Taming design thinking: Part II

This post is largely built on my views. These were developed during my long practice of design as a design professional and shorter stint as an architect. Projects were fortunately varied and allowed varied exposure. Out of academic interest, at one time I kept a record of every little step that I took in the act of design. On other occasions, I had the luxury of reflecting on my decisions after they were taken. Lot of these was only available to me to as memories. Unfortunately I have lost these paper trails.

Lot of my observations are mixed with following external sources. The views were developed by partly drawing on informal observations of professional works of my colleagues in act of designing and the post decision discussions. As a faculty, I also watched students designing. I must concede that lot of it is based on my convictions that were formed over last so many years of practice and teaching of design. This post can be critiqued on several counts. Lot of it is based on individual experiences, my reflections and opinions that could be potentially biased. Some of the statements have not been supported by credible evidence from literature. I fully accept this and I do take the responsibility as well as the blame. I request readers to keep this in mind while going through what follows. I do not expect that readers will agree with the views.

This article may appear too harsh a critic of design methods movements. For a more scholastic and balanced view I suggest that the readers should refer to Cross.1 I know that I am not winning friends here, but I hope to generate discussion on the topic and get readers to post their views.

To begin with, I do acknowledge that design methods movement made important contributions to design thinking and did influence me. We concluded the previous post (Taming of design thinking: Part I) with a question,

“Did the design methods movement succeed in taming the designer and his thinking?”

The straight and short answer would be, that designers picked and chose what they were convinced about and integrated it with ‘their’ approach, but their design process largely remained unaffected. Let us start with what they learnt and accepted from the design methods movement.

Learnings from the logical and rational approach

It made the designer accountable for defining the problem as well as finding solutions that effectively meet the aspirations of stakeholders. It also accepted users as principle stakeholder. When the context and users were local, as in craft design process, this was automatically guaranteed.2 Proximity ensured that the users were well integrated in the design process and no conscious efforts were required to give them a special role in the process. Things changed eventually with industrialization and mass production. The goods created large inventories and to search markets outside the geographies became critical. During colonization, the markets and aspirations of the industries had become global. In this new context, designers could not be close to the users (customers) anymore. Accepting the changed design context, design methods movement made it important that user’s role in the design process be expressly stated. The seeds of later work on user studies, ‘user first’ movement and concepts like empathy could be faintly traced back to the design methods movement.

Methods movement insisted that design decisions should be driven by data and analysis to bring in accountability and transparency in decision-making. Multi-disciplinary nature of most solutions also demanded transparency. Systematic and methods driven approach became essential also because of the high cost of error and large financial stakes. Most large projects needed to exercise abandoned caution by anticipating all eventualities. In a way, it established that designing is knowledge and data driven. (and perhaps not art driven!) Lot of this was indisputably accepted, at least when the stakes were high.3

“With this changed context in its favor, why did the movement not fully affect the design approach?”

Responding to the changed context

There were far too many changes in the context that conflicted with the ideas propagated by the design methods movement. Creativity had become a buzzword and proposed methods that defined linear approach. Rapidly developing technologies had started occupying driver’s seat in new product development. Business thinking had to evolve to meet the changing competitive market environments. Besides, there was a clearer understanding of the nature of design problem including understanding of wicked problems. Most of these conflicted with some of the broad statements on which the design methods movement was built. The sections that follow, we will deal with each of them separately.

Creativity and messiness of the approach

Design methods movement conflicted with the ongoing work on creativity. Brainstorming had become popular. Bono’s books on lateral thinking had enormous coverage.4 Lateral thinking became a coffee table term, even outside the design community. Supporting this, there were annual workshops and seminars on creativity in Buffalo try to spread creativity techniques. Gorden’s Synectics based on analogies and metaphors continued to maintain the mysteries of the creative processes.5 All this caught the imagination of many, particularly the design community. The crazy creative processes were closer to their ways of thinking and they could identify with it.

Creativity techniques encouraged non-linear thinking, insisted on connecting the unconnected, fantasizing and acknowledging the role of intuition. All this was inconsistent with what design methods movement was trying to propose. None of this could have been explained as a distinct and defined step that can be called as ‘creative leap’. The inherent messiness of the process was difficult to explain or accept.

With my design approach rooted in systematic design process, I had hard time reconciling the two conflicting and somewhat opposing approaches. The conflict prompted me to reflect on how I took design decisions. So, in ongoing professional design projects, I used to keep a record of every decision with time stamp and review it later. (We will return to it in subsequent parts)

Design methods move towards design science, was in direct conflict with the ideas and approaches proposed by proponents of creative approach.

