Theory: The Thinking Behind Design

Our overarching theme in our theory class this section is How designers think.

What is Design Thinking?

This section most pointedly gets at the question “what is design thinking?” One cannot define design thinking without some clarity on what design actually is and when it is used. Only, I get the sense that the word “design” is broad and encompasses ideas that I have not yet discovered or fully understand, and which may, at times, conflict with one another. Not coming from a design background myself, my understanding of what design is throughout this first quarter has been fuzzy, inarticulate, and changing. Design thinking seems to me to be both a methodology (a practice), as well as an intellectual approach.

One discussion in class around the terms “design” and “design thinking” surfaced assumptions that design limits an outcome around a particular product or other design space, whereas design thinking provides an outcome that could be wider in scope or creativity. I believe most people would associate “design” with products and services, particularly in the realm of technology because that is where most people as consumers currently come in contact with design. These two terms are often used interchangeably, so they can both mean the same thing. Noting my assumptions helped me to understand my own expectations, as well as what a client’s could be, which will be critical to know when trying to explain the design process and value.

Below is a short story that explores different views of design thinking. It is of a fictional design sprint that results in a real design product. I have used white board drawings as I will attempt to present this story in a live drawing presentation.

Design Sprint: Immigration


  1. Set scene: Design Sprint with a focus on immigration


  1. An immigrant family is invited to speak. The parents are undocumented and the child is a US citizen.


  1. They explain how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) regularly raids neighborhoods, how it terrifies them, and how they do not know what to do when it happens.


  1. The family leaves and the team of designers get to work on the design sprint.
  2. They start by discussing what they heard about the problem space.
  3. The designer group considers the multitude of diverse stakeholders in this social issue, and recognizes the repercussions that are brought on them with every change and choice means that goal formation, problem definition, and equity issues are all in tension with no way to satisfactorily address them all for everyone.  This makes all planning and policy problems wicked problems. (Rittel and Webber)
  4. They must be solution-focused because it would take too long to research the problem and it would be impossible to gather a deep amount of data before the problem shifts due to policy or other external changes to the context. (Nigel Cross)
  5. They agree that the problem is ill structured as it is complex an unable to be defined. They consider using a powerful computer to try and help them, but since they cannot figure out a way to structure the problem, they agree that a computer would be ineffective. (Simon)
  6. One designer poses that they will be working in a spaces of inspiration, ideation, implementation and will not be following a series of steps, but rather working within this system of spaces. (Brown + Wyatt)
  7. One designer proposes looking at the problem with rigorous creativity by using creative techniques of provocation. He suggests a random word game. (de Bono)
  8. One designer suggests that if the family knew design, they could do this for themselves. He believes that design should be taught universally as a  foundational skill in school because it would empower people to solve their own problems effectively. (Pacione)
  9. Another designer answers that, while a useful skill, design needs more time to mature, more time to be discussed and argued over, more time for basic principles to become accepted as if they were never in dispute. It’s happening. The best thing we can do is contribute to the discussion.
  10. One designer posits Design thinking should progress to a new liberal art of technological culture.
  11. Another designer answers that she believes this to be already occurring as a function of board economic shifts. Easier than being adopted in primary or secondary school, the demand for more designers
  12. Designers complete the prototype and test it.


  1. They have created a red card that explains the individual’s rights in their native language in the event of an I.C.E. official knocking on their door.


  1. On the other side of the card, is an explanation in English that the individual is exercising his or her right not to open the door or speak with the I.C.E agent.


All people in the United States, regardless of immigration status, have certain rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution. The ILRC’s Red Cards help people assert their rights in many situations, such as when ICE agents go to a home.

I actually attended the design sprint in this story. However, I only heard about the Red Card, which is a real product. Hearing the story of how it was designed to assist people in the was a personal turning point for me when I realized I could learn about design and apply it to complex immigration issues. It was a powerful moment that was a source of inspiration when I decided to apply to AC4D.

Understanding design thinking is critical to me as a design student because design is first and foremost an intellectual approach. The products and services I will make, while based on reference-able research, will be just as much an extension of my thinking. Design can be a powerful tool to affect behavioral change, but that is only if it us used properly. Furthermore, any design solution I implement with cause all sorts of consequences, some intended (if it works), and many unintended. I will, have to take responsibility for all of them, as every solution will begin with my thoughts.

Reading list

Richard Buchanan: Wicked Problems in Design Thinking

Herbert Simon: the Structure of Ill-Structured Problems

Chris Pacione: Evolution of the Mind: A case for design Literacy

Edward de Bono: Serious Creativity

Nigel Cross: Discovering design Ability

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber: Dilemmas in General Theory

Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt: Design Thinking for Social innovation