Category Archives: design theory

Have we misunderstood innovation?

When you think of the word ‘innovation’ what comes to your mind? Many will say Uber, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or even design thinking. Today, if you peer into the world of design, you will be bombarded with the word innovation. Innovation is becoming a permanent buzzword for the design industry, but is this really a good thing?

Having returned to design practice and observing from the inside-out for some time, I developed a few reflections on this elusive obsession and its relationship to design. But before I open up the debate, let’s quickly review what defines innovation:

Websters Dictionary:

1. (noun)innovation
the act of innovating; introduction of something new, in customs, rites, etc

2. (noun)innovation
a change effected by innovating; a change in customs; something new, and contrary to established customs, manners, or rites

Google Dictionary:

in·no·va·tion

noun /ˌinəˈvāSHən/
innovations, plural

  • The action or process of innovating
  • A new method, idea, product, etc
    • – technological innovations designed to save energy

(What does ‘the process of innovating’ even mean? What does this look like? design?)

Wikipedia: (don’t snarl, it’s a good overview)

2011 definition:

The term innovation derives from the Latin word innovatus, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change,” stemming from in—”into” + novus—”new”. Although the term is broadly used, innovation generally refers to the creation of better or more effective productsprocessestechnologies, or ideas that are accepted by marketsgovernments, and society. Innovation differs from invention or renovation in that innovation generally signifies a substantial positive change compared to incremental changes.

Updated: 2016 version

Innovation is defined simply as a “new idea, device, or method”.[1] However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.[2] This is accomplished through more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term “innovation” can be defined as something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.[3] It is related to, but not the same as, invention.[4]

While a novel device is often described as an innovation, in economics, management science, and other fields of practice and analysis, innovation is generally considered to be the result of a process that brings together various novel ideas in a way that they affect society. In industrial economics, innovations are created and found empirically from services to meet the growing consumer demand.[5][6][7]

Looking at the definitions, there was sound reason to advertise design thinking as a process (if not the process) that inspires innovation. The point and process of design thinking can be examined and exploited as ‘innovative’, or conducive to innovation, with its goal to create or significantly improve our world via close examination and understanding of users and society.

However, professionals (particularly clients seeking innovation through design) have ignored one significant problem: design thinking offers the potential for innovation and no substantial evidence to promise an innovative result. (To be fair, nothing can ever promise an innovative solution..)

 

So what does foster innovation? How do we know when we have created an innovative solution?

It appears to me that there exists three stages of general “improvement”- with and without the aid of a design approach:

 1. Iteration: incremental evolution. an improvement of what is current. adds ease and efficiency

2. Innovation: incremental invention. a mutation of what exists. influences new transactions

3. Invention: disruption. the birth of a new species. radically redefines the structure and behaviour of society

There are many ways to define and identify various levels of improvement. I am more intrigued with the misty cloud that leads specifically to an innovation. I definitely align myself with the writings of Roberto Verganti (in this book Design Driven Innovation) and of Don Norman (in a joint paper titled, Incremental and Radical Innovation), when they identify that innovation can exist via a radical redefinition of meaning as well as via technology. Norman argues in his paper with Verganti that design may only offer incremental innovation- which is ironically what the definition of innovation implies.

The problem I find is that many clients approach designers using the term innovation and/or disruption, yet their expectation of improvement lies within the realms of invention. Unlike strategy, I don’t feel innovation is necessarily a competitive practice or goal, as we often discover innovations and new inventions through necessity or accident. It is often an act of discovery or re-imagination.

Design thinking may be one way to achieve innovation, but I fear many feel it is the only way. There are plenty of other intelligent and well read individuals who specialise in the theory of innovation. I have not devoted as much of my research to investigating this topic, but I do have some frank reflections on what it is. I have written about the unrealistic expectations that often surround design and design thinking. Part due to practitioners over-promising an innovative result, and part due to professionals looking at existing examples considered to be ‘innovative’ and learning that design was at its foundation. The promise of innovation shot design thinking to fame, no doubt, but I am fearful that it is redefining the definition of design in a way that may set ourselves up for failure.

 

Time to get real…

In a somewhat sick, masochistic twist I have referred to Bruce Nussbaum whose criticism of design thinking was accurate in one respect (everything else I kind of disagree with). In that infamous article, he highlights:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change.

As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.

