Shaping of Design Thinking: Connecting dots

Shaping of Design Thinking: Connecting dots

ICSID’s definition of design and literature on design thinking, both are of recent origin. I had expected that there would be considerable overlap in the areas they focus on. However, as you will see later in this article, the reality seems to be somewhat different. Yet, I plan to continue comparing them and search for commonalities, or lack of them, between the two. However, sticking to the current literature on design thinking and definition can be restrictive. I plan to use this discussion only as a backdrop to understand the nature of design problem solving and thinking that supports it. Later, I will free myself from comparing and move on to explore lots of dots that deal in design thinking, but have remained unconnected.

Design thinking &/vs definition of design: Part II

The attempts in the 60s and 70s focused on creating a more precise and somewhat narrow definition of design, and that was influenced mainly by experiences of designing tangible artefacts. The current definition includes intangibles like designing services, systems and experiences. This was in many ways inevitable to capture the new opportunities in the digital world.

The nature of problems that industrial designers are expected to handle have indeed changed. The new definition has confronted the digital world head-on by making the idea of artefacts more inclusive. The digital world has now created completely new kind of artefacts, where interactions with these artefacts are key to its use and effectiveness. Lots of the artefacts have complete or part dematerialized existence and are accessed and operated through standard hardware (like laptops, tablets and mobile phones with apps). So the actual role of tangible artefacts in these applications is general in nature. The assessment of the effectiveness of these new digital objects is based on user’s experiences of interaction, often on screens. Experience design has become another area for the designers to explore.

The online digital world demands that artefacts work as part of online networks. As a component of the larger system, they embrace new capabilities that stand-alone artefacts could not. They are increasingly seen as parts of services and networks. It does not seem appropriate to look at artefacts in isolation anymore.

In spite of these radical changes in the environment that the current definition of design elegantly embraces, the literature on design thinking has somewhat remained rooted in the earlier era of tangible artefacts. Design thinking is a more recent phrase and should encompass new opportunities head-on. The only major exceptions are new areas like experience design and references to agile design process that has roots in software design.

In the current definition, design has attempted to position itself as a strategic problem-solving act, leading to innovation and business. It is now closely meshed with corporate environment. So, new product development includes innovation in business models as well. Design thinking literature also confronts some of this head-on. Has the new focus changed the scope and in doing that, neglected areas that were traditionally part of design thinking?

Definition and beyond

Some issues have received considerable attention in design thinking. These include focusing on users and empathy, iterative nature of problem solving, need for multi-disciplinary approach and to a limited extent, accepting that ‘no best or optimum solution’ exists. On the other hand, the literature sidetracks the messiness of the design thinking process. It is glossed over by need to appear logical and transparent. Similarly, the role of designer as a form giver is completely under-emphasized. Let us take each issue one by one.

User and empathy

Traditionally, field research on users was always considered critical to develop qualitative understanding of the potential customers and users. So, design thinking has rightly focused on systematic observations, interviews and sometimes ethnography. The research ensures that when customers buy and use the artefact, they would ‘feel’ the value that the field research has helped generate. Designers develop their vision based on insights from the field studies. In fact they consider real world communities and human settlements as their laboratories. Some even prefer to work directly with the users and co-create whenever possible.

Earlier definitions of design also had a clear position on need to understand users. The design process respected the needs and aspirations of users. By referring to the better quality of life, the new definition is somewhat indirect on these issues. On the other hand, literature on design thinking is over-obsessed with these issues. Design thinking visualizes responsibility towards the users as a foundation stone of design approach. Most of the literature on design thinking directly records the responsibilities to users and focuses on empathy and even promotes tools to analyse users systematically. (Except that the discussion on the future challenges that the digital world and its products will pose in understanding of users is absent). Surprisingly, references to this responsibility are indirect in the definition. Thus, there is a complete divide between the latest definition and the focus of design thinking.

