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Thinking About Design Thinking

Probably the phrase in design circles I'm hearing the most these days is "design thinking." As in, "We need to bring some design thinking to this project." Or "What sets designers apart is their design thinking." It's even on the main image of Stanford's new d school website. Interestingly, I haven't seen much about what "design thinking" really is though.

I've heard it used in any number of ways, some of which are vague enough and/or general enough so that they are insulting to other professions. Are we saying other disciplines aren't creative or aren't problem-solvers? I didn't really become a designer until I was 30 years old: does this mean I was thinking differently before then?

Certainly, design thinking is creative, innovative, and focused on problem-solving. But so is the thinking of many different types of professions: lawyers, engineers, and contractors, to name only a few. So lets remove those as differentiators right away. No, if there is such a thing as design thinking, it's probably shorthand for these things:

  • A Focus on Customers/Users. It's not about the company and how your business is structured. The customer doesn't care about that. They are care about doing their tasks and achieving their goals within their limits. Design thinking begins with those.
  • Finding Alternatives. Designing isn't about choosing between multiple options, it's about creating those options. Brenda Laurel speaks of her love of James T. Kirk's "third option" instead of two undesirable choices. It's this finding of multiple solutions to problems that sets designers apart.
  • Ideation and Prototyping. The way we find those solutions is through brainstorming and then, importantly, building models to test the solutions out. Now, I know that scientists and architects and even accountants model things, and possibly in a similar way, but there's a significant difference: our prototypes aren't fixed. One doesn't necessarily represent the solution, only a solution. It's not uncommon for several prototypes to be combined into a single product.
  • Wicked Problems. The problems designers are used to taking on are those without a clear solution, with multiple stakeholders, fuzzy boundaries, and where the outcome is never known and usually unexpected. Being able to deal with the complexity of these "wicked" problems is one of the hallmarks of design thinking.
  • A Wide Range of Influences. Because design touches on so many subject areas (psychology, ergonomics, economics, engineering, architecture, art, etc.), designers should bring to the table a broad, multi-disciplinary spectrum of ideas from which to draw inspiration and solutions.
  • Emotion. In analytical thinking, emotion is seen as an impediment to logic and making the right choices. In design, decisions without an emotional component are lifeless and do not connect with people.

Other disciplines, I'm sure, do one or more of these at any given time. But I think it's the combination of these that people mean--or should mean--when using the phrase "design thinking."

Originally posted at Tuesday, March 29, 2005 | Comments (2) | Trackback (2)

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Metaphor and Interaction Design Presentation
I'm back from the IA Summit, where I presented The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design (2.5 mb pdf), which was a longer version of the presentation I gave on it, my thesis topic, back in January. I'm not sure if it will make any sense without my commentary, but some of the images are funny. ...

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