Now, arguably, the success rate could also be perceived as very high- depending on what your benchmark and definition for ‘innovation’ is. This is quite important to point out, as unfortunately, many clients define innovation as the following:

  1. it disrupts my competitors, so that it propels my business ahead of the rest (whilst looking edgy, fresh, and smart in doing so)
  2. makes me lots of money
  3. can be produced in a matter of weeks, consistently, with little to no investment
  4. it’s tech-y

The one thing I have learned through my reading thus far on innovation is that at the point we identify a phenomenon as ‘innovative’ it appears as if spontaneous and out of the blue. What you often find is there was months, if not years, of research, prototyping, testing and design until it reached a point of ‘innovation’- a process that is actually incremental. It may appear true that industries are becoming disrupted in a more rapid way, but this is simply because we have instant and easier access to knowledge and/or materials than we did before. This merely informs us that we can speed up our pace of learning (and prototyping), but not of our innovations.

Sorry to break the bad news, but you have to spend a little more time at the drawing board-or a little more time educating the boardroom

tumblr_inline_og89vy2pwx1ro5idi_500

My PhD thesis

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

https://www.academia.edu/24919250/Understanding_the_behaviour_of_design_thinking_in_complex_environments

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

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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Exploring Design Thinking

dogedesign

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.

 

daddydesignmethodology

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:

 

policydproject

 

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!

 

 

 

 

(**footnotes**)
*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…

funny-sad-elephant-crying

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

*Reflective

*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:

pyramid-of-dt.redo

strat.dt.characteristics

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.

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:

pyramid-of-dt.redo

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…

36442968

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.

Why design needs a critical reality check

I havent had much time to think about blogging lately, especially since i have burrowed into a methodological ditch for the past few months. I wasnt sure if this post would be practical for professionals, but it will be of interest to researchers or maybe even educators in the design field. For my thesis I have to dedicate a large portion of writing towards my epistemological and methodological position- that is, what theoretical justification of knowledge i choose to take which kind of dictates the path towards obtaining data. Its more or less a lense or theory which you believe adequately justifies truth and knowledge. Wikipedia probably does a better job at explaining it than i have, but this handy Euler diagram sums it up:

different epist’s have differing beliefs on what is true which = knowledge

I spent months torturing myself over what episte i was going to take. Despite my supervisor claiming its not really a big deal, i felt that choosing the right theory of knowledge was imperative, especially for the credibility of my data. The importance of choosing the right episte became apparent to me more so when i realised that i was entering unknown territories in research- especially design research- because the kind of topic i am undertaking is not conventional.

A little bit about research in design…

Design research has *generally* borrowed methodologies from the social sciences. Borrowing a methodology from another field comes with epistemological positions that underpin its pathway. A PhD colleague, Luke Feast, published a paper with Gavin Melles on common epistemological positions in doctoral design research. Four main positions were highlighted in this paper and placed in order from most subjective to least. They are: subjectivism, constructivism (i will add here pragmatism) and objectivism/positivism. The prevailing episte that has been most widely supported by the big guns in design (Cross, Schon) is constructivism and currently dominates doctoral design research (Feast & Melles 2010, p. 3)

The kind of epistemology you choose to guide your research largely depends on the question asked. Different fields of research assume common epistemological and methodological procedures due to the nature of the work. For example, in the field of anthropology where majority of research questions surround cultural investigations on semiotics and constructions of meaning, a constructivist or even subjectivist approach is assumed and appropriate. In the field of psychology and behavioural research, questions seek quantitative data and often follow a more scientific (positivist) approach. Thus, scientific research assumes a positivist position and can also be termed ‘reductionist’. You will have to excuse my rather crude explanations- there are indeed more epistemological ‘-isms’ used in each field of research but i am just covering the most common.

But most of these ‘isms’ dont quite fit…

I am not claiming to be an expert on the topic of doctoral research in design, but ive read enough about design research to form an opinion that makes me believe design research hasn’t found its own episte yet- especially for higher orders of design. To me, borrowing epistemologies from other fields is not allowing for the scope of complexity that is required in this field. The slippers dont quite fit. As a relatively new industry, design research has been stuck in an awkward teen phase- trying out different epistemological trends to see what works.

In the process of finding the right shoe, the design industry has evolved (and technically returned to) a new scope of practice- thats is the (re)focus on design thinking in highly complex issues such as systemic design and social innovation. This has thrown up all of our most common methodological approaches previously used in design research.  I need to now highlight why, in context of our new design sphere, the epistemological positions we have been using thus far are falling short.

