Acknowledging the roots in art: Part III

Design thinking has borrowed a lot from thinking and methods used in desperately different disciplines, that includes sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences, human factors, business thinking and even operation research and so on. No doubt, it has made design approach richer. In our eagerness to admit ideas, concepts and practices from these areas, are we forgetting the tenets on which the profession was built? Central theme of this post is,

Have we forgotten the roots of design profession in visual art? In fact, the new view that is gaining currency that the influences from art have limited applications in the new age design.

In the first post in this series, we saw how ICSID’s historically changing definitions of design reflected this view. (Shaping of Design Thinking. Nov 17,2016) In the current definition, references to formal issues and aesthetic judgment are totally absent. The fact that this view is steadily gaining ground is reflected in bold statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” by respected design legend Milton Glaser.1 With design thinking catching up as an approach to problem solving in areas other than what is addressed by design professionals, the view that art has only limited influences on design and design thinking is gaining currency in non-traditional application.

Design approach, with part of its focus on form and aesthetics, proposed in the early definitions of design is increasingly treated as ‘traditional’ in the new age design. I attribute it to our misplaced understanding that the influences of art and thinking in art were restricted to form and aesthetics issues. I hope to dispel some of these misconceptions.

Umbilical cord with art

In the later half of nineteenth century Europe, and particularly Britain, the implications of mechanization was a major topic of debates. There were two diverse reactions. First group opposed the mechanization and the industrial products advocated returning to the old art and craft practices. Their efforts to improve the quality and design of products was strongly linked with arts and crafts. Terms like applied arts, industrial arts were common in use in this group. Second group approach accepted machines and explored their potentials to offer new machine aesthetics, eventually leading to modern design approach. The Werkbund movement in the early twentieth century in Germany was in this category. It pleaded to improve production by machines through collaboration of art, industry and the craft.

Pioneering design school Bauhaus in Germany was the most striking example of the later type. The school pioneered a radically different approach. It sought to create a new profession to serve a new kind of society. It maintained strong links with art by inviting artists and craftsmen on the faculty to help improve the standards of products in the industries. There were Avant Garde artists like Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee, Itten and Moholy Nagy, who continued to dominate the approach. Though it was not located in art schools, the link with the art remained strong in Bauhaus. It invited craftsmen along with famous artists to work in a guild kind of environment. It was an independent institution and the artists were the mainstay of their education and remained in dominant position in the Bauhaus philosophy and contributions. 2,3

These debates underscored the need to forge a strong link with art, art schools and artists.

What was undisputable was the need for links with art institutions, either by locating education programmes in visual art institutions, or by inviting artists to participate.

Fascinating account of developments during this period is documented in Vyas’s ‘Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel’.4 However, the discussion on this topic is avoided here, as it would be distracting us from the main argument.

It is difficult to imagine education of design without its close links to the visual arts. Thinking in visual arts has not only influenced out ideas of aesthetics, but also impacted design thinking, actions, practices and behavioral traits. By neglecting the umbilical cord with the ‘visual arts’, we would be rejecting years of accumulated design experience, associated knowledge and treat past success stories as irrelevant. In analyzing these influences, it is critical to go beyond decisions dealing with aesthetic issues, to include impact on how designers think, react, act and solve problems.

It would be only fair to explore how visual arts thinking explains the past design practices and then pass judgment on the validity of the traditional ‘visual art influenced’ design approach. The design methods movement and even later writings on design thinking, would have been far richer if they had not neglected all that design learnt from visual arts.

Let us start this post with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving”. We will follow an incremental approach. We will start with casual evidence of these roots and get it out of the way before we dive deeper into the nature of these influences.

Studio as a workplace

Influences of traditions from art seem to be more pervasive than what we accept. Look at the way designer’s categorize and label their workplaces. The term ‘studio’ has always been associated with the workplaces of artists, painters and sculptors. Studio is a place connected to creative art/s, where something is experimented with; materials are manipulated and explored, to construct something new. Studios always valued skills and craftsmanship. Designer’s professional authority has roots partly in the skilled control over the tools, whether it is a sketch pen, a mouse or others. Designers not only borrowed the idea of studio from artists, but also inherited the culture of free creative explorations that goes together. That’s why designers prefer to call their workplaces and even classrooms as ‘studios’. 5,6

Even the physical appearances of the workplaces that designers dream are somewhat like artist’s studio. Bit messy in looks, they are full of creative displays and ‘constructive’ activities that are immediately put on the wall. Studios are more hands-on than populated with large machines.

