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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


Hello all!

Just a quick update to say that more posts are on the way in the coming months. I am in the final stages of wrapping up/editing the PhD and once it has been submitted I will have plenty of new and interesting content that I hope you will all enjoy.


Stay tuned.

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!

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…


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


*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:



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?