So what epistemology fits with this new scale of design? On the one hand, this area of design deals with social constructions of meaning and culture, with the artefacts and results that are produced to improve on what society values. On the other, it interacts with complex systems that depend on ‘objective’ (technological and environmental) forces that operate independently from what we construct of it. It’s not enough to research design from a purely subjectivist lens; one that favors intrepretations on human constructions of meaning and intent. Its not enough to research design from a purely objective lens; one that favors a quantifiable view of social process and ignores cultural meaning and values. Design largely is the combination of  both these extremes so it makes sense that to perform adequate research in design- especially complex design practice- that we find a middle ground for our theoretical stance, one that acknowledges the importance of both socially constructed meaning and external forces. This middle ground can be found from using a critical realist perspective.

What is Critical Realism?

This is where i get into the nitty gritties of the most commonly used epist’s in design research and compare these with a critical realist approach. Below is a table taken from Luke & Melles paper but originally found in Michael Crotty’s book, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process. The following table is a nice concise outline of the main epistemologies in design research, along with the related methodology and methods of investigation.

Now I’ve edited this table to insert critical realism:

I should note that debates over whether critical realism is an epistemological or an ontological theory are still performed today. The general consensus is that it is an ontological theory, but ive placed it under epistemology for simplicity. The theoretical perspectives listed here for critical realism are also epistemologies but ive placed the information in this way to show that critical realism is a combination of pragmatic and realist theories.

WARNING!!!

The following contains jargon. If you feel you dont need to brush up on the details behind critical realism (though i highly recommend it, even just for fun. Yes, i said fun) you can safely scroll down to the more practical explanation of the theory.

Ready?

Critical Realism was first proposed by Roy Bhaskar in the 1970’s as an alternative theory aimed to bridge perspectives from the arts and sciences. I dont really recommend you read Bhaskar, as his texts are infamous for being convoluted to the point where you think he himself doesnt quite understand what he is saying. So thankfully a whole group of smart academics such as Sayer, Danermark, Eckstrom and Dickens published a range of books and papers clarifying and expanding on the theory, saving us mortals from Bhaskar’s intense philosophies.

The interpretations from our saviours differ a little. Some prefer to take a more subjective interpretation whereas others prefer a more positivist approach. Some described CR as an epistemology, where as most acknowledge it as an ontological theory (a theory on what can be said to ‘exist’ rather than justification of knowledge). Sayer is perhaps the leading contemporary writer on critical realism, with Dickens a key theorist in context of eco and sustainable practice. Both of these writers have outlined the key elements behind critical realism. Below is a comparison of their accounts:

Dickens on “The 4 Key Elements of Critical Realism”

1. Knowledge is a product of society, but knowledge is not only a product of society. It can refer to real processes and mechanisms in the world.

2. Science is about establishing the causes underlying phenomena of interest. Real, relatively enduring structures and causal mechanisms in the physical, biological and social worlds underlie what we observe and experience. They do so in combination with one another and often in combination with contingent circumstance. ‘Closed systems’ are created artificially to develop understandings of causal mechanisms, but these are rare in society and nature.

3. The world is envisaged as heirarchically stratified. At the most general level are physical mechanisms (e.g. Gravity). At ‘higher’ level are chemical structures and mechanisms. Higher still are biological mechanisms (e.g those generating an organisms growth). Finaly, there are physchological and social mechanisms. Mechanisms at each level of reality are rooted in- but not reducible to- those operating at lower levels.

4. The nature of these structures and mechanisms is subject to constant critique and scientific development. This critique and development can also stem from practical, everyday experience (Dickens 2003, p. 20)

Dickens’s account on critical realism is much easier to digest, but Sayer dives a little deeper into the specifics behind the theory:

Sayer’s 8 key assumptions of CR:

1.The world exists independently of our knowledge of it.

2. Our knowledge of the world is fallible and theory-laden. Concepts of truth and falsity fail to provide a coherent view of the relationship between knowledge and its object. Nevertheless knowledge is not immune to empirical check and its effectiveness in informing and explaining successful material practice is not mere accident.

3. Knowledge develops neither wholly continuously, as the steady accumulation of facts within a stable conceptual framework, nor discontinuously, through simultaneous and universal changes in concepts.

4. There is necessity in theworld; objects—whether natural or social— necessarily have particular powers or ways of acting and particular susceptibilities.

5. The world is differentiated and stratified, consisting not only of events, but objects, including structures, which have powers and liabilities capable of generating events. These structures may be present even where, as in the social world and much of the natural world, they do not generate regular patterns of events.