There was one major departure from the idea of studios. Pioneering a new approach, Bauhaus school did create an exception. They had workshops where apprentices (also called journeymen) worked under masters. Artists, craftsmen and student apprentices worked together to search for the new aesthetics of the industrial age.3 In a way, their workshops actually functioned like creative studios.

All this is changed rapidly in the later half of 20th century. Design was also getting more technology intensive. Design schools were becoming part of technology universities.

Studios vs lab culture of the universities

In the later half of twentieth century, design became one of the departments amongst many disciplines of the universities. Consistent with this new linkage, movement towards design sciences started taking roots. They were no more ‘schools’ of design. (Schools often represented a thought process and not a discipline.).

New culture included pursuit of knowledge and more recently, working in the laboratories, where experiments are conducted under controlled conditions and variables are managed to study their effects. No doubt, this has its merits. The benefits of labs in specific areas in design profession must be acknowledged.7 It also created the potential of making design a knowledge driven profession. However, it cannot substitute the spirit of working in the studios and exploring new boundaries. Studios primarily generated creative work.

The idea of experiments has different connotations in design. To the artists experimenting with his work is exploring new ideas. The societies and communities were their laboratories. They exhibited their work in galleries and got live audience responses. Architects and planners work directly with communities and exhibited their master plans, building ideas and got reactions of citizens directly. This is conceptually different from the lab culture of universities, where problems were tamed and studied under controlled conditions, eliminating the bias of the creators of the experiments. Balancing the rational approach of the universities and pursuit of new knowledge with the creative practices in design is a major challenge that design schools/departments struggle with now.

Makers sensory experiences

Artists as well as designers share many things by way of approaches, actions, activities and tasks. Both intentionally and consciously create sensory experiences. It is no wonder that most discussions on art influences are restricted to aesthetic judgment. These influences are direct and visible.

Painters, sculptors and designers deal with similar visual elements. In their long educational experiences they learn to manipulate and control sensory elements like shape, colour, texture and sound and their relationships with each other. In doing that, they use and internalize the principles underlying the aesthetic judgments. They are involved in critical judgment of beauty in their work, though designers are unwilling to acknowledge it directly. So, it is not surprising that artists and designers share the same concepts and terms.8 Most introductory books on design deal with such classical issues as well as aesthetic judgments and often acknowledge the influences of art. At best, the discussions are extended to include meaning, expressions and their ability to evoke emotional reactions. In spite of statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” most designers do acknowledge the role that art played in the way they deal with aesthetic issues.

Haven’t designers learnt more from art other than dealing with aesthetic issues? The influences go far deeper and include the way designers think, approach and solve problems.

Why do designers doodle?

In art as well as in design, apparently aimless doodling is a legitimate way of starting your work. Doodling and back-of-the-envelope sketching is common in design. On the face of it, these actions may look inconsequential, but are actually serious and legitimate. Do artists and designers have ideas in their mind when they doodle?

Designers doodle, sketch and even gesture, to keep the spatio-motor activity running. The hand must remain in motion for spatial ideas to develop. Interestingly, many times designers doodle and sketch without a clear idea of what they are looking for. Doodling and sketching, often treated as making marks on the paper, however aimless it may look, is a critical action. Eventually it turns into meaningful shapes on paper.

Like artist who steps back and looks at his work with a tilted head, designers too naturally do this. This artist-like trait is not a coincidence. Both are in deep, often sub-vocal conversations with their creations. I hope to discuss what we do with sketching act in a separate post later.

Current design thinking is struggling to remain faithful to its roots in art as well as technology, both advocate opposite approaches to problem solving. It is like a pendulum that oscillates between the rational and systematic on one side, and somewhat irrational and creative on the other. Most designers effortlessly shift between creative unstructured explorations and rational thinking. It involves switching between right and the left-brain.

The influences of art on design thinking we discussed so far are just a tip of the iceberg. The similarities don’t end here. In fact they start here. There are deeper issues that I hope to touch now as well as the subsequent posts.

Design minus art?

