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Design thinking stands for design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.
Design thinking has come to be defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context. According to Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, the goal of Design Thinking is "matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy"  The premise of teaching Design Thinking is that by knowing about how designers approach problems and the methods which they use to ideate, select and execute solutions, individuals and businesses will be better able to improve their own problem solving processes and take innovation to a higher level. There is also considerable academic interest in understanding design thinking and design cognition. The first formal academic research symposium on Design Thinking was organized at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands, in 1991, and has developed into a regular series.
The notion of design as a "way of thinking" in the sciences can be traced to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, and in design engineering to Robert McKim's 1973 book Experiences in Visual Thinking. Rolf Faste expanded on McKim's work in the 80s and 90s while teaching at Stanford, defining and popularizing the idea of "design thinking" as a method of creative action." "Design Thinking" was adapted for business purposes at IDEO by Faste's colleague David M. Kelley. Peter Rowe's 1987 book Design Thinking, which described methods and approaches used by architects and urban planners, was a significant early usage of the term in the design research literature. Richard Buchanan's 1992 article, entitled "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking", expressed a broader view of "design thinking" as addressing intractable human concerns through design.
Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues with the intent of an improved future result. In this regard it is a form of solution-based, or solution-focused thinking which starts with the goal or what is meant to be achieved instead of a specific problem. By addressing both the present and the future, the parameters of the problem and possible solutions are explored simultaneously. Cross asserted that this type of thinking most often happens in the built, or artificial, environment (as in artifacts).
This approach differs from the scientific method, which starts with defining all the parameters of the problem in order to define the solution. Design thinking starts with a variety of possible problem definitions and solutions, in order to begin defining enough of the parameters to discover an optimized path to the goal. The possible solutions are therefore all potential starting points.
For example, a client might come to an architect's firm after having seen one of the houses they built. Having bought the "perfect" piece of land, the client may ask for the same "perfect" house. The architect then has a solution as a starting point to flesh out the many parameters (of site slope, facing, views, familial needs, future needs, etc.) in order to create new resolutions within the original scope for the considerations of this new client, new site, needs, wants, codes, etc.
In 1972, psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson created an empirical study to understand the difference between problem-based solvers and solution-based solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-story structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the building was to optimize either the red or the blue color, however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.
Lawson found that:
The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimize the required color around the design. By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately colored perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favorably colored block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered.
Nigel Cross concludes from Lawson's studies that scientific problem solving is done by analysis, while designers problem solve through synthesis.
The terms analysis and synthesis come from (classical) Greek and mean literally "to loosen up" and "to put together" respectively. In general, analysis is defined as the procedure by which we break down an intellectual or substantial whole into parts or components. Synthesis is defined as the opposite procedure: to combine separate elements or components in order to form a coherent whole. However, analysis and synthesis, as scientific methods, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results.
This is not to say that Design Thinking does not use analysis to inform the final solution, however the approach of a Design Thinker in terms of problem solving is from the perspective of the end goal. The architects in The Blocks Experiment worked the problem from creating coherent wholes to find the optimum solution rather than breaking the problem down into its parts as in the engineers' approach.
Design Thinkers also use divergent thinking and convergent thinking to explore many possible solutions. Divergent thinking is the ability to offer different, unique or variant ideas adherent to one theme while convergent thinking is the ability to find the "correct" solution to the given problem. Design thinking encourages divergent thinking to ideate many solutions (possible or impossible) and then uses convergent thinking to prefer and realize the best resolution.
Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the "building up" of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation in the ideation and prototype phases. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these earlier processes since this can often lead to creative solutions.
An example of a design thinking process could have seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren't linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated.
Although design is always subject to personal taste, design thinkers share a common set of values that drive innovation: these values are mainly creativity, ambidextrous thinking, teamwork, end-user focus, curiosity.
An alternative, five phase, description of the process, as described by Hasso Platner, is;
The path thru these five process steps is not strictly circular. Platner states; "While the stages are simple enough, the adaptive expertise required to chose the right inflection points and appropriate next stage is a high order intellectual activity that requires practice and is learnable."