6. Social phenomena such as actions, texts and institutions are concept dependent.We not only have to explain their production and material effects but to understand, read or interpret what they mean. Although they have to be interpreted by starting from the researcher’s own frames of meaning, by and large they exist regardless of researchers’ interpretation of them. A qualified version of 1 therefore applies to the social world. In view of 4–6, the methods of social science and natural science have both differences and similarities.

7. Science or the production of any kind of knowledge is a social practice. For better or worse (not just worse) the conditions and social relations of the production of knowledge influence its content. Knowledge is also largely—though not exclusively— linguistic, and the nature of language and the way we communi- cate are not incidental to what is known and communicated. Awareness of these relationships is vital in evaluating knowledge.

8. Social science must be critical of its object. In order to be able to explain and understand social phenomena we have to evaluate them critically (Sayer 1992, p.5)

So as you can see, critical realism acknowledges that there is both an external reality where natural processes operate (nature), but that also this reality can include social processes that operate independently of our observation and interpretation of them. The critical realist perspective still lies in constructivist reasoning (as oppose to scientific experimentation/testing), but unlike most subjective epistemologies that deny an external ‘truth’ , critical realism understands that a mind independent reality exists. I was going to briefly get into descriptions of how critical realism operates but felt that researchers can familiarise themselves with the texts and that practitioners may not need to know the nitty gritty philosophical descriptions for practice.  This brings me to the next point: how critical realism can be used in practice.

 “Most sciences have in the past tended to develop an understanding of physical, chemical, and other mechanisms in isolation. They have done this through creating artifically ‘closed systems’ as a means of understanding the basic mechanisms of the physical and social world.”  (Dickens 2003, p.100)

Enough with the blah blah, get to the point!

What critical realism can teach practitioners is to understand when a system is closed and tame or open and complex (wicked).  Essentially most complex designs deal with ‘open’ social systems that are forever in a state of ‘flux’. Most designers working in this area will already know that this is the case, however, many struggle to formulate flexible and adaptable solutions. In order to do this, research and analysis needs to unify information from both specific social values as well as wider objective forces. Easier said than done, right? But critical realism can offer a guiding methodology on how to investigate and analyse complex data to design better informed solutions. It opens the scope of research and provides a methodology that can guide practitioners through the messy process of sense-making, particularly when it needs to harmoniously unify data on specific social needs and external impacts.

“In practice, then, open system predictive methods are neither completely non explanatory nor fully explanatory but a compromise usually taking the form of a model in which some of the main processes are summarily represented by variables. These empirical models are fitted to existing data and extrapolated forward. They involve curve fitting but the curves are fitted to relationships which might be interpereted as causal; they do not attempt to model actual processes closely.” (Sayer 2010, p. 90)

Critical realism can form generalisations of external cause and effects, usually through triangulation of data. But it does not attempt to scientifically ‘prove’ that data as a direct representation. At best we can create descriptions that satisfy general truths:

“Another appraoch to concrete research but one which cannot easily be represented in our diagram is the method of ‘ideal types’. Given the complexity of the world, it is argued that any research must be selective and that consequently researchers specify objects in terms of ideal types which isolate phenomena according to their interests and values” (Sayer 2010, p. 159)

Sound familiar? That is because it echo’s Simon’s theory of ‘satisficing’ in the face of complex systems that are constantly evolving.

Critical realism is fundamentally about dealing with and making sense of complex, evolving problems. It is especially  useful when applied in sustainable practice. If we are going to march forward in the pursuit of a sustainable future, we CANNOT distinguish ourselves or our ‘being’ in this world as completely separate from the ‘other’ (the environment). I know this sounds a bit heideggarian, and it is, but this general attitude has largely dominated the last century. I know this also sounds like a grand generalisation, but how many of you consciously consider how you are connected to your environment? or even your wider social community? Didnt think so.

…Cue environmental rant

Our earth has for too long been a commodity. We dont consider ourselves as an extension of our natural environment and many of us barely consider the environment in connection with our daily actions.  Many might question what exactly is ‘natural’, but i find in the face of climate change and increasing social and cultural unrest, these philosophical questions deviate from action so i am going to leave the dirty questions on hermeneutics and ontology to the philosophers. The basic fact is, we have become completely disconnected from our ecosystem- both social and environmental. If individuals are not going to consider this fact and designers consider themselves the key to social change, then designers must start approaching problems with a connected mindset that acknowledges our intimate relationship with our social and natural environments.