Iterative nature of problem solving

Design thinking is also full of praise of the iterative problem solving 1, where you keep going back in cycles of understanding (analysis), ideation (synthesis and prototyping) and user testing (evaluation). The feedback and constant iterations are not just conversational. They deal with quick prototyping to get user as well as team feedback. This is of course an essential step in the process. However, design thinking does not discuss the level of granularity of these prototypes. It has also accepted agile model of design process that the digital world is comfortable with. But handling such a process for intangible artefacts is a story that has remained ambiguous.

Design thinking literature hardly explains, how and why the iterative process actually helps generate new ideas except through reactive actions like learn, persuade and test.1 There are number of questions that we need to seek answers to. What motivates the cyclic repetitions, when a single designer is working on creative phase. Is there a chance that it can lead to reactive ideas, which may become a trap to prevent radical solutions? How do you distinguish effective iteration from mere trial and error and mindless iterations? Is there a chance that you land up with a mess while iterating? How do you prevent such a catastrophe? How do you distinguish between tinkering (a common buzz word) and iterations? And lastly, is there a stopping rule that tells designer, go no further?

It is surprising that most of the current design thinking literature does not talk of the role of sketching that often precedes physical prototyping.1 For most designers, diagrams, thumbnails and quick sketches (almost like cryptic writing) are thinking tools. During the creative synthesis phase, while sketching, designers often converse with themselves (and occasionally use gestures too). It is a way to overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Once the idea is out of STM, it permits new ideas to develop. It lets them see and review their own decisions as a third party and react. It is not unusual to find designers excitedly sketching out an idea and feeling disillusioned with it the next day morning, when he looks at his own idea dispassionately. That is why, sketching (as well as prototyping) are essential tools to support thinking and development of ideas.

There is no reason to include these operational aspects in the definition of design, but the current literature is expected to include the role of sketching along with prototyping as a part of creative process. This leads to interesting questions to brood on. Design thinking is now seen as useful to many fields other than what the designer traditionally touched. The people in these fields are unlikely to be conversant with sketching and prototyping of ideas. Would they be at a disadvantage then? If these representations are considered as essential components of the design thinking process, and I think they very much qualify, what form should the forms of representations take when non-designers use it? Is it possible to go up a step above and treat the act of design as a cognitive act? If we look at cognitive role that representations play in designing, we would be able to explore alternatives such as rich enacted descriptions. Neglecting the idea of representation altogether or forcing the current forms of representations on everybody is unfair. In later write ups, I plan to discuss design thinking from this perspective.

There is ‘no best solution’

Optimisation is a common terminology in disciplines other than design. When the behaviour of the elements is predictable and measurable, optimisation is probably a good route. Because concrete and steel behaves predictably you can search for the optimum solution to the problem of designing a building structure. This raises two pertinent questions. Do all real world problems have optimum solutions? And when the elements include unpredictable humans, is optimisation the right direction?

With systematic observations of user behaviour and responding to them creatively, designers come up with new ideas. But in real life, the user reactions and interactions to newly altered object also change, when they see one! Most problems that designers often handle, can not be fully described and are best treated as wicked problems.2

When problems are ill defined, design thinking promotes the idea that there is no best solution. Instead, the solution must offer a best fit within the context. Besides, design permits personal points of view to reflect on the way the problem is understood, as well as the solutions are developed. Lots of artefacts are treated as signature creations. They reflect personal style, vocabulary and preferences of the creators. We will return to this for a more in-depth discussion on this topic in later write ups. The concept of best fit does allow the flexibility that creative efforts need.

Being logical and transparent vs being messy

If you go by the new definition, Industrial design profession is clearly looking for aligning itself with management and technology areas. In this new positioning, it is important to show design thinking as a logical and transparent process. It is also essential for team participation, when others in the team come from management, engineering and science backgrounds. These disciplines demand transparent logic, objectivity and well-documented sequences in the decision processes.

Earlier efforts during 60s and 70s to promote logical and step-by-step sequence for design problem solving have met with limited success. There is a realization that, however messy it may appear to others, the thinking that precedes design as well as aesthetic decisions is based on unique processes, partly inherited from roots of design in art. Little was discussed on unique desingerly ways of thinking, till researcher confronted some of these issues in the last three decades. To hide this messy thinking to project transparency is like putting a clean cover on things, so that nobody finds out what is inside. Design thinking needs to be proud of the messiness in the thinking process, propagate it and in fact focus further research efforts on it.