Platner asserts that there are four rules to Design Thinking;
Design thinking is a solution-based approach to solving problems, and is especially useful when addressing what design thinkers refer to as Wicked Problems. Wicked problems are wicked in the sense that they are ill-defined or tricky, not wicked in the sense of malicious. For ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving exercise. This is as opposed to "tame" or "well-defined" problems where the problem is clear, and the solution is available through some technical knowledge.
For wicked problems, the general thrust of the problem may be clear, however considerable time and effort is spent in order to clarify the requirements. A large part of the problem solving activity, then, consists of problem definition and problem shaping.
The "A-Ha Moment" is the moment where there is suddenly a clear forward path. It is the point in the cycle where synthesis and divergent thinking, analysis and convergent thinking, and the nature of the problem all come together and an appropriate resolution has been captured. Prior to this point, the process seems nebulous, hazy and inexact. At this point, the path forward is so obvious that in retrospect it seems odd that it took so long to recognize it. After this point, the focus becomes more and more clear as the final product is constructed.
For Design Thinking, there are several players who can stop the process. These enemies of Design Thinking are Fear, Resistance and the Devil's Advocate. These enemies distract from design thinking by stopping creative production by use of unconstructive negativity.
Fear keeps a designer from the actual doing of using their methods and process to achieve goals. Both are internal psychological hesitations that can distract the designer from creating or focusing on solutions by shifting the focus, instead, to doubts of self-worth, anxieties of "will it be good enough," or procrastinations.
Resistance can be encountered through internal psychological disruptions. Resistance stops design thinking by confusing the goal with all sorts of other things that need to be done first. Resistance shifts the focus from solutions and ways to get to those solutions to anything other than realization. Resistance can also be encountered through other people. Donald Schön talks about the resistance of students towards their professors and the resistance of professors towards students in the learning process.
The "Devil's Advocate" is that one person who never has anything productive to say, but immediately knows and voices exactly why every initially proposed solution will not work. This personality goes further than critical thinking and analysis into negative criticism. This person has the ability to kill projects by shifting the focus from potential solutions to hypercritical problems that might not even matter in the end. The goal of this person is to stop any further ideation towards a solution, and ought to be banned from the room.
Design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there is a significant difference between the two.
Design methods are all the techniques, rules or ways of doing things that are employed by a design discipline. Some of these methods for Design Thinking include creating user profiles, looking at and understanding other designer's solutions, creating prototypes or study models, mind-mapping, asking the five-whys to get to a crux of the problem, site-analysis, etc.
Design Process is the way in which the methods come together through a series of actions, events or steps. There is no solitary process that can define Design Thinking. There are as many different design processes as there are designers multiplied by design problems.
Many of the early Design Processes stemmed from Soft Systems Methodology in the 1960s. Koberg and Bagnall's wrote The All New Universal Traveller in 1972 and showcase a circular seven-step process to problem-solving; although they also proposed that these seven steps could be done lineally or in feed-back loops. Stanford's D. School came up with an updated seven step process in 2007. In between there has been many different proposed design processes including a three-step simplified triangular process (or the six-part, less simplified pyramid) by Bryan Lawson or any of the processes documented in Hugh Dubberly's e-book How Do You Design: A compendium of models.
Ill-defined problems, such as design usually rely on higher-order relationships such as analogies as a part of their rationale. This is due to the lack of understanding of the expectation of the results wanted from the definition or lack of domain-related knowledge for the task. In this case, the usage of analogy can help the designer to relate different internal representations such as images, in order to create a transfer of the concepts expressed as a source and target representation in order to create a new product or design. The process involves several complex cognitive mechanisms, as the design task usually relies on the visual domain, thus involving the usage of visual thinking in the cognitive process of design.
This takes us to the mapping process between the source and target representations, it is proposed that contrary to regular analogies, the visual analogies in design are a two way mapping that iterates between the source and the target by means of image manipulations in the reasoning process giving feedback between both. One such example is the one of the Dommelsch campaign in 1991 in which a mapping by the designer between images of vacation spots and the product, in this case, beer was made by manipulating the images in order to combine them and relate the concept of vacations and holidays with beer by means of using images to generate the analogies. It is then that this process, that it can be akin to sketching in order to convey the relation of ideas or concepts in order to generate a new product, be it an image or an object. It is also noted that given a series of constrains in design, usually as part of the proposal part of the process, the analogies help to create new solutions by means of the mappings and manipulations between source and target representations.