In context of the above, you can see why a critical realist perspective in design is so important. For research like my own where we begin to look back to natural structures and apply these learnings to design more sustainable social systems, a theory that acknowledges both the social and natural realities is fundamental. This perspective is equally important in practice, as more designers attempt to bridge social and environmental problems. No longer should the social and the scientific be at war and our sense of self be separate from our external reality, as critical realism is paving the way towards unification through transdisciplinary research.

Reference list for nerds:

Crotty, 1998, The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process

Feast & Melles, 2010, Epistemological Positions in Design Research: a brief review of the literature

Dickens, P 2003,  Society and Nature

Sayer, A 2010, Method in Social Science

Journal of Critical Realism

Website for critical realism, containing many papers and articles

Biomimicry (design) thinking?

If some of you follow me on Twitter, you would already know that i recently posted a question to my tweeps asking what they would prefer to see more of on my blog. The overall response favored an academic discussion; posting papers and discussing in context of practice. Missing out by a whisker was the second most popular response, which was more lolcats and memes.

Realising i haven’t posted anything related to sustainable practice in a while (yes its not going to go away) i thought i should hunt around for something that was new, interesting and could somehow be taken away by you folk and applied (even if just ideologically) into practice. So after stalking a recent discussion over Twitter amongst a few tweeps poking at the concept of biomimicry, i knew this topic would be perfect material for my next post.

I should note that this paper might seem a bit abstract. Its not about providing a new tool or method you can directly apply; its more about offering an exciting new way of approaching problems which can create more adaptive and flexible solutions.

Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature

D. C. Wahl. Centre for the Study of Natural Design, University of Dundee, UK Design and Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with Science and Engineering, Volume: 87, Publisher: WIT Press, Pages: 289-298

To sum it all up in once sentence/quote: ” the intentionality behind science and design needs to shift from aiming to increase prediction, control and manipulation of  nature as a resource, to a transdisciplinary cooperation in the process of learning how to participate appropriately and sustainably in Nature”

Main points: diversity good, linear bad. Holistic good, collaboration good. Adaptation good, control bad. 

This article places a LOT of emphasis on holistic practice and the responsibility design has in transforming current practice that aims to control our nature, into one that learns from it and works with nature.

Introduction:

” The root cause of the utter unsustainability of modern civilization lies in the dualistic separation of nature and culture. It is in nature, that all peoples and all species unite into a community of life.”

I think most of us (and by us i mean westernised individuals) forget that we are culturally separated from nature. With exception of tribal communities, design is largely to blame for our unsustainable, industrial life. We view nature  as something detached from ourselves; an ongoing process independent and unaffected from our actions.

“The aim of science is shifting towards informing appropriate participation in natural process, rather than the enabling of new technologies of prediction, manipulation and control. The transition towards sustainability will require a new approach to design and technology that is based on a participatory and holistic worldview informed by science, ethics and the transdisciplinary integration of multiple perspectives. It is a biophysical and ecological fact that culture is never  truly separate from nature.”

This is where we start to realise that much of the mindset that is needed for a sustainable future is very similar to that which is inherent in design thinking (this includes service/human centered design). It is now possible that we can take lessons from biomimicry and apply our learnings into the design process.

Section 2: Learning from Nature as model, measure and mentor:

During the methods movement (1960s-1970s) McHarg, Todd and Mclarney, founders of The New Alchemy Institute, were first to introduce research on biomimicry- taking design lessons from natures process. John Todd provides a quote:

“The Earth’s ecologies are embedded with a set of instructions that we urgently need to decode and employ in the design of human systems”

The question here is: we know we can directly translate lessons from nature and apply these into the design process for technological outcomes (devices, artifacts and engineering), but how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems? This answer requires more research but the information can be invaluable. The following includes guidelines on how to start.

Section 2.1. Bionics: A prediction and control approach to learning from nature:

During the same period when biomimicry was announced, bionics was introduced by US Air Force engineer Major J.E. Steele (who also coined the term). German Zoologist Werner Nachtigall took over the trend and stated in the 70s that bionics is, “the process of “learning from nature as an inspiration for independent technical design”. He developed the principles of bionic design:

Principles of Bionic Design (plus commentary!)