Artists want people to adopt to a new way of seeing the world, often the world that the artists has seen, reacted to and perceived freshly, from their points of views. They develop a unique way of looking at the world around and want to persuade viewers/readers to see through that. Is not this what poets and authors do? And painters and sculptors do? Art has always encouraged the artists to project his ways of seeing on the viewer/reader.

Design inherited this from art. Designers, particularly masters, precisely do that. There work reflects their unique views. Frank Lloyd Write, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry in architecture, Santiago Calatrava in structures, Charles Eames in furniture, Massimo Vignelli in typography, persuaded people to see their view of how the world should be through their work.


Clockwise: Works of Frank Lloyed Write; Le Corbusier; Zaha Hadid; Frank Gehry; Charles Eames. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is fashionable to classify this as ‘iconic’ design and suggest that the new business model oriented world of design, technology and teamwork can do without it. The chances are that such a world will again create quality of products that may prompt another arts and craft movement and birth of a new Bauhaus.

What will happen if we create objects without the vision of the world that artists and designers want us to see? Imagine design devoid of passion to change the world.

Cart before the horse?

Most designers work with a conviction that the world is looking forward to them and the community of designers for breakthrough solutions. To offer a solution that is different and unusual is natural in design and it obviously comes from its roots in art. They believe the breakthrough difference will come if I not only complete the brief, but also exceed it. There is this internal motivation to be different. There are innumerable examples that suggest this, but the most illustrative instance is of initial discussion on design of Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Write (FLW).

When Edgar Kaufmann wanted to build weekend home in beer run in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, he invited FLW to show the site where he wanted the house to be built. Taking the stroll around the site, when they were just opposite the waterfall, Kaufmann seems to have suggested to FLW to build the house so that he can see the waterfall all the time. Within seconds FLW replied, I want you to be part of the waterfall. Wasn’t FLW exceeding the brief and extending the boundaries that his client had initially implied? We will return to this example in subsequent posts as it contains many facets of design thinking.

In fact, designers normally tend to probe the outer limits of the boundaries in the clients mind, probe the degree of freedom available and explore potential directions where freedom is possible. To the outsider committed to rational linear process, such flights of imaginations, just when the project brief is being given, may sound strange. Is designer not jumping the guns?

In reality such incidences are not unusual. How do designers handle this? In initial meetings, occasionally even in the first meeting, designers tend to ask questions that may appear unrelated. They make strange observations and think of impromptu solution directions, even before the problem is completely described. At the back of their minds, the contours of speculative concepts start appearing. They play a significant role in the questions asked. Eventually, it contributes to the change the boundaries implied initially, and alter the directions that design ideas take.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving.” To what extend is the statement incorrect?

The current practices and designerly traits seem to suggest that design indeed has borrowed some of the concepts, actions and practices from art. There are overarching similarities which cannot be explained by chance occurrence. We should quickly sum up some of the issues that we identified. We can traces of roots in art to justify our practices like calling our workspaces as studios, assistants as apprentices and educational institutions as schools. Like artists, we are involved in aesthetic judgments, often visual, and seem to judge our creations using the same concepts and terms that the artists use. We doodle, sketch and then view them from a distance to contemplate, hoping that new ideas will appear in the process. They start speculative explorations of ideas even when the project brief is being narrated and is not fully communicated. Like artists, through their work designers persuade people to see the world from their point of view and through their vision.

We are treating design thinking as if it is an iceberg. Have we then explored the depth of the iceberg? Not really. We still need to dive deeper to acknowledge the influences of art on design thinking. Much of the iceberg remains to be explored and described. That is the task for the future posts.

In the next post we will discuss the role of sketching in design thinking. Traditionally, we have treated sketching as integral part of design thinking. We will address this question next.

If we find answer as yes, it is logical to restricted design thinking to design community. But then it contradicts with the idea of design thinking as it is defined today!


Notes and References

1 Quito, Anne. (2016) “Design has nothing to do with art”: Design legend Milton Glaser. See Glaser goes on to explain his views on the difference between design and art.

2 Gillian, N., (1972) The Bauhaus, Studio Vista, London

3 Bayer H., Gropius W., Gropius I., (1979) Bauhaus 1919-1928, The Musium of Modern art, New York

4 Vyas K., (2009) Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel. SID research cell. CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India

5 Design students value apprenticeship in studios and learn through the project based dialogues with the masters (gurus). The student understand how to think, by watching and even copying the guru. This is not uncommon in visual arts and music, which has always valued guru-shishya parampara. Practice oriented professions like medicine and law too have been focusing on apprenticeship.

