Can you Define Design Thinking?

April 9th, 2010, 9:34 am

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jon_winebrenner
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Can someone, without Marketing B$, please define what "Design Thinking" is?

The term feels to m as thought it has jumped the shark and crossed into the realm of Lingo, and holds no real inherent value to the Industrial Design Industry. It is thrown around by anyone that believes that Industrial Design "belongs at the big table" but has no real clue how to get it there.

I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I want to get some kind of clarity on this. I want to believe Design Thinking isn't something more than just a PR spin created by IDEO, but as time goes on it smacks more of pontificating as opposed to something actionable.

Once we get through this part of the discussion, I will move to part 2 of my question.....
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I felt the same way a few years ago. At the time it was just a fancy word for what we do as industrial designers. Then I went into my MBA program and realizied that our method of problem solving is different than other business professions. It both concerned me and surprised me at the same time.

For me, design thinking is the application of creative (design) problem solving/idea generation applied to traditional business practices/challenges. To go a little further and higher on the marketing BS-O-Meter, it's a mindset that considers BOTH qualitative and quantitative data at the right stage of the product development cycle.
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Timf
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First I have to give my definition of what Design is. It is the purposeful move from a current situation to a preferred situation.

That said, then Design Thinking is the modes, methods and mental hierarchical decisions made to move from a current situation to a preferred situation. In another way it can be said to be the way we figure out "what could be". This is in contrast to analytical thinking (left brain) which is centered on "What is".

Those are the top level definitions I have. After that you have to get into the who, what, when where and how of the preferred. That is where different professions begin to separate.

I guess it is also important to explain that I feel that Design Thinking is within everyone (an example would be deciding "What am I going to do this weekend"). Different people have had different levels of education, and thereby practice, in using the Design Thinking part of their mind. We are a group of people who had a great deal of education/practice in a narrow area (products) but now some of us have been able to become more broad through our experiences and have applied it in other areas.
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Perhaps one of the reasons the idea of Design Thinking can be so irksome is because its methods are used to ensure successful design outcomes. The very concept makes designers cringe because anything quantitatively guaranteed to succeed is almost by definition qualitatively guaranteed to be mediocre. Business leaders do not want to take big risks in realms where they have no expertise, so for them Design Thinking allows them to comprehend and utilize good design to achieve business success without increasing their level of risk. Obviously the metrics used to fuel Design Thinking must already exist before an idea is deployed, which means that no possibility remains for the design to be truly great such that it redefines the market or changes peoples' perceptions.

So for most of us designers, Design Thinking can be a powerful tool to validate our ideas, solidify our relationships with clients and ultimately put bread on the table. For the Jonathan Ives of the world, Design Thinking is what the other guys are wasting their time on while you're reinventing the way people think about technology. Bold intuition leads the design community and then Design Thinking comes in to analyze it and make financially successful interpretations of the original. If Ives is intuitive design, Microsoft is Design Thinking.

So when designers hear the words "Design Thinking" we tend to react with apprehension. Each of us probably thinks deep down inside that he or she will be the next Ives, blowing all of the metrics out of the water and redefining an industry, relying on our creative gut and our intuitive understanding of human needs and desires to come up with world-changing ideas that just don't fit into existing models. So we scoff at Design Thinking for kowtowing to the needs of base monetization and limiting itself to a risk-averse, controlled use of creativity. In reality most of us don't really have what it takes to be the next Jonathan Ives and have nothing to lose by engaging in a little Design Thinking, if it means that everyday products will be more user-friendly and economically successful, even if they don't create a paradigm shift or transform us overnight into gods among men. I'll be the first to admit that it can be just plain tedious to try to quantify our creativity, but if I make a serious attempt to be humble in my work, it becomes obvious that there is no good reason for anyone else to just have faith in my ideas until I can show some hard evidence. Ideally, a client would be willing to strike a compromise that would require some evidence-based indicators of potential success for certain aspects of a project while leaving others open to creative intuition.