1. Integrated instead of additive construction

(ideal. not always easy to do, but easy to forget. Service design, meta design and co-design can offer strategies and tools to utilise what we have to create integrated solutions than creating a result that requires new needs or materials. This approach is crucial for any designer. Examples of integrated solutions can be found here )

2. Optimisation of the whole, rather than maximisation of individual elements

(Again, in service design/design thinking much emphasis is placed on the whole than tuning into details. This is about creating a harmonious and sustainable ecosystem. Small detailed changes often yield the most successful (and feasible) outcome, but great decisions on details that have negative effect on the whole service/company/environment need to be optimised if possible.)

3. Multifunctionality instead of monofunctionality

4. Fine-tuning adapted to particular environments

(may seem a bit of a contradiction of point 3, however using statement from point 2, if you have to diverge and ‘tune in’ to a particular aspect of a project, adapt this to the environment it is situated in. This ensures that despite focusing on one area and not ‘the whole’ -as it sometimes may not be feasible- try to ensure the detail is adaptive to the surrounding environment)

5. Energy saving instead of energy squandering

(more of a product design thing. obvious nonetheless)

6. Direct and indirect use of solar energy

(as above)

7. Temporal limitation instead of unnecessary durability

(this again relates to product design but can also relate to service/intangible products. Create solutions that are not fixed (unnecessary durability) or hard to ‘recycle’, but are able to be re-used or re-shaped for new solutions that evolve with environment- both nature and culture)

8. Total recycling instead of waste accumulation

(obvious)

9. Networks instead of linearity

(socially, this can be translated as ‘collaborative networks’.)

10. Development through the process of trial and error

(iteration is much of the ethos behind design thinking)

Section 2.2 Biomimicry: ecologically informed design for sustainability

“During the 1970s, research at the ‘New Alchemy Institute’ began to explore how ecology, biology, and a bio-cybernetic systems approach, could inform more sustainable solutions to meeting fundamental human needs.” And as a result, they came up with this: (with, you guessed it- commentary!!)

The Precepts of Biological Design:

1. The living world is a matrix for all design

(The environment is much more evolved than we are. It surprises me to this day that most design outcomes and designers do not consult the fabric which gives us life)

2. Design should follow, not oppose the law of life

(Similar sentiment to point 2 of bionic principles)

3. Biological equity must determine design

4. Design must reflect bioregionality

(design outcomes need to be adaptive to the unique environment it lives within. This can be tangible (nature) or intangible (culture). Design outcomes whether service, policy or product, must reflect+integrate local environments and communities for sustainable development and evolution)

5. Projects must be based on renewable energy sources

(same as point 5 under bionic principles)

6. Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems

(again, reflects same sentiment as point 4. Designing outcomes that do not incorporate a living system, whether animal, plant or people will persist with the dependancy on unnatural and unsustainable (artificial) artefacts)

7. Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world

(same as above)

8. Building and design should help heal the planet

(makes me think of this)

9. Design should follow a sacred ecology

10. Everyone is a designer!

(this was probably a sneaky way to imply that everyone is responsible for their actions)

At this point in the whole biology and nature inspired history comes Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry –Innovation Inspired by Nature. She, like her predecessors in this field, came up with her own set of principles:

The Biomimcry Approach:

1. Nature as model. Biomimicry is a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.

2. Nature as a measure. Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the “rightness” of our innovations. After 3.8 billon years of evolution, nature has learned: What works. What is appropriate. What lasts.

3. Nature as a mentor. Biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It introduces an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but on what we can learn from it.

It is evident that this paper is highlighting the theory and need for biomimicry but with vague directions on how to perform it. Interestingly enough, the author goes to state that THE wicked problem of the 21st century IS sustainability and that all aspects of design: from policy to ecosystems, require transdisciplinary teams with the designer as instigator and facilitator in this process.

The author shifts into the theory of complex systems, quoting german systems psychologist Dietrich Dörner. Dörner investigated ways trans+multi disciplinary teams interact in the process of complex, unpredictable and interrelated problems. This theory should be fundamental for design thinking. So for all of you designers out there wanting to work in the wicked 4.0 sphere (services, policy, systems, sustainability, urban planning, etc) you need to take note and staple the following to your forehead:

Common Mistakes in Dealing with Complex Systems:

1. Inadequate definition of goals (vision)

(problem framing is key)

2. Lack of a joined-up systems analysis

(not understanding the parts which make up and affect the whole)

3. The creation of irreversible emphasis

(dead end solutions must be avoided)

4. Lack of attention to side effects

(what effect will your decision/solution have on the whole ecosystem?)