6 Even the professional scenario is going through the changes reflecting he changes in the business environments. Designers seem have ‘offices’ and not studios or firms anymore! The term office evokes different kind of connotations and imagery

7 Artists too use their studios for experiments, but they are of a different kind. They tend to be more exploratory and the incident knowledge that they generated is from reflections.

8 Composition, proportions, balance, colour interaction, harmony, contrast, rhythm, figure and ground, and so on.




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

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.

Shaping of Design Thinking

I am intrigued by the sudden popularity of design thinking. Lot of invitations expect me to explain the idea of design thinking through workshops and lectures. Even in literature, design thinking as a term often referred to ‘things’ that other disciplines can use. These ‘things’ developed in practice. So, it is natural that these invitations are from people who are not involved in design. Not many design schools deal with design thinking as a course for design students. They seem to assume that design students will come to know it during their long exposure to the school pedagogy. Is design thinking only for ‘others’?

This is a series trying to explore the conceptions and misconceptions on design thinking. The idea is to provoke practicing designers and students to think on this topic and contribute to the blog, while I continue to express my views through periodic seed articles. Eventually, it could lead to developing a book that crystalizes crowd-sourced ideas.

Design thinking &/vs definition of design: Part I

When I was toying with these ideas in my mind, it occurred to me that it might be possible to understand design thinking and its scope through the way we view and define design. The questions and idea I was grappling with include ‘Do they mirrors to each other? Or the relationship is more be flexible and they merely influence each other?’ It is worth an attempt, but definitely not easy because of the breadth of the activities that designers seem to cover.

Bauhas was the foundation of integrated approach to modern design with focus on artifacts that included all tangible materials like objects, communication material (posters, films), crafts and architecture. The idea of modern design was initially artifact centered. The school also included visual and performing arts. Through its practices and teachings, school strived to create a new (visual) language and tools that reflected rapidly industrializing modern world. In spite of the variety in the manifested Bauhas outputs under one roof, there was a common vision, thinking and approach that these areas shared.

We have to face the facts that such vast scope of design activities makes the problem of precisely defining design a difficult task. More inclusive is the field, more difficult it is to articulate definition that cover all legitimate activities and exclude those, which fall outside its purview. Different disciplines within design seem to be united by Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. So, it is little easier to capture definition of design within limited sub-disciplines, with each sharing different features or elements with others, without the entire category ‘design’ sharing something common. This idea is worth exploring, but it will shift our current focus on the relationship with design thinking.

I plan to focus on one of the disciplines I am familiar with, industrial design, knowing fully well that allied disciplines may share some issues and differ on others. With the holistic approach to design that we started with, it is difficult to justify this limited view. Let us accept this merely as a starting point. First attempt to define industrial design by ICSID1 in 1959. It shows how it evolved over time, responding to the changes in the context. ICSID’s struggle to redefine the scope of design activities and relevance continues even now.

Let me present the first definition of industrial design attempted in 1959. It reads as follows 2

“An industrial designer is one who is qualified by training, technical knowledge, experience and visual sensibility to determine the materials, mechanisms, shape, colour, surface finishes and decoration of objects which are reproduced in quantity by industrial processes. The industrial designer may, at different times, be concerned with all or only some of these aspects of an industrially produced object.

The industrial designer may also be concerned with the problems of packaging, advertising, exhibiting and marketing when the resolution of such problems requires visual appreciation in addition to technical knowledge and experience.

The designer for craft based industries or trades, where hand processes are used for production, is deemed to be an industrial designer when the works which are produced to his drawings or models are of a commercial nature, are made in batches or otherwise in quantity, and are not personal works of the artist craftsman.”

First definition is largely an artifact-centered understanding. Its key focuses include, mainly the artifact qualities and industrial processes. It also considered designer as an arbitrator of visual decision about the artifact and other artifact related materials and actions. In dealing with craft objects, it allowed exceptions with a riders like commercial nature and boundaries like ‘not a work of art’. While number of design schools continue to flourish in the faculty of visual art, it appears to see these as two separate activities.