Designers effortlessly continue to shift goals and reframe problems. The decision processes are inherently messy, iterative and in fact thrive on ambiguity. They also develop the ability to intuitively take subjective decisions. Design thinking is unlikely to work unless it is supported by passion. The designer’s extensive and long learning in dealing with design decisions is backed by a well developed thinking processes, behaviour traits and the ways of solving problems, though they may not be well articulated. It is even more ambiguous when dealing with decisions on form and aesthetics qualities. All these are important elements of creative efforts and very much a part of design thinking and have roots in art.

The articulation of the sequence and the decision process that the partner disciplines demand, is not easy, nor fair. In looking for acceptability by partner disciplines, are we loosing some important aspects of design thinking? Most literature on design thinking does not confront this head-on. Being comfortable with uncertainties, lack of clarity and unclear goals are not seen as a positive quality.

In these new efforts to position designer as being a ‘problem solver’ and ‘business strategist’ following rational processes, there is a danger that we may disown our roots in art. Besides, by not dealing with these issues, we seem to assume that these are not important parts of decision-making in design and need not be part of design thinking. Instead, we should unambiguously acknowledge some of the roots of design profession in art. I have no doubts that the partner disciplines in the team will gain a lot from understanding how designers think. I hope to touch this area extensively in later write-ups.

Designer as a form giver

All the earlier definitions of industrial design included direct references to designer’s special capabilities to solve problems, develop ideas and come up with endearing object forms. Designers have been willingly taking the responsibilities of the formal qualities as well as building internal coherent unity in the artefacts. There are clear references to these in all earlier definitions. The pedagogy in Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus design schools embraced this and considered it as the designer’s very special expertise. Has this need to sculpt a form of the object in response to the needs suddenly vanished? Let us visualize the extreme opposite. Can you imagine the future cars that will populate the expressways? Can you imagine yourself comfortably handling a cell phone that looks like a contraption? And watch televisions that look like technological monsters. Can you imagine future remake of start war, where the spaceships look like machines to live in?

Industrial designers are known for their visual sensibility and this was traditionally the reason they were approached. Now there is an increasing tendency to underplay formal qualities. This is manifested in terms like ‘form factor’ and ‘look and feel’, commonly used in discourses on design. If at all, concessions are made by giving special status to select artefacts, and treat them as iconic objects, where aesthetics is expected to play an important role. I am not inclined to agree with this approach.

Is it the need for compactness that prompted dropping references to responsibilities of developing appropriate object form in new definition? But, even the extended definition does not refer to designer’s role as creator of effective and endearing object forms! Is it that the new breed of designers, visualized as strategist problem solvers, should leave this work to lesser mortals trained in the design tradition? We will never know what prompted this, but we can only speculate.

As mentioned in the earlier section, it can be explained by the fact that design thinking now refers to the idea of using this approach to solve problems considered conventionally outside the sphere of activities of designers. The idea was to explore its potentials to solve problems in management, engineering, government, health, education as well as in industry. It clearly focused on ‘others’. It is possible that the kind of problems design thinking is expected to handle in these applications may not need dealing with formal qualities. So, the issues dealing with aesthetics became secondary.

Is aesthetics only related to external appearance of the objects? Maldonado’s definition deals with the idea of ‘coherent unity’, a concept lot broader. I quote from his definition,

These formal qualities are not only the external features but are principally those structural and functional relationships which convert a system to a coherent unity both from the point of view of the producer and the user.3

You see this coherent unity in an elegant shot in sports, dive in swimming, elegant equation, elegant actions and even elegant strategies. This obviously goes beyond just solving the problem effectively. How do you understand aesthetics and concepts like elegance, freed from its usual connection with the objects?

There is another important reason why it is necessary to deal with formal issues. The thinking that leads to form decisions is uniquely different and there is much that ‘others’ can learn from this thinking process, if not from the output of that thinking. Underplaying form issues will leave our understanding of design thinking incomplete and weak. We will never be able to access the unique thinking processes that lead to form decisions. The vary disciplines that currently criticize messiness of design thinking for not being transparent and process driven can learn a lot from the somewhat messy thinking that dictates creative approach.