5. The tendency to over-steer or over-react

(go in with an ‘equal’ not ‘ego’ mentality towards participants during co-creation)

6. The tendency to act in an authoritarian (controlling) way

(as above)

“Adaptive complex dynamic networks are nature’s way of responding effectively to change. Sustainable design that reintegrates culture and nature has to emulate nature’s way of dealing with unpredictability, fundamental interconnectedness and dynamic transformation”

This is exactly what everyone’s talking about at the moment in sustainable design. But i get the feeling that amongst this discussion we are not quite sure how to create solutions that live up to this philosophy. How can we go wrong if we design solutions that are a natural extension from nature? Im sure this all sounds incredibly hippy but I dont mean designing outcomes covered in flowers and leaves-this is about unlocking new processes and growth.

Conclusion:

“Effectively, or from within a more holistic and eco-literate perspective that regards culture as a co-dependent participant in natural process. Such changes in intention are changes in metadesign that affect all human activity. Changing the intentions behind design –changing mindset – is design at the paradigm level and life style level

The case im trying to make here is that observation and analysis of natures process which can be synthesised into design practice might be the most efficient way to create sustainable solutions that are as painless as possible. Biomimicry offers an avenue of research and design that tackles sustainability in the most pragmatic way possible. It holds clues that might make our sustainable journey much easier- we just have to find them.

A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’

This is where things get a bit hazy. Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the history I outlined earlier- it simply proves that design thinking has a history. Design thinking was a realisation through the evolution of different (collaborative) design process methods that were developed to improve and extend design to other areas of practice.

From where we left off…

What happened from the mid 1980’s to date was a race to discover new methods for improving business, service and design. Each methodology can be traced through history and analysed independently should you wish to interpret historical readings in context of the method under investigation. I will highlight an example of what I mean as we move along.

The purpose of analysing this period was to understand the evolution of major design process methods and to discover from this evolution the moment when design thinking was realised as a new approach and a way of thinking that underlined all other methods before it. It must be noted that through this development there was no clear linear progression of methodologies that arose, as many were developed at the same time in different faculties and industries. I have taken through much reading a very generalised approach at attempting to create a chronological understanding of the evolution of major design process trends. The purpose of doing this is to objectively clarify the history and evolution of design thinking which has been muddy and conflicting to date.

And it all started with….Participatory Design

In the early days, participatory methodology was seen most commonly in urban planning until recent developments in design gave this method its name. As i stated earlier, one could very easily trace the history and development of participatory design in and of itself- independent from design thinking. For example; If you want to get nit picky about history, participatory design can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic.

Plato was known to seek advice from his people

Grass roots democracy was once the heart of participatory methodology and is an established method used for centuries for the development of a harmonious society. But i am here to discuss how this and other methods (each with their own unique history) have come together to form the evolution of design thinking.

Back to the Future

Fast forward from Plato to the 1960s. During the design methods movement, participatory design was gaining momentum through research. Dubbed the Scandinavian approach, participatory design was about integrating end-users into the development (prototyping) phase of projects. Technological developments during the end of this decade saw participatory design shift from a social method to a technological one. Prior to the adoption of PD in technology, systems design was the go-to for engineers prototyping within an iterative framework.

The timeline of Participatory Design

As PD progressed into the 1980s, it became synonymous with the emerging field of interaction design. Many of the techniques used in PD were borrowed from science, such as usability testing. Others included mock-ups, prototyping and even role playing.

The Pitfalls of Participatory Design

One of the main disadvantages of participatory design is its negligence towards user experience and stakeholder input. Usability was king, but emotional response to gadgetry was largely ignored. In many instances user testing was abandoned, when users decisions conflicted with those of the stakeholders and the designers.

In response to this end-user dilemma, discussions surrounding co-design (co-operative design) or collaborative design began to take place. This alternative method aimed to transform passive users into co-operative designers.

User-Centered Design

The most significant contribution to the transformation of user development in design was introduced by design theorist Donald Norman. Donald re-defined participatory design into what he coined as user-centered design. User testing became less about usability and more about a users interests and needs. Norman favoured user-control and humanised participatory and system design by “making things visible”. This was to ensure users could discover errors and have control over resolving them.

Donald Norman aka The Godfather of User-Centered Design

Another significant shift in ideology from participatory to user-centered design was the placement of user at the center of the development process. It highlighted the benefits of understanding user experience over user testing. Owing some of its methodology to behavioural sciences, user-centered design emphasised experience over efficiency and adopted a more humanistic approach with the involvement of the user throughout the development of a product or system.

