Let's define - design thinking

The world of PID sometimes (understatement?) ties itself in knots with its own terminology; straddling the stratospheres of design and development.

In fact, as practitioners we are still a little stumped as to what to call the very environment in which we work… public interest design / impact design / humanitarian design / co-design / community-led design? Even the Impact Design Hub glossary leaves us scratching our heads (our own definition of PID is different again).

Throw a multitude of acronyms into the mix… NGO, non-governmental organisation / MDGs, millennium development goals / LMC, local management committee… and we’re tongue tied.

So what, you may well ask? Isn’t it all about the impact anyway? True... absolutely! But we have to be a little more self-reflective. If PID is about participation and engagement; bringing design back to the public domain, surely we need to be speaking the same language? At the very least we need to define (and disseminate!) these terms so we’re all on the same page.

OK, let’s do it. From here on in we’ll be posting regular entries which examines an individual word, term or idea. We’ll be looking at how others use it, define it and why it’s even being discussed. We’re calling it our ‘Let’s Define:’ series.

Our first entry is DESIGN THINKING.

It’s a hot topic right now with universities such as Stamford’s Institute of Design, d.school offering courses dedicated to unpacking this approach and critics such as Bruce Nussbaum (a once major advocate) claiming the end is nigh.

d.school defines it as, 

A methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines. This process... draws on methods from engineering and design, and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world.

If design is the "transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones" (Herbert A. Simon) then design thinking is the process, the mindset, the attitude... and it starts with asking the right question(s).

Our favourite podcast (unsurprisingly) is 'Designers - Think Big', by Tim Brown at TEDGlobal. Tim not only tries to define the term, offering key examples and methodologies in practice, but also and perhaps more importantly, discusses why it is so important.

I’d like to suggest that if we take a different view of design and focus less on the object and more on design thinking as an approach that we actually might see the result in a bigger impact.

Design thinking may have the possibility to affect positive change in answering some of the biggest challenges we face today.

In short Tim argues that [dignified] design is:

  • human centred

  • more than good ergonomics

  • about understanding culture and context before we even know where to start with ideas

  • about building in order to think (learning by making)

  • too important to be left to the designer

The last point is perhaps the most insightful and may be one of the reasons why there has been such hostility towards this phrase by design professionals. Does design thinking negate designers? We don't think so. As Helen Walters (Forbes) states, "It's a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself."

So to get you started, here's a few articles - the ideas, pros and cons:

Design Thinking Harvard Business Review / Tim Brown

Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation Forbes / Reuven Cohen

Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next Fast Company / Bruce Nussbaum

Design Thinking Isn't A Miracle Cure, But Here's How It Helps Fast Company / Helen Walters

Design Thinking… What Is That? Fast Company

What Is Design Thinking Anyway? The Design Observer Group / Roger Martin

And some fantastic FREE toolkits and guides to help you on your way:

d.school Virtual Crash Course In Design Thinking Institute of Design at Stanford

Designing For Growth: Ch1 & 2 Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie

Design Kit IDEO.org

Design Thinking For Educators Riverdale / IDEO

Design Thinking Method Cards University of St. Gallen

DIY: Development, Impact & You Nesta

Service Design Tools Roberta Tassi

Social Design Pathways 2013 Winterhouse Symposium for Education and Social Change

We'd also advise you to watch out for screenings of the documentary, Design & Thinking.


Author: J. Ashbridge