Category Archives: phd research

My PhD thesis

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

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

The end of an era: reflective practice

I am entitled to be just a little dramatic with my headline as I have now officially completed my thesis. Those who follow me on twitter would have noticed the excited tweets. I know that many have been asking me for my thesis, and I can assure you that it will be published online within the week- there are just a few more hidden hoops to jump before i can publish it, but more on that in a bit…

So, I figured now is a good time to reflect on the journey that was the almighty PhD pilgrimage into academic enlightenment. This is less of a practice-based post and so perhaps it will be of more interest, or use, to those considering an academic pathway or who perhaps are curious as to what to do after a PhD. I have chosen to write this based on the most common questions and comments i received during and after my studies and will conclude with hopefully some helpful advice.


Common question #238: What is the point of doing a PhD, let alone in design?

Depending on your definition of influence and impact, this question is (imho) often expressed out of naivety and ignorance. However, I can see how someone can construct the argument that a PhD is pointless, but it all comes down to value and perspective. If you value the pursuit, tradition and history of scholarly practice, you will understand how humbling it is to contribute to a long history of reflections, insights and theories from many scholars and practitioners committed to evolve and expand knowledge. But if you are of a more practical nature, the analysis, reflection and documentation may seem superfluous, and often at times, outdated to current trends.

It is true that you do a PhD in order to obtain a license to work as a researcher. It is also true that in many instances research is often a few steps behind practice. But what is not true is the assumption that the skills you acquire in doing a PhD are impractical for the “real world” (my most loathed statement. What is the “real world”, anyway? and to whom?). I am in the very fortunate position to have come out of academia and be able to return to industry practice in the field that I studied. So I can attest to the many transferrable skills developed in studying for a PhD:

(These are particular to qualitative/case-study PhD’s and to design practice)

  1. Writing skills. This is a highly valuable skill in general, but particularly if you are required to write reports, proposals, thought leadership, etc.
  2. Strategy. I really believe most PhD’s are highly strategic. You have to scan the field for untapped opportunities then assess many multiple theories, options, and methods for your plan of attack. As I now work in strategy (or strategic design), which involves both strategy and design research, I have realised that much of the formative ‘fuzzy’ front end of design thinking is very similar to the process of PhD research.
  3. Critical thinking. Well, you can’t find a better place to develop critical thinking than through graduate research. And I challenge anyone to dispute how valuable critical thinking is in most industry based practice (except, maybe, for the arts?)
  4. Public speaking and presenting. I also don’t think anything could prepare you better for client pitches like a review board of professors and/or conference presentations. PhD’s are perhaps best adept at forming and presenting arguments whilst defending anticipated rebuttals.
  5. Field research. This is specific to those who conducted primary research and may end up working in a design field or industry applying a design/thinking process that requires field/ethnographic research. As mentioned earlier, the design, methods, analysis and synthesis inherent in design practice are the fundamental building blocks for completing a PhD.
  6. Articulation of ideas. Particularly if you are client-facing, being able to clearly and coherently articulate your point/ideas across and in a way that is intellectually accessible to those around you who may not come from your depth of knowledge, is an incredibly persuasive asset.

I am sure there are many more I could think of, but these are the PhD skills I use most often on a day to day basis in my work.


Common question #592: Why didn’t you stay in academia?

There are a few reasons why I didn’t continue down the academic path right now. To be brutally honest, I wanted a rounded career and feared that if I continued with a career in academia I would be labelled an ‘out of touch academic’. This is unfortunately a reality for most academics, even if it (most often) is not true. It is very hard to return to industry after a PhD, (at least in Australia, it seems) let alone after working as an academic for many years. Despite the fact that I already had industry practice, I wanted to obtain more industry experience related to my thesis. I am still open to the idea of returning to academia (hint hint) and will continue to publish from my thesis. Right now the thought of remaining on a very low salary after four years of a near-poverty-wage scholarship is simply suffocating.


id like to know what having money feels like


Common question #475: What are your reflections on academia and practice?

I will keep my thoughts brief, as I am currently writing a deeper blog post on this topic. But the TL;DR of it is that, as an academic, you have much more time and freedom to exhaustively reflect on a topic and come to a deeper and more insightful conclusion. Industry has no tolerance for time-consuming, self-indulgent activities like reflective practice. For the most part, this reflection is not needed.. but I feel it is incredibly important if we are going to aim for creativity, let alone innovation, in any kind of practice. Again, this is where a PhD graduate could really add value and particularly if from a design background.


So to those still studying for their doctoral thesis- know that you have a choice and that there are options beyond just a post-doc. Present your skills in the right context and language to the industry you are applying and you will find that you have much more to offer beyond the assumption that academics are “just thinkers”. One good thought is worth more than a thousand mindless prototypes.


(Watch this space for a post that contains my thesis)


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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The Fabs and Fads of Design Thinking

Hello all! I want to alert the internet to a recent panel-slash-discussion I participated in for DESMA. I will cut and paste a brief description about DESMA from their website:

DESMA is a trans-disciplinary network of 12 researchers, 4 universities and 8 industry partners. We want to build a vibrant and sustainable community across Europe of high quality research in the intersection of design + management to be driving the discussions on the future of the field, to exchange knowledge and to support collaborations between academia and practice.

One of the initiatives to “support collaborations between academia and practice” was the recent introduction of DESMA chats. This is an informal panel discussion hosted by two great DESMA PhD researchers, Andreas Benker and Andrew Whitcomb. The DESMA chats invite academic and practice based experts to participate in a half hour discussion on a chosen topic. I was lucky enough to be invited along with Cecilia Hill, general manager of design practice at Telstra, to participate in the first episode of DESMA chats, The Fabs and Fads of Design Thinking.

My response was fairly basic, as we are only afforded half an hour and I didn’t want to confuse the general audience. I believe that half an hour is a good length of time as much longer would become tedious to a viewer. However, suggestions as to how to improve either the content or structure of DESMA chats are more than welcome. Would you like to see more complex discussions, or prefer easy to digest information? Follow @desmanetwork to keep up on the latest episodes, or to participate in the discussion.

Anyhow, here is the full episode. Hope you enjoy!


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Exploring Design Thinking


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.



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:




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!





*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!

Design Wars

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come join the rebel alliance…


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

May the (design) force be with you.

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.


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.


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

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.