The differences between PD and UCD

User-centered design grew out of speculations towards elevating users from guinea-pigs to co-developers of systems during the participatory trend. This new methodology incidentally spread into broader areas of industry and practice.

Service Design

On the design methodology timeline, service design broke out into the design discipline as a new practice a few years after the turn of the millennium. We can see now that developments through participatory design to user-centered design and the evolution of customer experiences has shaped much of the methodology behind service design. Lucy Kimbell best sums up the development of service design as:

‘[it] Draws on several traditions including product, environment, experience and interaction design” (Kimbell 2009, p. 250).

Kimbell and a few other scholars discuss a new perspective rising in business; from a closed value chain (i.e: we punched out a product we tested on some monkeys and know it works so we can forget about it) to understanding how and what the user **does** with a product (or service); including their journey and experience. This perspective is another  step forward in the evolution of design methodology, for rather than thinking about end user experience of a product or service (user-centered design) attention has shifted to understanding the use, interaction and journey of that product/service after it has left the hands of the provider.

So now we find ourselves labelling all products and systems as one service unit. Kimbell argues that the distinction between a service and product becomes irrelevant, for everything is a type of service that plays a role in ‘value creation’ (Kimbell 2010, p.3). Furthermore, service design extended the definition of the ‘user’ to include all stakeholders and individuals affected or interacting with the service system.

It was with this new approach to product/service systems that the idea of a holistic mindset was made evident. And the holistic mindset behind service design owed much of its development to Ezio Manzini through his research in service marketing and meta-design. Additionally, many of the methods used in service design today have been borrowed and adapted from anthropology and marketing.

Most importantly, it is the holistic perspective of service design that distinguishes itself from all previous design methodologies. Rather than focusing on the ‘end user’ (the customer: marketing/user centered and participatory design), service design seeks to collaborate with all users of a service; building relationships between stakeholders to open up communication for the exchange and development of value and knowledge.

Human-Centered Design

Since the early 1990s, human-centered design and user-centered design were often interchangeable terms regarding the integration of end users within a design process. Like many other design methodologies, human-centered design first began within technological and product system industries and was growing under human centered interaction (a method that is still in use). Human-centered design only started to evolve around the late 1990s, when the development of methods described above shifted from a techno-driven focus to a humanised one.

It was also at this point that we found ourselves with a design methodology that was manifested as more of a mindset than a physical set of tools. William B. Rouse discusses the ideology of the mindest behind HCD in his book, Design for Success: A Human-Centered Approach to Designing Successful Products and Systems. His definition of HCD is philosophical:

“Roles of humans in complex systems, enhancing human abilities, aid to overcome human
limitations and foster user acceptance” (Rouse, 1991 pp.6-123).

Despite contextualising his defintiion within the field of systems and product engineering, Rouse introduces a broader perspective of the ‘user’- one that is closely related to service design but situated in a broader, more socially conscious arena. In its final (and current) phase of evolution, HCD is seen to hold potential for resolving wider societal issues.

HCD is a mix of meta design and service design but closely related to anthropology. It is used more generally in social development than service development.

The broad holistic perspective introduced in service design allowed for human-centered design to redefine its meaning. Coupled with significant social and environmental disasters, it was appropriate after the turn of the millenium that HCD transformed from a method to a mindset, aiming to humanize the design process and empathize with stakeholders. The mindset approach of human centered design re-introduced design thinking, but this time as a mindset used a method for interpreting wicked problems.

Outer circle (blue) signifies the shifts in design theory along the timeline. The inner circle (pink) signifies the methodological shifts in design practice over time

It is interesting to note that the shifts in design theory and practice that have occured since the methods movement in the 1960s have mirrored one another. Design-as-science trend of the 60s and 70s sit opposite and reflect the methodical inquiry into process methods of the 1990s. Similarly, cognitive reflections in design theory during the 1980s reflect (and sit opposite) the mindset movement we are moving through now. Though this may not have been the best way to depict the timeline of design theory and thinking (infodesign nerds get off my back), I chose a circle to deliberately highlight these reflections and the very fact that we have almost come full circle. If this pattern is correct, we should find ourselves moving back into a scientification (did i make that word up?) of design, and it seems to me that we are already beginning to shift into it; as developments in neuroscience turn attention to design thinking for study.

To highlight my prediction on the next phase in design, here is a Stanford video on the neuroscience of design thinking. Enjoy.