What limits can we Imagine? It depends on how you think about it.


What limits what we can imagine?

Imagination is essential for design. The very heart of design thinking lies in our ability to think divergently and move beyond the boundaries of the given set of assumptions to allow our work to be informed by the unimagined. As designers, our ability to solve a problem or create the outcomes we seek is defined by what we see and what we can imagine. More foundationally, the way we see things and imagine the world is shaped by personal experience, our relationships, and the institutions, cultural, and commercial forces around us. To better depict these ideas, I created an allegory that illustrates these forces. Read on, and I’ll continue my explanation after the short ,illustrated story.



Review of the Narrative

What happens in this story? How does it represent imagination and design?

In the story of Divia the Explorer, there are two main characters – Anali and Divia. These birds represent two forces that thinkers like Roger Martin describe as analytical or non-integrative thinking (Anali) and design or integrative thinking (Divia.) Analytical thinking is characterized as limiting variables and constraining the bounds of a system to better analyse it’s causal relationships and often quantitatively optimize outcomes. On the other hand, design thinking is characterized by widening possibilities of the scope of system, allowing for multiple causes to define any given outcome, and evaluating qualitative features in defining outcomes that are not easily or at all quantifiable. The characters of Anali and Divia continue to represent these approaches to problem-solving throughout the story.

In the article entitled “Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research versus Technology & Meaning Change”, Don Norman and Roberto Verganti look at, among other topics, two types  of ways that technology changes. Through incremental innovation, products or systems are improved bit by bit, and in cases of radical innovation, they are changed so much so that there is a paradigm shift with regards to the definition and meaning of the product or system. These types of changes occur in the story of Divia the Explorer.

In the beginning of the story, Anali makes an observation of plants and finds a relationship between them. He essentially creates a radical innovation in the flocks’ food sourcing by inventing farming as opposed to relying on foraging. The birds’ normal course of action is changed by this invention. What happens next is how his analytical research creates a frame around their way of life that transforms it entirely. Instead of continuing to migrate, they stay put and harness nature as a thing to be controlled. The system is well defined in order to control the variables, and Anali, year after year, optimizes the crop’s output by incrementally improving the crop’s efficiency through small innovations.

Over time, this tightly constrained system saps the birds of their color. I believe this is what happens when we shutter ourselves from a wider world view and way of life that embraces the new. One day, Divia has a dream of exotic fruits. Inspired by this dream, she leaves home to find them, even without permission. This way of life represents the divergent thinking characteristic of design thinking. She seeks something new and unfamiliar. Why does she want to go? She just does. In reading about inventors, artists, and other visionary thinkers, their reasoning isn’t constrained to explanations that have to fit the logical frame of the current way of thinking. They often pursue their visions because of an inborn tendency. To explain the reasoning would rely on sign-posts of logic that are shared by others. For there to be shared sign-posts, the rationale would necessarily need to be common, and the creative is by definition uncommon and beyond the current way of thinking.

Anali has influenced others, such as Divia’s mother, and Divia’s mother warns her daughter of the dangers. This risk-averse thinking is typical of an analytical thinking that cares more for controlling variables than opening to possibilities beyond the envisioned worldview.

When Divia gets back to the flock, they have lost even more of their color, but once the drained birds have tasted the new fruit that Divia has brought back, they are inspired are reinvigorated. I believe this invigoration is what methods like divergent thinking bring to institutions or systems normalized with traditional paths and worldviews. Defamiliarization is another method that can reinvigorate thinking. This method, as described by Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe, and Phoebe Sengers in their work, involves encountering unfamiliar contexts or things in order to stretch the mind. For example, in order to invent new forms or meanings for home goods, we could look back at home life in the 19th century – a realm most people are unfamiliar with. As a result, we may see objects, domestic relationships, and home life in such peculiar forms that they stretch our imagination of how we might invent new items for the home. Divia introduces the unfamiliar to the flock, and it changes their way of life as well. Anali does continue employing his strengths in farming and optimizing their efforts, but now they have adapted their way of life by incorporating Divia’s expeditions as a way to bring in new fruits for their farms.

In Closing

What are the limits of our imagination? Analytical thinking does not limit our imagination. Following a single, rigid way of thinking is what limits our imagination. Converse to analytical thinking, if we only thought divergently, our thoughts would diffuse and dissociate, lacking vigor or ability to concretize pattern or sense-making. It’s the flexible analytical and divergent thinking that creates imagination. In this way, Divia and Anali are not necessarily at odds. We should not put design thinking on a pedestal and belittle analytical thinking. Just as Divia and Anali find a way to make the most of their preferred ways of thinking and work, people in the world of humans must better work together. Whether it’s in the world of business and design or in healthcare with the battling traditional and holistic healthcare providers, we will all be better off respecting and complimenting our strengths and their place to make positive change.