In 1960, the definition became little more inclusive and added services that the artifact rendered. Note that his function was to give form to the object, but in the context of the positive impact on human life. The focus on artifact continued, but there was also a vague acceptance of technology. The 1960 definition reads as follows,

“The function of an industrial designer is to give such form to objects and services that they render the conduct of human life efficient and satisfying. The sphere of activity of an industrial designer at the present embraces practically every type of human artifact, especially those that are mass produced and mechanically actuated.”

In 1969, the definition was revisited. The new definition proposed by Tomas Maldonado was adopted. It reads as follows,

Industrial design is a creative activity whose aims is to determine the formal qualities of objects produced by industry. 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. Industrial design extends to embrace all the aspects of human environment, which are conditioned by industrial production.”

Three points are worth noting in the above definition. First, it broadened the scope to include all aspect of human environment, provided the artifacts were conditioned by industrial production. Second, it expressly referred to creating formal qualities. Third, the formal qualities were seen as part of internal coherent unity of the artifacts, thus making sure that it is separated from styling and superficial treatments.

Designing focused on creating ‘tangible’ artifacts, making them efficient, convenient, safer, cost effective, delightful and in some cases memorable. Continuing the Bauhas tradition, design approach covered a range of design outputs. These included new products, machines, packaging, advertisements, industrially produced architectural creations and so on. The difficulties in defining design that can include range that designers produced persisted. Continued reference to the designer’s responsibilities for formal qualities of their output remained but challenged the porous boundary between art and design.

Though ICSID dropped the definition subsequently and did without it for several decades, the struggle to redefine the scope of industrial design has been reemerging in the recent past. Digital world was creating new challenges prompting redefinition of design. We will touch this topic later in this article, but discuss it in-depth in future articles.

Latest definition reads as follows,

“Industrial Design is a strategic problem-solving process that drives innovation, builds business success and leads to a better quality of life through innovative products, systems, services and experiences”.

Key points of the latest definition include the following. First, it focuses on phrases like ‘strategic’, ‘driving innovation’ and its relationship with ‘business successes’. In doing that, it expresses the needs of the industry and businesses, making design relevant to them. Second, references to artifacts continue but also include intangible creations like ‘systems and services’ as well as ‘experiences’, no doubt prompted by new opportunities that the digital world offers.

Do concepts in design thinking and the definition of design overlap?

Let is return to the central question that we started with. Is there a close relationship between design thinking (and its scope) and the way we view and define design? Do they mirror and influence each other? When I started thinking about it, I had intuitive feeling that they would overlap, coevolve and influence each other. It turned out to right, at least partially. The new definition as well as the literature on design thinking, both see the new role of designer as a strategic problem solver. Both accept the new challenges thrown by the digital world by extending the scope to include user experiences and need to deal with system and networked services in its stride. Clearly, both seem to have coevolved. (A word of caution. We looked at this from a limited lens of industrial design. It is likely that the conclusion may alter a little, if we look at the other design disciplines.)

A closer look reveals that the connection between design thinking and definition of industrial design appears somewhat loose. Let me explain this. The phrase design thinking is coined recently and seems to have emerged through informal usage. It was meant to propagate design approach to ‘other’ disciplines. Design philosophies, processes and actions dealing with tangible artifacts understandably influenced the initial work on design thinking. The practitioners and teachers of design thinking picked and chose what they considered generic, appropriate and useful to the context of use. Lot of it dealt with the obvious; the user, empathy, iterative process, prototyping, business models and so on. In trying to refer to multiple activities that the designers normally cover, latest definition has become so compact that it has lost this direct focus on user, empathy and many other common practices in design. To discover them, one has to read between the lines. On the other hand, even a cursory look at literature on design thinking shows that it is over-obsessed with user orientation and empathy. Even more surprising is dropping references to formal qualities in the new definition. Is it because, ‘others’ did not need it?

In the context in which the phrase design thinking is used, it has yielded results and nobody questions this. While this propagation should continue, design thinking should also further develop as a full discipline. I plan to continue comparing design thinking and design definitions in part II of this article and explore overlaps or lack of them. We will ask wider and deeper questions to ourselves, to explore answers together.


1 An apex body of societies called International Council of Societies of Industrial Designers (ICSID)

2 Source for definitions of industrial design :