Design Thinking: Next-Level Design or Nonsense?

We at AC4D spend a lot of time talking about who designers are and what they do. This is inevitable, given the ambiguity of the field. What is design, anyway?

I’m not going to answer that question, but will instead point to a quote from Richard Buchanan:

Buchanan quote

Buchanan is well-known in the design world for conceptualizing the fourth order of design, which incorporates all areas of design-historical focus: signs, things, actions, and thoughts. Fourth-order design deals with the complex systems that interplay to create what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber identified as “wicked problems” in society—things like poverty, education, health care, and other universal issues.

The scope of design has thus expanded, exploding the neat boxes that it has historically been placed into. Graphic design, industrial design, product design, even UX design—it is easy to understand such concepts. But how do you describe “wicked problem” design?

“Design thinking” is a word that’s been adopted to convey this comprehensive concept. Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt refer to the design thinker as a “T-shaped person.” They write, “On the vertical axis, every member of the team needs to possess a depth of skill that allows him or her to make tangible contributions to the outcome. The top of the ‘T’ is where the design thinker is made. It’s about empathy for people and for disciplines beyond one’s own.”

The T-Shaped Designer

The T-shaped designer, as conceived by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt

This is the closest I’ve seen to a concrete definition of what we do. But one component of this definition still left me confused. Every member of the team needs to possess a depth of skill that allows him or her to make tangible contributions to the outcome. What skills are pertinent to this type of design? We could point to the skills that have informed design historically, but would this be a logical extension or just a vestigial trace?

I set out to determine what skills are needed to be a design thinker. The writings of Nigel Cross and Edward De Bono were instrumental in creating the following framework, which builds upon the budding definition I’d drawn out from Brown and Wyatt.


The Design Thinking Skill Set

The Design Thinking Skill Set is a mode of interpreting the world at the intersection of two axes of behavior: the logic/emotion spectrum and the intuition/reason spectrum.

Many theorists have pointed out that design is not based in logic. However, as De Bono writes, “Every valuable, creative idea will always be logical in hindsight. If an idea were not logical in hindsight, then we would never be able to appreciate the value of the idea.” There must be some logic to the idea or it would not be useful. 

However, because wicked problems have no solutions, every attempt at improvement is necessarily subjective. And as Rittel and Webber explain, “Diverse values are held by different groups of individuals…What satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, [and] what comprises problem-solution for one is problem-generation for another.”

“Planning,” they proclaim, “is a component of politics. There is no escaping that truism.”

If improvement is subjective, then it is not enough for design to be logical. It must also factor in an emotional component—it must make its audience happy.

On the other axis lies intuition and reason. Reason, like logic, is necessary for design thinkers to understand the operations and interplay of the complex systems for which they design. However, reason can mask truly novel solutions. Here, De Bono’s conception of creativity is key. De Bono describes creativity as “lateral thinking,” or “cutting across patterns.” It is, essentially, the intuitive ability to discover new pathways through the application of tools and experience.

De Bono conceives of these as neural pathways, but the metaphor works in all of its conceptions. We acclimate to the world by forging an understanding of how things operate, but this understanding is limited by the logic we’ve internalized. Thus, it is difficult to conceptualize new modes of logic that can be useful, or improve upon, our initial understanding. However, tools can be used to create new ways of seeing, like a lantern revealing a hidden door in the darkness.

The Hidden Path

Tools such as the scrupulous inspection of interview transcripts, juxtaposing unrelated quotes from various participants next to each other, reveal hidden patterns in behavior, attitudes and emotions. Intuition gathered from our experiences allows us to identify problems in these patterns and conceptualize improvements.

Buchanan’s conception of “placements” is another critical tool for design thinking. As Buchanan writes,

Placements have boundaries to shape and constrain meaning, but are not rigidly fixed and determinate. The boundary of a placement gives a context or orientation to thinking, but the application to a specific situation can generate a new perception of that situation and, hence, a new possibility to be tested. Therefore, placements are sources of new ideas and possibilities when applied to problems in concrete circumstances.

This mode of thinking—of identifying concepts and intuitively applying them in novel contexts—is a tool that every design thinker should equip.

I’ve determined that The Design Thinking Skill Set contains the following:

  • Breadth of experience
  • Empathy
  • The ability to think creatively
  • An understanding of how to promote change

The last key is important, because the design thinker—an unwieldy name if there ever was one—is actually operating in another, more obviously important role: the Champion of Change.

Despite all of the potential negative consequences of design, it is human nature to try to improve our lives. We understand how to improve physical objects through design. Through design thinking, perhaps we will finally learn to improve our modes of being.