The usage of visual analogies in order for learning in design processes is also present, as studies realized in 1997 and 2001 by comparing the usage of design-domain knowledge and visual analogies in the solution of an ill-defined problem of design between experts and novices in the area. The studies showed that the novices and experts used visual analogies in order to generate solutions, but an interesting effect shown in the studies was that novices tended to rely on referential images onto which manipulations were made in order to generate solutions more often than experts. This is an interesting effect due to that as gaining knowledge, cognitive processes and mechanisms act in an economic manner by choosing the ones that require less resources, given that knowledge is present, it is more easily accessed in order to produce solutions by using such techniques. The novices on the other hand, gain expertise in the matter by visual analogies as a mean of knowledge acquisition, this helps them to generate rules of design based on empirically gained experience by usage of visual analogies.
Although many design fields have been put in a category somewhere between Science and the Arts and Humanities, it can be seen as its own distinct way of understanding the world based on a culture of solution-based problem solving, problem shaping, synthesis, and appropriateness in the built environment.
One of the first Design Science theorists, John Chris Jones, postulated that design is different than the arts, sciences and mathematics in the 1970s. In response to the question 'is designing an art, a science or a form of mathematics' he says:
The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present (whether it is real or symbolic), while mathematicians operate on abstract relationships that are independent of historical time. Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.
Design can be seen at its own culture in education with its own methodologies and ways of thinking that can be systematically taught in both K-12 and higher education. Nigel Cross sets out to show the differences between the humanities, the sciences, and design in his paper Designerly Ways of Knowing. He shows that:
Designers communicate in a visual or an object language. Symbols, signs, and metaphors are used through the medium of sketching, diagrams and technical drawings to translate abstract requirements into concrete objects. The way designers communicate, then, is through understanding this way of coding design requirements in order to produce built products.
Design thinking has two common interpretations in the business world:
The limits of the first kind of design thinking in business are also being explored. Not all problems yield to design thinking alone, where it may be a 'temporary fix'. Design thinking companies including IDEO and Sense Worldwide are responding to this by building business thinking capabilities.
In organization and management theory, design thinking forms part of the Architecture/Design/Anthropology (A/D/A) paradigm, which characterizes innovative, human-centered enterprises. This paradigm also focuses on a collaborative and iterative style of work and an abductive mode of thinking, compared to practices associated with the more traditional Mathematics/Economics/Psychology (M/E/P) management paradigm.
Companies that integrate the principles of design thinking in their innovation processes often share a certain mindset or are striving to cultivate a more creative and human-centred company culture.
|pre-1960||The origins of new design methods in the 1960s lay further back in the application of novel, 'scientific' methods to the pressing problems of the 2nd World War from which came operational research methods and management decision-making techniques, and in the development of creativity techniques in the 1950s.|
|1960s||The beginnings of computer programs for problem solving, the so-called soft-systems approach. |
The 1960s marked a desire to "scientize" design through use of the computer science soft-systems approach.
|1962||The First 'Conference on Design Methods,' London, UK.|
|1965||L. Bruce Archer, professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art argues that design was "not merely a craft-based skill but should be considered a knowledge-based discipline in its own right, with rigorous methodology and research principles incorporated into the design process" and states; – "The most fundamental challenge to conventional ideas on design has been the growing advocacy of systematic methods of problem solving, borrowed from computer techniques and management theory, for the assessment of design problems and the development of design solutions."|
|1969||Herbert A. Simon notable for his research in artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences establishes a "Science of Design" which would be "a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical, teachable doctrine about the design process."|
Visual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim publishes his book "Visual Thinking," inspiring the teaching of Robert McKim in the design program at Stanford University. The class McKim creates, "ME101: Visual Thinking," is still taught today.
|1970s||Notable for the rejection of design methodology by many, including some of the early pioneers. |
Christopher Alexander, architect and theorist wrote – "I've disassociated myself from the field. There is so little in what is called 'design methods' that has anything useful to say about how to design buildings that I never even read the literature anymore. I would say forget it, forget the whole thing."
