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Six thinkers on design thinking

The current topic in our theory class is ‘design thinking’ which we’re exploring via the following essays, listed here in chronological order:

Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber – Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning (1973)
This is a foundational text where the authors, who were both professors at UC Berkeley, coin the term ‘wicked problem’, in the context of social policy planning. They define 10 characteristics that distinguish such problems, and contrast them to the ‘tame’ problems dealt with in science.

Edward de Bono – Serious Creativity (1988)
This is an essay on creativity by the author who coined the term ‘lateral thinking’. He argues that creativity doesn’t come naturally, because the brain is conditioned to establish and follow set patterns, whereas the nature of creativity (and humor) lies in breaking out of the set pattern. He goes on to describe various techniques that can be used as aids in fostering creativity, including the ‘six thinking hats’ system, whose chief merits he cites as its artificiality and ritual. Along the way he discusses characteristics of information systems, classifying them as either passive or active, where an active system differs from a passive one in that the data and the medium in which it’s stored act together to absorb subsequent information differently, making it a self-organizing system (reminiscent of Dewey’s concept of experiential education, where every experience provides a basis for subsequent ones).

Richard Buchanan – Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (1992)
Buchanan is a professor at Case Western Reserve University and an important thinker in the design world. Here he takes the concept of ‘wicked problems’ and extends it to the field of design, which he defines as ‘the conception and planning of the artificial’. He argues that design ‘should be recognized as a new liberal art of technological culture’ (using Dewey’s definition of ‘technology’ as a ‘a systematic discipline of experimental thinking’). He also defines four categories of design that may bleed into one another: signs (symbolic and visual communication), things (material objects), actions (activities and organized services), and thoughts (complex systems or environments), and states that ‘What design as a liberal art contributes…is a new awareness of how argument is the central theme that cuts across the many technical methodologies employed in each design profession’. He also notes that Dewey didn’t view science as primary and art as secondary, but rather thought of science as an art, where art is characterized/defined by practice.

Nigel Cross – Discovering Design Ability (1995)
Cross, who is a professor at The Open University, explores the concept of design ability through a review of the extant literature (of the time), averring that it’s a form of intelligence possessed by everyone. He notes that designers share key characteristics in their approach to problem-solving, and that design might even be defined as a type of problem-solving: where ‘the problem solver views the problem or acts as though there is some ill-definedness in the goals, conditions or allowable transformations’ (quoting from J.C. Thomas and J.M. Carroll in their essay ‘The Psychological Study of Design’). He concludes with the hope that design will come to be seen as ‘a discipline in its own right’.

Joceyn Wyatt, Tim Brown – Design Thinking for Social Innovation (2009)
More recently, Wyatt and Brown, both of whom are leaders at IDEO, discuss what design thinking is (contrasting it with the term ‘design’), and how it can be applied to programs designed to address societal ills. They define an approach consisting of 3 overlapping ‘spaces’: inspiration (the problem or opportunity that triggers a search for a solution), ideation (the process of searching for a solution), and implementation (prototyping and fine-tuning a solution for deployment). They invoke multiple case studies to illustrate approaches that work, and ones that don’t. In particular they discuss the benefits of ‘positive deviance’, which involves direct observation of the behavior of outliers in the local environment who may have discovered successful coping strategies for surmounting difficult circumstances, that might be applied in a more general manner. As they put it: “Design thinkers look for work-arounds and improvise solutions and find ways to incorporate those into the offerings they create. They consider what we call the edges, the places where ‘extreme’ people live differently, think differently, and consume differently.”

Chris Pacione – Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy (2010)
The final read comes from Chris Pacione, CEO of the LUMA Institute in Pittsburgh, which is a design consultancy advising businesses on how to apply design thinking in their operations. This is an engaging read that opens with the story of Fibonacci, who popularized an alternate numbering system that revolutionalized business-as-usual in western Europe, “enabling people to run businesses more efficiently, advance the practice of scientific measurement, and create whole new industries that extend all the way to our modern age”. He believes that “a new, pervasive mind shift is afoot. It’s called design, and like arithmetic, which was once a peripheral human aptitude until the industrial age forced it to be important for everyone, recent global changes and the heralding of a new age are positioning design as the next human literacy.”

These papers are plotted on the following diagram, according to whether they tend toward the practical or the theoretical (on the Y-axis), and to what degree their argument may be directed toward designing for profit versus designing for societal good (on the X-axis). It also indicates which authors seem to be influenced by John Dewey, denoted by red boxes.

Design Thinking

The full presentation deck is here.

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