Why serious creativity should be funny


I’m here to convince you why serious creativity should be funny.

So, my secret vice is that I watch a lot of stand up comedy. I mean a lot. It happened really slowly. I went from hating stand-up to being the person who watches the new Netflix stand-up special the second that it hits the web. It started because I would put a special on while I was drawing for a few hours, because it was something that I could just listen to and didn’t really have to watch, but also that was light while still engaging and thought provoking. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and it seemed like a logical jump to another form of audio enterntainment. What started as an experiment slowly became more of a pattern. I found that I was choosing to listen to standup more and more often while I worked… but also while I did other things like clean my house or cook. In conversations with friends, I found myself referencing things that comedians said in stand-up specials that I’ve watched… and I eventually realized that maybe I was a straight-up fan.

When I watch the news or think about political or polarizing topics, I often find myself remembering a particular bit of a particular comedian and find myself smirking while listening to something horrible. I’ll smirk while I listen to news about abortion rights or police violence in Ohio (where I’m from), not because I think these issues are funny or because I’m a wildly insensitive person, but because in order to cope with my own absolute horror and discomfort, I simply HAVE to find the humor in it. Or at the very least the absurdity. The only way to get through the harshness of the realities of humanhood oftentimes is to find the humor, even if it’s wickedly uncomfortable…and laugh about it. If we aren’t laughing, we’re crying. And I’ve spent too much time crying. Crying about my rights to my own body, crying about the slow-cook death of the planet, crying about the separation of immigrant children from their parents. As it turns out, you can spend a lifetime and a half crying and being completely immobilized.

However, when I’m laughing…my mind is firing. If my depression is paralyzing, my humor is activating. My most hilarious and witty friends keep me on my toes and force me to keep up with their quick associations, unlikely observations and edgy provocations. They constantly challenge me, and the payoff of playing the game with them is the satisfying dopamine hit of a good laugh.

I have a small team for my design research course here at ac4d, and I feel lucky that the three of us are able to get into this space, even if the face of intense amounts of stress. Without these moments of hilarity mixed into our process, we would burn out so much more quickly. One can only discuss “monetary inequity in developing communities” for so long without feeling like they want to collapse on the ground in exhaustion and despair. Humor energizes us, it keeps us awake, and it forces us to break out of the same old tired loops that we enter when we are too in-the-weeds with our project. It also loosens us up. Sometimes I can feel the four black walls closing in around me when I am in the thick of synthesis. Humor blows down those walls. We create space when we allow ourselves to make a joke. We are more creative when we can forgive ourselves if we don’t approach a problem with the most ‘correct’ or most ‘sensible’ mindset. We work BETTER when we give ourselves this space.

This is the inspiration for how I want to approach wicked problems as a student of social design, and as a designer in general. I want to remind myself that I need to allow this humorous aspect of coping, and humorous reasoning with problems into my design process. I want to provide myself the space the comfort in understanding that these tendencies are a valid way to approach issues that are difficult, confusing, complex and sensitive, and that I am actually a better designer for it.

(Design) Thinking about Food

Through the first six weeks of theory class, we have been learning the foundations of design research, sensemaking of data, and most recently how these apply to real world scenarios through social business and social entrepreneurs.

For this assignment, we focused on the idea of “Design Thinking” and how that coincides with our current curriculum. Discussions revolved around the processes and tools we use for problem solving, how we frame problems in different ways to generate unique perspectives, and also how we determine who is or is not a designer. How do we draw that line, or is there even a line to be drawn?

This section about who is a designer resonated with me because it spoke to the concept that everyone has the ability to be a designer by evoking certain skills from the designer playbook. A teacher may make a diagram to help them do seating assignments, an accountant may build a spreadsheet to optimize their workflow, or a writer may write various versions of their story to test which one creates the best outcome. All of these tools are considered design because they are done with intent.

“The process of design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business it is to create or lead something… anyone whose job it is to imagine something that does not yet exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence.”   

 – Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman

This is what I had in mind when I set out to create a story for the presentation. I wanted to take the tools of a designer and put them in the hands of a non-designer to show how interdisciplinary the design field is. The understanding that all people have some degree of designer within themselves does two things – it gives them agency to be problem solvers, but it also creates a commonality for discussion when we work together as designer and non-designer.

With that in mind, please enjoy the story of Rex, the sous chef who utilized Design Thinking to push his cooking to the next level.




This is Rex.  He’s a sous chef at a local restaurant that cooks traditional Italian food, and everyone at the restaurant knows him for his amazing homemade ravioli. He makes the best ravioli because he uses a traditional recipe that was handed down to him from his grandmother, who he lovingly called Omi. Like most grandmas, Omi’s food was always the best.


Rex is a dreamer, and he has always dreams about opening his own restaurant and creating his own menu. He loves the idea of thinking creatively and wishes he was able to experiment more at his job. One day, he was reading a cooking magazine, when he saw an ad for a “Best New Recipe” contest and it paid $20,000!! He knew this would be enough to start his own food truck if he could win the contest.