John Chris Jones, designer and design thinking theorist stated - "In the 1970s I reacted against design methods. I dislike the machine language, the behaviourism, the continual attempt to fix the whole of life into a logical framework."
|1973||Robert McKim publishes Experiences in Visual Thinking. One important theme in the book is the idea of "Express, Test, Cycle" (or ETC) as an iterative backbone for design process. |
Horst Rittel also proposes that the developments of the 1960s had been only 'first generation' methods (which naturally, with hindsight, seemed a bit simplistic, but nonetheless had been a necessary beginning) and that a new second generation was beginning to emerge." This suggestion was clever, because it let the methodologists escape from their commitment to inadequate 'first generation' methods, and it opened a vista of an endless future of generation upon generation of new methods.
|1979||Bruce Archer starts off the next decade's inquiry into designerly ways of knowing stating – "There exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems."|
|1980s||Engineering design methodology of the systematic variety developed strongly, the International Conferences on Engineering Design (ICED) forms. |
Early engineering developments were especially strong in Germany and Japan.
Series of Design Journals starts to form: Design Studies in 1979, Design Issues appeared in 1984, and Research in Engineering Design in 1989.
Other important developments include: the publications of the Design Methods Group and the continuing series of conferences of the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The national Science Foundation initiative on design theory and methods led to substantial growth in engineering design methodology in the late-1980s. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) launched its series of conferences on Design Theory and Methodology.
The 1980s also sees the rise of human-centered design and the rise of design-centered business management.
|1980||Bryan Lawson, professor of architecture at University of Sheffield, pens the seminal text How Designers Think about design cognition.|
|1982||Nigel Cross, Professor of Design Studies and Editor of Design Studies Journal writes Designerly Ways of Knowing showing Design as its own culture to be taught in schools by contrasting it with Science culture and Arts and Humanities culture. This is based on the idea that "There are things to know, ways of knowing them and ways of finding out about them that is unique to the design fields."|
|1983||Donald Schön, professor and theorist in organizational learning, pens his seminal text Educating the Reflective Practicioner in which he sought to establish "an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which [design and other] practitioners bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict."|
|1986||The business management strategy Six Sigma emerges as a way to streamline the design process for quality control and profit.|
|1987||Peter Rowe, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, pens Design Thinking the first significant usage of the term "Design Thinking" in literature.|
|1988||Rolf Faste, director of the design program at Stanford, creates "Ambidextrous Thinking," a required class for graduate product design majors that extends McKim's process of visual thinking to design as a whole-body "way of doing."|
|1990s||Ideas of organizational learning and creating nimble businesses come to the forefront.|
|1991||IDEO combines from three industrial design companies. They are one of the first design companies to showcase their design process, which draws heavily on the Stanford curriculum. The firm was the subject on ABC's Nightline in 1999 in an episode called "The Deep Dive."|
|1992||Richard Buchanan's article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" is published.|
|2000s||The 2000s have seen a boom in design thinking as the term becomes a buzzword in business. There is a rise of books written for the business sector about how to create a more design-focused workplace where innovation can thrive: Florida (2002), Pink (2006), Martin (2007), Gladwell (2008), Brown (2009), Lockwood (2010).|
This shift of design thinking away from the product fields and into the business sector sparks a debate about the hijacking and exploitation of design thinking. Accordingly to Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO, in the end of 2000, Lavrans Løvlie, Ben Reason and Chris Downs, joined forces to found live|work, an UK based design consultancy firm which opens up for business on the basis that the design approach should be extended and adapted to tackle the design of services. This marks the beginning of the service design consultancy firms movement worldwide.
|2005||Stanford University begins teaching Design Thinking to engineering students. Known as the "d.school".|
|2007||Hasso- Plattner-Institute for IT Systems Engineering in Potsdam, Germany establishes a Design Thinking program.|
|2008||Hasso- Plattner-Institute Design Thinking Research Program started at Stanford.|