Solutions in search of problems: Technology as a driver

Changed technology intensive product development was not compatible with the systematic linear approach. With rapidly emerging technologies from labs, the new product development scenario was transforming. Technologies could prompt product ideas that users could never have imagined. When the ideas are way beyond what users are able to anticipate or visualize, they are unlikely to imagine its implications. Only when such product ideas are introduced in the market, that the users realize that, they would be better off using it. The real world situation shows that once the new idea is available and accessible, people either recognize that they need it and/or are willing to be persuaded to buy it. Integrating camera with cell phone was not an expressed need, but now it is impossible to sell a cell phone without it. In fact people look for two cameras now. It is also true with several other features that are integrated with cell phone.

The systematic linear approach is unlikely gel with a rapidly changing technology environment unless you turn the process on its head. Now we need a proactive approach, a new normal, where product ideas search for target markets, at least for technology driven product categories. It is not without some indirect support from literature. In business literature, these are often referred as latent needs. Hamel and Prahalad also proposed a somewhat similar idea using a simple analogy.6 He suggested that we treat the market as an unexplored jungle. Instead of studying the features of the jungle to look for clues to locate the prey and then study the prey, shoot several arrows in different directions. His arrows could represent different ideas or strategies. If one of them hits the target, you discover the target and also where it is, what it is like.

The changed technology environment demanded that the normal product development process be turned upside down. The new mantra was, watch technology development, imagine an innovative product offering and later explore and establish the target segment and then measure it.

As we will see it later, design thinking intuitively has been following this line of thoughts, rather than the systematic linear processes. More about it later.

The idea of product differentiation

Another major changed that is worth taking note of is the developing business approach that expanded the idea of product as a bundle of values offered and established the critical role that product differentiation plays in business.7 Companies, to maintain their leadership role, look for is a well-differentiated product offering that can capture the imagination of the potential customers and users. In already crowded market place, it is always an important business requirement to get a competitive edge through product differentiation.

In my practice, I found that systematic study of stakeholder and particularly user requirements do not automatically lead to ideas that can create visible product differentiation. Even when they do, such differentiations tend to be marginal. What you need is something that users have not expected or anticipated. How will then such ideas come from users? And that too, through systematic logical steps?

This is a challenge that systematic approach finds not so easy to handle. It does give a fair and accurate understanding of the problem, but often does not give a clue to creating differentiation in product offering that will delight the customer. When all competitors have similar data and similar understanding of the problem, they tend to land up with solutions that are often similar. No wonder, products in most categories tend to have similar designs. All you have to do is to go to a popular shopping site, type in a popular product category and compare how similar the products are.

How do you then create differentiated product? Instead of using a more expensive route of altering technical specifications, it is often easier to change non-technical aspects, like focusing on unique user experience, adding new user functions, delightful product form, creating features for convenience, comfort and interesting packaging.

In a competitive market environment, new product development needs to focus on creating differentiating features that would persuade customer away form what the competitors offer. To create such differentiation with the well defined problem space is too restrictive. The tighter the boundaries are, less is the freedom to differentiate the core product offer. So, it is good idea to accept the problem space defined by systematic studies as a minimum definition of the problem. (See figure 1) The focus should be to go beyond the defined problem boundaries to find opportunities to create differentiating feature/s that will necessarily appeal to potential user. To make this possible, we need to find ways to explore and cross the boundaries of the problem space defined earlier through systematic study.


Figure 1: a) Bounded problem space shown as dark red; b) Extending the boundary and the problem space by challenging it. (Textured red areas)

It is by extending the boundaries of the problem that you can find a feature that will delight the customer. Besides, the idea of creating a unique product proposition comes to the designer naturally. It is built into his education. Designers anyway have an urge to be different and dream of creating a signature product. So, it works well for both the parties.

Design can offer a visible differentiation in products and route to search for such product features are often not through rational and linear thinking. Need for differentiation is one of the real reasons why designers are invited to be on the team.

Problems with the design problems

This section contains collections of related issues that directly or indirectly conflicted with the ideas propagated by the design methods movement. The movement was based on the assumption that rational approach will discover the real and complete understanding of the problem. How correct is this assumption?

The understanding of the problem is most likely to be incomplete, can be claimed by two independent arguments.