I haven't really defined Design Thinking at all. Maybe there isn't an easy definition. I've just tried to explore some of my own thoughts about the general perceptions surrounding Design Thinking.
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jon_winebrenner
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@craigcloutier

Frankly...you wrote 4 paragraphs that said absolutely nothing about what Design Thinking is. It is long winded statements that smack of some kind of superior thought process someone who wears the Design Thinking Badge...that is irksome.

So, to expand on my original question framed in the context of what you're saying:

What is Design Thinking and how does it ensure successful design outcomes?

That is an extremely bold statement. I would really like to hear how it works. Because, what I hear in what you're saying is that "Design Thinking" is nothing more than "Good Planning".
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Timf wrote:First I have to give my definition of what Design is. It is the purposeful move from a current situation to a preferred situation.
We're in full agreement here. Design (capital D) is not isolated to Industrial Design.
That said, then Design Thinking is the modes, methods and mental hierarchical decisions made to move from a current situation to a preferred situation. In another way it can be said to be the way we figure out "what could be". This is in contrast to analytical thinking (left brain) which is centered on "What is".
Are there case studies, or some kind of example you can present....or even describe here that supports what you're saying? There is a fine line here that I see you treading. Using the idea above that Design is not isolated to Industrial Designers...Engineering (which by definition is Design) is typically very analytical in its "thinking".

I guess it is also important to explain that I feel that Design Thinking is within everyone (an example would be deciding "What am I going to do this weekend"). Different people have had different levels of education, and thereby practice, in using the Design Thinking part of their mind. We are a group of people who had a great deal of education/practice in a narrow area (products) but now some of us have been able to become more broad through our experiences and have applied it in other areas.
I am going to continue being obtuse about this.......is Design Thinking a PROCESS or a PHILOSOPHY?
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mrtwills
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This should help clear things up.
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@ip_wirelessly

Sorry I wasn't able to answer your question in my four long-winded paragraphs. Have fun figuring it out. I had no intention of irking you, just wanted to join the discussion in my own way, and didn't realize my way of writing wasn't acceptable to your discussion.

I'll stay out of it, but do let me know if you find the right answer.
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craigcloutier wrote: I'll stay out of it, but do let me know if you find the right answer.
By all means, don't stay out. Stay and participate, it really helps get the dialog going.
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craigcloutier wrote:@ip_wirelessly

Sorry I wasn't able to answer your question in my four long-winded paragraphs. Have fun figuring it out. I had no intention of irking you, just wanted to join the discussion in my own way, and didn't realize my way of writing wasn't acceptable to your discussion.

I'll stay out of it, but do let me know if you find the right answer.
I agree with Nurb that you should stay.

Realize that you came in swinging with some bold statements. I read the majority of your comments to be quite agressive and carried a tone of arrogance to them.

Feel free to take your ball and go home....I'd prefer you stayed support statements like "ensuring successful design outcomes".
carton
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ip_wirelessly wrote:@craigcloutier

Frankly...you wrote 4 paragraphs that said absolutely nothing about what Design Thinking is. It is long winded statements that smack of some kind of superior thought process someone who wears the Design Thinking Badge...that is irksome.

So, to expand on my original question framed in the context of what you're saying:

What is Design Thinking and how does it ensure successful design outcomes?

That is an extremely bold statement. I would really like to hear how it works. Because, what I hear in what you're saying is that "Design Thinking" is nothing more than "Good Planning".
Design Thinking is a design process coupled with the philosophy that it can also be applied to problems outside of the specific realm of ID. More specifically, a process, like the Big6 information process, to which problems can be applied and solved in a way similar to the way we would solve a design problem (or design opportunity depending on your outlook).

One of the main ways to ensure DT will ensure successful design outcomes is to use it as a framework, and be the designer, ie, use it but know when to change, break or throw out the framework. You mention planning, and though not the sole aspect, a very important one. The planning or design brief will also force you to identify, early on, what successful outcomes look like.