To sum up this issue, the role designer can play in business success is clearly spelt out in the latest definition as well as in literature on design thinking. Design community is trying to reposition design and along with that, the designer’s role as a strategists in the new definition. This no doubt is laudable, but it does not explain why the core issue of dealing with messiness of design thinking is left out. Perhaps these decisions may be considered too tactical to be included at strategic level. Design managers and, sometimes even design community, does not seem to think that visual language and artifact related form and aesthetic decisions complement strategic decisions. 4 This remains a major gap in discourse on design thinking.

Summing up

The new focus on design thinking has made a good beginning. It is a good sign that emphasis on user needs, empathy and iterative approach are getting accepted in ‘other’ fields. But, this work has shied away from issues like messiness of the process, somewhat intuitive approach to formal issues and many other topics. These are currently excluded from the scope of design thinking.

Perhaps the decision to exclude such a discussion is dictated by the new need to make it relevant to other areas like management, healthcare, education and so on. This new context also explains why definition of design as well as design thinking has focused on strategy, innovation and problem solving approach. It appears that pick-and-choose selectivity is based on individual perceptions of the authors/experts who used their best judgment to choose areas in design thinking that they considered relevant when they were exploring application of these ideas to ‘others’. Such context dependent interpretations of design thinking have prevented fuller and richer understanding of the scope of design thinking.

This is typical of most new words and phrases coming into circulation in natural languages. Initially they come up through spontaneous usage. ‘Design thinking’ as a phrase seems to have emerged similarly in response to need to promote this idea in ‘other’ non-design disciplines. It is through the usage and popularity that it has been accepted and acquired meaning. Design thinking, the way it is used now, has a limited scope and leaves number of dots unconnected. If current trend continues, it will remain associated with designerly actions in non-design areas and not with all actions of the design community. This would be unfortunate.

Missing dots and connections

There are many other issues that design thinking should touch. Most of the literature on design thinking does not clearly acknowledge the elements of the thinking processes that it has inherited from art. We have not even tried to establish what design has learnt from the thinking processes in these creative areas. We have not looked at several other abilities and skill sets that support design thinking. Serious work in area like ‘How designers think?’ and how they use ‘moves and reflections’ effectively is not even touched. Discussions on design thinking get mixed with discussion on creativity and creative problem solving. These aspects are either missed or referred in passing. Its extended usage to ‘others’ is trying to constrain its meaning. We need to broaden the scope of design thinking currently focused on ‘others’, to include designers.

There are several reasons, why deeper understanding of how designers think, solve problems and deal with issues they confront in the practice of design, is important. Design thinking has the potential to make valuable contributions to our knowledge and understanding of act of design, and in doing that, demystifying design and influencing future pedagogy. Such efforts would contribute to theorizing as well. Besides, if we want to progress towards automation of design actions in future, we need to revisit design thinking with greater depth. Finally, we also need a more nuanced understanding of what ‘others’ may need to borrow from design thinking, if they plan to explore it themselves. Design community and researchers should see this as a new opportunity.

In order that the design thinking as an area develops further, we need to find out if there are important dots missing and connect them. For a much richer understanding, we need to recognise some unique designerly thinking traits. If we don’t, a good beginning made in design thinking may get trivialized.

I hope that the opinions expressed by everyone on this blog would be reflected in the way we understand the scope of design thinking in future and collectively seek answers to them. These are some of the aspects I plan to take up in near future hoping that the readers will contribute their ideas.


1 Liedtka J., (2015). Perspective: Linking Design Thinking with Innovation Outcomes through Cognitive Bias Reduction, The Journal of Product Innovation Management. 32, 6, 2015, 925-938

2 Rittel H., Weber M. (1973). Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning, Policy Science 4, 155-169

3 Source for definitions of industrial design :

4 Athavankar, U., (2009). “From product Semantics to Generative Methods.” IASDR’09,. 59-68.