The first argument is based on the question, ‘Are all problems equal?’ The idea of ill-defined problems has just started emerging then. Rittel and Webber, in the context of planning, suggested that most real world problems tend to be ill-defined. A theorist in design science, he called them as wicked problems.8 Most design problems, where users and their aspirations play a major role, tend to be wicked. How does it matter to us? According to Rittel, when investigating such problems, information is hard to get without the orientation of solution concept. When handling such problems, one cannot first understand, analyze and then solve them. The similarity with the upside down process of handling the latent needs and technology driven products may be marginal. But these concepts resonate with each other.

This process of handling the wicked problems is in direct conflict with the systematic and linear studies. It is difficult to reconcile to the opposing views.

Let us now understand the second argument. Design methods movement was based on the assumption that by studying the stakeholders and context, it is possible to define the boundaries of the problem and thus create bounded problem space in which the solutions must fall. So, rational approach insisted on design driven by context and data from stakeholders.

To argue this, we must search for answers to series of related questions. ‘When can we consider the understanding of the problem complete? Is the objective of complete understanding and description of all the design problems at all possible? And how do we know that the description is complete? Is there a stopping rule?

None of these are easy to answer. In contemporary world, the context keeps changing all the time. At best you can move closer to the understanding, but there is no way of knowing where you actually stand. Besides, you never know how much of the problem is unknown. In most real world commercial design problems, it is the availability of time and hours paid for that defines the limits of understanding.

Dorst shows how parts of the problem tend to be underdetermined and/or undetermined. He also shows how understanding of the design problem must account for design expertise that gives the designer his own ways of looking at the problem.9 To achieve near complete understanding of the problem, you need to find a way of taming the problem by using artificial boundaries and expert can do this effortlessly.

Looking back …

Except for the logical arguments, the design methods movement could offer little credible evidence to prove that the alternative processes are useful to solve different kinds of problems and at different stages of the design process. The design methods movement appears to have left large gaps. It had vary little to offer by way of solving creative visual problems, till Sanoff came with his book much later.10 These are not the only conflicts that design methods movement had to answer to. Subsequent parts of this series will take these arguments further by focusing on key areas.

The authors of the movement perhaps could have looked at existing success stories of the designers and investigated why they consistently offered creative and effective solutions. Looking back now, it appears to be a serious oversight. Consistent creative results would have been impossible if designers did not have a process in place, even if at that time, it appeared messy and unarticulated. The research on design thinking in decades that followed was dominated not by ‘How they ought to solve the problems’, but by ‘How designer’s think and solve problems?’ This huge body of work has revealed many deeper facets of design thinking. We will touch some of this research eventually, but we have another important area that we should cover first i.e. rediscovering the roots of design thinking.

Rediscovering the lost roots

The next part will deal with the lost roots. Not many have traced the full complexities of influences that art education had on design thinking. Most have even shunned this idea. It is difficult to forget that traditionally, most design schools were located in fine arts institutions. Design approach to formal and aesthetics issues had of course influences of fine art traditions. But the roots are far deeper than that. As we will see in the next part, restricting it to issues to aesthetics would be unfair. We will primarily focus on roots in arts and the influences it had on the thinking.

Notes and references

1 For a more balanced and scholastic discussion refer

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

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

3 Current situation is worth noting. With free markets and booming global trade and marketing through internet across geographies and cultures, the disconnect between designers and users is increasing further. This is leading to approaches like ‘User first’, ‘User Centric Design’, ‘Empathy’ and so on. We have yet to explore techniques where we understand and derive insights from online stakeholder data. With the action shifting online, I feel that this will become a key issue in the near future.

4 Bono, E. de. (1971) The use of lateral thinking. Pelican book London

5 Gorden, W. J. J. (1961) Synectic: The development of creative capacity. Harper, England

6 Hamel. G, Prahalad CK. 1(991 Jul-Aug) Corporate imagination and expeditionary marketing. Harvard Business Review, 69, pp 81-92

7 Companies tend to depend on other forms of differentiations (like price, augmentation etc.), when core product is undifferentiated. Core product is the primary level of differentiation and companies can always depend of other forms of differentiation later during the different stages of product life cycle. See

Levitt, Theodore. (1980, Jan-Feb) Marketing Success Through Differentiation- of Anything. Harvard Business Review, pp 83-91

8 Rittel, H., Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning, Political Sciences 4, 155-169

9 The design methods movement also neglected the idea of expertise as well as dissimilarities in the level of definition of the design problem. See

Dorst, K. (2003) The problem of design problems, Expertise in design, 135-147

10 Sanoff, H. (1991) Visual research methods in design, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York