These are the seven steps I have seen attached to DT
Define (the problems, desired outcomes, corporate culture, history, available resources, etc.)

Research (user behaviors, manufacture techniques, materials...)

Ideate (products, systems, solutions, things that won't work...)

Prototype (I think this should be combined with Ideate, because you need to be going back and forth between these two)

Choose (chose the best based on ideas learned from research, prior knowledge of design, and the desired outcomes you defined earlier)

Implement (this is where the launch in beta argument comes in, you need to do work and put it out there to learn from it)

Learn (it is important to follow up on what has been done in order to understand what went well and what went badly. Many companies focus solely on the bad because it is generally glaring and needs to be fixed, but ignoring the good is like walking around blindly in that you tend to keep trying new things even though you may have found the solution.

They are cyclical as well, in that you might run through them multiple times during one problem.

I think it's more than some marketing spin thrown out by IDEO because many universities, IIT for instance, are teaching it as a problem solving methodology. The field of architecture has been especially interested in this methodology as a way for innovative problem solving. However, I was reading an article about a company who cataloged as many existing design methodologies as they could find and at last count were up to around 275-280, so if DT refers to a specific process and not to any of the available design methodologies as they are applied to problem solving in other fields, then I am sure we will all be talking about the next method pretty soon.
Just some guy, trying to figure it out too.
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Timf
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I wrote a four page response but it disappeared when I submitted it. This probably was a good thing :)

Design Thinking is a mental construct not a process or really a philosophy. It is a way of dealing with a problem where the solution cannot be defined at the beginning. In Analytical Thinking, if used correctly, you know what the end result has to be and go through a process to solve the problems to meet this end result.

In Design Thinking the result is unknown at the beginning. It is a way of being open to using different processes in order to frame the problem. Really at that point we switch more toward Analytical Thinking in order to solve the problems and produce the end result.

Unfortunately many people use Analytical Thinking because they think they know what the end result should be and they don't. This is like using a hammer to do a wrench's job.
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Timf wrote:I wrote a four page response but it disappeared when I submitted it. This probably was a good thing :)

Design Thinking is a mental construct not a process or really a philosophy. It is a way of dealing with a problem where the solution cannot be defined at the beginning. In Analytical Thinking, if used correctly, you know what the end result has to be and go through a process to solve the problems to meet this end result.

In Design Thinking the result is unknown at the beginning. It is a way of being open to using different processes in order to frame the problem. Really at that point we switch more toward Analytical Thinking in order to solve the problems and produce the end result.

Unfortunately many people use Analytical Thinking because they think they know what the end result should be and they don't. This is like using a hammer to do a wrench's job.
You may not know the result at the end, if you did you wouldn't use any process, you would just do. What the DT surmises is that you know that you want a 20% increase in sales, or the ability to flat pack a product, this is the basis of success I was referring to.

As far as analytical thinking, I think the design processes and specifically to this conversation DT are actually the opposing force to analytical thinking. In analytical thinking you are continually ruling out possibilities and refining to until there is one solution, with DT and many other processes used by designers, you are adding to the information clump.

What do you think about the idea that DT is additive, while analytical is subtractive? I have heard this characterization in the past and tend to agree, especially in the presence of a process flow chart.
Just some guy, trying to figure it out too.
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Carton - Totally agree on the additive versus subtractive comment.

But I do not agree on the no process if you know what the result should. There are many processes, such as Six Sigma which are about working toward a solution you know. They are there to make sure you do it efficiently and document how you did it so you can do it again.
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Timf wrote:Carton - Totally agree on the additive versus subtractive comment.

But I do not agree on the no process if you know what the result should. There are many processes, such as Six Sigma which are about working toward a solution you know. They are there to make sure you do it efficiently and document how you did it so you can do it again.
I'd be careful throwing Six Sigma into the mix. It has disastrous effects on creativity.
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