Taming design thinking: Part I

In this post, it is planned to depart from the discussions on definition of design and its relationship with design thinking. Design thinking as a phrase refers to the way designers think and solve problems. This thinking process has evolved accepting influences from different sources. Designers themselves prefer to call it more appropriately as ‘designerly thinking’. Of late, the phrase has acquired new meaning. It now refers to application of this thinking process to solve problems in other fields. (like education, healthcare, government etc.) Yet, the roots remain in design problem solving. This article starts with pre1970 developments in the thinking process and the way it evolved then.

The views on design thinking, and particularly this section on design methods movement, should be seen in a particular context. The movement almost coincided with author’s impressionable years, when he studied Architecture and later, Industrial Design and practiced both. The author has implemented some of the ideas in his practice and taught them in his courses on design. Books like Notes on Synthesis of form’ 1, Design methods for designers 2 and Design methods: seeds of human future 3 and many others parallel writings influenced authors design approach then. Much has flown after this. This post is part of reflecting back on views then, sometimes through the lens of the current thinking on design.

What preceded the design methods movement

It is easier to understand the emergence of design methods movement, if what preceded the movement is reviewed. Industrialization and mass productions was already accepted as a way of reducing cost and making them accessible to people without compromising quality of products. Large investments were necessary in creating product inventories before customers make any commitments to buy the products. New methods were required to anticipate customer needs and aspirations with reasonable accuracy. It changed the very nature of business and the risk. With high volumes in production, markets had to be developed across geographies, addressing unfamiliar users and cultures. Colonization ensured access to these markets, but not necessarily to peoples’ mind.

In product design, industrialization was acknowledged as a way delivering consistently good quality, standardized products at reasonable prices. Designers had to team up with counterparts in technology. They had to understand engineering, production and standardization of components. Post World War I, designers looked at it as an opportunity to understand machines and explore machine aesthetics. Modern movement and Bauhaus thinking had started taking its roots in design schools.

In design, Bauhaus pioneered the way towards development of new design thinking. Post Bauhaus, to depart from the past practices in design and move towards rational approach was very much there in the air. In 50s, Ulm school had already taken steps in that direction. 1960s saw emergence of another turning point in design thinking. In 60s and early 70s, several eminent thinkers working in the area of design process and design methods made concerted efforts to influence designer’s thinking process. The focus of the design methods movement was on developing logical, cautious, step-by-step design approach and systematic design methods to understand and solve complex problems.

Foundations of the new design methods

The belief that answers could be found in science and through logical and rational thinking had already found its roots in many fields. The new approach was driven by the urge to be scientific, based on rationality, rigor and intellectual culture. The idea of approach based on objectivity and rationality to produce the work of art and design was in the air. 4 In design, Christopher Jones and Bruce Archer wrote extensively to convince designers and architects to abandon intuitive traditional ways of solving the problems and adopt systematic design process. Series of conferences ensured that the idea spread rapidly.

The foundations of the design methods movement were based on positivist thinking. It assumes that a person lives in an objective world, which can be known through his/her senses; the sensory data is then structured by an internal processing system. It follows that such a world can be then studied dispassionately using scientific methods. It is then possible to view design as a rational search process, where the design problem defines the ‘problem space’ that can be reasonably determined to search of a design solution. 5

Why change the thinking process?

The arguments why designers should change their somewhat intuitive and mysterious ways of solving problems and adopt a systematic design process were convincing. To list a few,

The nature of design projects were rapidly changing in size and the level of complexity. Projects like airports, metro junctions, large housing schemes were either functionally complex or very large in size or both. Conceptualization of such complex systems with interconnected products was a different ball game. Such enormous design challenges were difficult using the intuitive thinking process, which essentially evolved from developing single standalone objects. It was often suggested that the conventional methods were too outdated to handle these challenges.

Need for systematic documentation of decisions and recording of logic also found its support from other sources. Such problems demanded multi-disciplinary team efforts, which needed transparency, so that others on the team can participate and if necessary, intervene in the process. Members in the team had to logically defend their ideas and remain accountable for the ideas they suggest. Designers had to become accountable to the actions that they take. Systematic methods allowed tracking the responsibilities back to the decisions taken so that repetition of error could be avoided. Increased costs of error further demanded that responsibilities of errors be fixed. Besides, emerging consumer liability laws were based on fixing responsibilities. Discourses on all these issues in fact peaked during 60s and early 70s.

There were clear benefits of this approach. It helped designers refine the analytical tools. It increased their knowledge of the context as well as the design problem they were solving. The traditional intuition based design process was seen as outdated for handling issues faced by the modern world, its technologically complex problems and legal frameworks. Businesses had multinational presence that demanded addressing new users across cultures. Intense competition in the markets put pressure on pricing, efficiency and investment returns and risk tolerance. All these collectively influenced design thinking. In this new world designers had to be not only logical, but appear logical.

