian Manavement are 5 years behind.
    I met the CEO of the APS Innovation (former CIO from Vic Gov) who posted recently about completing an online tutorial on design process. Seems all you neex is a cert from Coursera and you are a designer. She stated there were already 250 designers working with the ATO.
    The champion for Design in Canberra has a Grad Cert in Business (Innovation) [don’t know what his primary qual is] {probably cert III in Business from CIT}
    All very depressing for someone with 6 years of design education wanting to work in Service Design.

    • stefdr says:

      Hi Mark

      i am acutely aware of the situation of design thinking and service design in australia. For the most part, it is as you describe. And yes, there are times when it gets depressing! But i justify this current situation as part of the process for any ‘new’ field such as service design. When something isnt established, but very ‘hot’ and ‘now’ (ie kickstarters) everyone jumps on board and especially without much experience or qualification because courses dont exist yet. Then throw in the fact design is such an anything-and-everything kind of field, most people feel they can bluff their way through or relate an unrelated discipline. This is becoming a problem, particularly in the higher orders of design thinking where bad decisions have serious consequences. This is also where proper education and expertise is needed.

      Industry will either be ‘burned’ by serious failures lead by unqualified design ‘thinkers’ (and hopefully not blame the process) OR as more knowledge is established on the field (refining it in the process) qualified individuals will start to saturate or balance the market, forcing those that bluff to revise their knowledge.

  2. Hello,

    The pyramid of DT practice is interesting but there are certain issues related to complexity that I think the pyramid doesn’t capture and nor should it necessarily capture.

    According to complexity theory it is true that processes are amplified at different levels of complexity but that doesn’t mean that relationality of artifacts, experience, behaviors, etc is scale homogenous and therefore I don’t think that categorization according to level of complexity is appropriate. In ecology all systems, from the cosmos to micro particles, are open, variably interrelated, and shifting in stability, susceptible to fluctuations that shatter and create. At the same time complex systems could emerge from relatively simple structures.

    I think generally design makes the assumption that the sciences make about the discreteness of objects and misses on the reality that objects are entangled and have a multiplicity i.e a space of possibilities that could make complex systems emerge.

    Aside from the language of complexity theory we know that simple innovations could catalyze complex processes and transform the environment they’re in.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this…

    • stefdr says:

      Hi Ali,

      I definitely agree with you about representations of complexity. The hierarchical pyramid of design thinking i have chosen to portray is not a representation of complexity IN design practice, but maturation of design thinking which at its ‘highest level’ is applied IN complex practice. I probably should have made this clearer in my post but i was conscious of word count. What i am trying to depict is the evolution and thus maturation of design thinking. When a student first learns how to design a business card, they are interacting on a very basic and superficial level with the design thinking process. As experience is gained, design thinking is applied in more fuzzy and complex circumstances such as service and strategic design. At its peak, (those that have a high level of understanding, knowledge and experience with design thinking/practice), design thinking is applied in highly complex and strategic practices such as urban planning or policy design.

      I believe that a good design thinker is in fact aware of the inherent complexity and interrelated factors (whether big or small) operating in different levels of practice. Most design thinkers with a mature and experienced understanding of design thinking apply their experience in complex practice such as large scale systems. They are acutely aware of the interrelated cause and effects- even from simple structures such as new innovative technologies. So i feel that a good design thinker is well adept at understanding and dealing with complexity.

      I hope this answers your question!

      • Yes, thank you. 🙂

        I would like to add that the maturation of design thinking especially in its awareness of complexity is not only tied to the circumstances where design encounters complexity but is also tied to what design decides to give attention to.

        You could find relatively simple design that is attentive to complexity and at the same time, one could see everyday how highly complex issues are dealt with in a very simplistic and reductive unproductive manner, especially in politics. Therefore I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that “… a good design thinker is in fact aware of the inherent complexity and interrelated factors (whether big or small) operating in different levels of practice.”

        The general point that I’m trying to make here is:

        “It is not that the challenges facing design are more complex now. Complexity has been there since the beginning even when design outcomes were more confined to relatively simple and presumed discrete objects or artifacts. The world has been a complex mess since the beginning and not only as a result of the contemporary state of affairs. So what needs further discussion is the ontological stance of design and what it decides to give attention to and not only the circumstances where design encounters complexity.”

        part of something I’ve been working on – a fellow PhDer 🙂

        Enjoying following your posts!

  3. […] A nice graphic look at areas of design, from Stefanie di Russo. […]

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