Popular concepts often get thrown around to the point where they’ve lost much of their original content. One such concept is Design Thinking.

That’s why it was so refreshing to hear designer/professor Guido Stompff the other day, taking it back to the roots.

In Guido’s book, there are basically two modes of problem solving that are in wide spread use simply because of how we organise schools: Analysis and Decision making.

Techniques for getting to the bottom of a problem are taught in any kind of scientific education. Engineers routinely perform root cause analysis’ to make sure they’re attacking the right problem, just as sociologists and epidemiologists fastidiously question cause and effect relationships that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The analytic approach is pervasive.

Guido places “Decision makers” in the second category of problem solvers. These are the politicians and the high powered CEO’s that can’t afford to be bogged down by details. They’re living in symbiosis with the analysts (in the best of worlds) but they’re a distinct breed.

According to the central tenant of Design Thinking, these two modes of problem solving fall short when addressing the increasingly complex challenges facing society. We need a complementary attack angle.

One of the earliest theorists describing this was American philosopher Donald Schön (to be fair, he built a lot of his thinking upon the works of John Dewey).

Schön didn’t use the term design thinking, but studied what he called ‘practitioners’ and concluded that they all had something in common. Whether it be architects, physicians or psycho-analysts, they all approached their trade with little or no preconceived idea of what problem to solve.

Instead they often seemed to be thinking by doing (similar but not identical to the process of learning by doing). They would start to create something out of thin air, only to see how the ‘situation talked back to them’.

Guido gave a concrete and quite catchy example to illustrate the quality of how a design-thinker operates in the world, it is this: When you want a house built and go see an architect, he or she is neither going to perform a root cause analysis of why you’d want a house, nor show you a catalogue of ready made houses to choose from, since both avenues would defeat the purpose of there being architects in the first place.

What an architect would do, pretty much gives us the complete cook book of design thinking:

  1. Start by making a provisional decision that establishes a frame within which you’re free to move around and formulate opinions (eg. ‘Let’s put the kitchen in the south and go from there‘).
  2. Ideate & visualize: Seeing is believing. A common denominator amongst designers is that they need to operate beyond the medium of text (or code). As Design Theory would have it, the problems are too complex and multi-dimensional to be reflected adequately without visuals. (A complementary explanation could obviously be that people who chose to become designers are probably likely to approach *any* problem with a visual mode of thinking).
  3. Reflect & reframe: The reason Design Thinking is so hard is that we tend to get married to premature decisions. That’s why the initial framing decision really  must be *provisional*. This is the phase where we tear it up and start over. Or ‘iterate’. 
  4. Improve & reflect: See above. Rinse and repeat.
  5. Improve with others: Any great designer will know when and to what extent to bring the perspective of others into the mix. If you do it too early you end up with design-by-committee-disease. (Too late or too little and you’ve really left the domain of design and ended up in art). So this is where you bring in the experts for second opinion. If you have an extreme house design in mind; can it be built from the point of view of a construction engineer? If you’re spinning up an idea of extending your web application with a certain module; does your environment / frameworks / programming languages / architectures allow it from the point of view of your tech-lead?
  6. Reflect with others: You’re now at the point where you’ve built a dream castle, something that isn’t still in this world, but has become tangible enough for stakeholders to be able to give you valid feedback.

If you want to boil these steps down to a one-liner: Design Thinking is about learning by creating which happens in a cycle of framing, experimenting and reflecting.

We need to start seeing this not as an alternative, but as an important complementary mode to tackle problems.

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Side notes:

I heartily recommend Schön’s two books The Reflective Practitioner and Educating the Reflective Practitioner. If you like these, you might also want to look into the work of Schön’s life long companion Chris Argyris. His short book Teaching Smart People how to Learn is a classic for a reason.

Nigel Cross is onto a similar idea in his book Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work. He says academic innovation usually comes out of either deduction or induction. That is: you either come up with clever theories and create experiments in your lab to prove them right, or you look closely for clues in reality and come up with theories based on your observations. According to Cross, innovation in the world outside of academia can be described as a process of abduction. That is to say: there are no readily defined problems, so you have to use both induction and deduction in a constant dance of framing and reframing possible understandings of potential pairs of problem-solution. In reality, if you think about it, this probably isn’t so different from how a researcher in academia is actually operating.

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