Decoding the design process

The design problem solving was projected as a series of logical sequential steps. There were some variations in the steps proposed by different authors, but attempt is made to capture these as generic steps. The design process that was recommended often started with observation/s of a gap or sometimes even a casual identification of a problem. The first task was to challenge the initial casual understanding of the problem to ensure that the description of the problem as seen, is valid and complete. This was done in the subsequent steps by collection of data (Step 1), followed by rigorous analysis (Step 2). It is worth noting that time and resources were allotted to analyze, understand and agree on to the new redefinition or reframing of the problem, before committing resources to find solutions. Thus the responsibilities of the design team included understanding the complexities and nuances of the problem and defending it, before search for solutions is started. These first two steps were useful to blur the initial understanding, which is assumed to be incomplete and biased. These steps are often referred as ‘divergence’ phase of the design process.

These steps led to the next, restating or redefining the problem that all the stakeholders agree to (Step 3). The next step was synthesis (Step 4). This was the creative phase that included searching for large number of alternative solutions, keeping the new (re) definition of the problem in mind. It included evaluating these ideas and narrowing down to a single most appropriate solution. This is often referred as a ‘convergence’ phase.

Minor variations exist in the way steps are delineated. Some thinkers have described design process as a two-step process, divergence and convergence. Some others have combined data collection and analysis into a common step, because they share the same objectives. Others have separated synthesizing from evaluation. Generic representation is shown in the accompanying figure 1.


Key features of the new design process

Few observations are worth noting here. First, there was clear separation between the analytical phase (step 1 to 3) and creative phase (Step 4). In fact it was insisted that solution alternatives should not be thought of till the design problem is clearly defined and validated by data and analysis. The approach may look logical, but was definitely not consistent with the way human mind handles problems. More about it will be discussed in later posts.

Second, the systematic design process involving the linear nature reflected in the flow was projected as scientific approach. However, in practice, the act of design was visibly iterative and non-linear, which the linear process could not account for. Iteration was not a commonly used term then, nor did it fit in well with the idea of linearity and flow of the design process. It was accommodated as feedback loops that permitted going back and forth within the linear process. (See accompanying figure 2) In practice, the feedback loops tended to be lot more vigorous. So, the design process could still be represented as series of clean sequential steps. (Interestingly, the influence of language associated with computer programming in 70s is clearly visible in the way the process was projected.)


Support for the design methods movement

The idea was projected as a logical, objective, linear, transparent and scientific process that benefitted all. It got support from many other related events. The new trend of setting up design schools in technology universities had also started around this time. These schools were more comfortable with the idea of moving in the direction of design science. This work and approach looked scientific enough to be referred as design science in some universities later.

Computing becoming powerful and accessible (then as mainframes) indirectly motivated work on understanding, developing and if possible standardizing the design process. Computational methods needed defined and transparent processes. This fitted in well with the design methods movement. Design methods movement and work on computational approach helped each other.

Alexander’s ‘Synthesis of form’, a pioneering book, proposed a refreshing new approach based on computation. It was seen as a way forward. (Alexander later refuted these perceptions.) Researchers were exploring computerization of design process using other approaches. Computer Aided Design (CAD) was beginning to be popular in engineering fields with which designers often teamed up. Engineering had standard design process in place and problem solving could be converted into number crunching. It met the requirements of modern world that demanded objectivity and elimination of personal bias in problem solving. So, the pressure to develop a computational approach to design was very high. Post eighties it did show application in downstream design process, where the idea is developed into manufacture worthy products. In this segment of the process, CAD showed dramatic results. Yet, early part of the design process, where most of the creative decisions were taken, CAD was not making any headway. Computational approach in this segment of the process has remained a major challenge. However, the new artificial intelligence initiatives suggest that it may to take off in future.

Impact on design/er

The convictions of the people who proposed this approach came out clearly in their writings and had its positive effects on design community and on design thinking. Designers were impressed with the arguments that supported need to be systematic and logical. The design process and the new methods proposed were in place. What designers learnt was the greater responsibility to the users and stakeholders. Researching the design problem with rigorous analytical methods ensured effective understanding that was easy to logically explain and defend. Process driven logical approach continues to dominate design in technology and engineering field. In large projects, it is possible now to separate analytical phase from the synthesis and different teams can handle these phases. So it made lot of sense.

It is also common in very large software industries for three reasons. First, they work across geographies and time zones. Their analysis (requirement gathering), design and technology development teams are rarely co-located. Second, they collectively handle large number of projects, which will be impossible to control if the transparent processes are not in place. Third, they have high staff attrition rates as well as staff movements across teams. This demands that uniform standardized processes are followed. The idea clearly seems have benefitted them in some ways.

Though all this looks positive, did different industries and contexts shared the same enthusiasm to adopt the new process?

Did the design methods movement succeeded in taming the designer and his thinking?

These questions will be addressed in the next post.


1 Alexander, C. (1964) Notes on Synthesis of form. Harvard Univ. press, Cambridge MA

2 Archer. B. (1965) Systematic Method for Designers. Council of Industrial Design, H.M.S.O

3 Jones, J. C. (1970) Design Methods: seeds of human futures, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.,

4 Cross, N. (2001) Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science, Design Issues 17, 3

5 Simon, H. (1970) The science of the artificial, MIT press