So he went to work tweaking his recipe from the restaurant, but the changes were only making it incrementally better. He knew this wouldn’t be enough to win a best new recipe contest, so he searched for ways to approach this problem differently. He came across a couple articles about “Design Thinking”, and they really struck a chord with him.

“Design thinking taps into capacities that we all have, but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.”  

– Jocelyn Wyatt

“The process of design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business it is to create or lead something… anyone whose job it is to imagine something that does not yet exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence.”  

– Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman

“This sounds like me!” he thought, so he tried to practice some techniques the articles talked about. He wanted to think laterally, which meant to cut across the pattern he had built of making his ravioli the same way each time. This lateral thinking led him to re-think his ingredients. He was toying with lots of ideas when suddenly, Aha! he remembered an amazing trip he took to Seattle and imagined mixing this meal into his traditional ravioli. Having this experience gave him a depth of knowledge to lean on with his intuition, to give an unexpected result to his recipe.

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive…to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional.”

– Jocelyn Wyatt

He instantly knew his passion from this trip would come through in the recipe.


So Rex goes back to the kitchen with his new ideas. He cooks, he tests, pushing the boundaries of flavor so he knew when to pull it back in. He asked his wife to taste it, and his friends for advice. Adding their perspectives, each iteration of the recipe seemed to be getting better and better until he decided it was right, and it was time to send the recipe in to the contest. He created easy step-by-step instructions that boiled down his process to make sure they made it exactly how he intended. What good is information if people can’t understand it right? Then he had to wait. And wait. He was so anxious and excited by the idea of winning until one day his phone rang………He won!!


He was on top of the moon! Rex was so happy and so proud, but he also felt thankful. He bought a food truck and named it after his grandmother by calling it “Omi, Oh my!”  He took some time to reflect about how this happened, and he came to realize he managed to take the tradition his grandmother taught him and use his own inner designer to innovate a new recipe. The value of tradition was strong in his identity and in the pasta recipe, but the traditional way of thinking wasn’t getting him out of the rut he had of cooking similar dishes. By using design thinking to integrate his emotions and experiences, he was able to level up the recipe and create something both new and familiar at the same time. If you must know, the recipe was for Salmon and potato stuffed ravioli with a dill cream sauce on top – magnifico! One day he plans to have a family, and he hopes that this might be able to teach his kids and their kids this recipe in the same tradition his grandmother taught him.

Designing for Life

As we explored readings around problem-solving and design thinking in our theory class, a characterization of wicked problems particularly struck me. Defined by Horst Rittel as indeterminate and messy, wicked problems are not unlike something we are all quite familiar with – life. There is nothing more indeterminate and messy than life itself.

In suggesting wicked problems embody the same qualities as life, I must explore how these problems live, breathe, grow and adapt, as we do.

So, are wicked problems alive? 

We start with a field.


It receives sun, water, wind.


And the living things that those elements invite.


Under the right conditions, those living things sprout. And grow. And rise.


Until small changes get bigger and bigger still.


The ecosystem expands, fostering new life and inviting change.


There is no way to anticipate that change. An understanding of the ecosystem emerges gradually. (Simon, Rittel)


Every factor in the ecosystem also depends on every other factor. Temperature, rain, sun, plants, animals: outputs for one become inputs for the other. “There are no ends to the chains that link interacting open systems.” (Rittel) A change to one part of the whole means a change to another. Every change has a consequence.

Although other ecosystems might look similar, there will always exist a unique property in each ecosystem. We will never find the same exact combination of elements, down the smallest grain of soil.


Designers can navigate this complexity through placements. They can establish temporary constraints that allow us to see the ecosystem in different frames. Is it an ecosystem full of plants?


Animals? Trees?



This exercise generates many mini-hypotheses. Eventually, we can exchange one hypothesis for a better one. (Buchanan, Cross)

These placements or frames must also be flexible and temporary, so we may never force ideas that worked for one ecosystem to fit another ecosystem.

Designers also develop an understanding of the ecosystem by examining its interconnectedness. In exploring integration points, we are not required to be fern or deer or oak experts.


But rather, we explore the integration points, connecting useful knowledge from each field. (Buchanan)


As ecosystems grow and adapt, they also organize themselves into a variety of patterns. These patterns do not always align with the patterns in which we think. Lateral thinking allows us to disrupt and cut across natural thinking patterns in order to align with those of the complex ecosystem. This practice helps promote creativity, supporting our arrival at innovative ideas. (De Bono)


As a designer, when we approach living wicked problems, our tools must parallel them. Our means for understanding and creating must be as dynamic as the ecosystems we enter. Designers can practice integrative thinking to find understanding between the parts that make up the whole.

Similar to the ecosystem of a forest, wicked problems take a long time to develop and a longer time to solve. As designers, we must approach each wicked probelm as an ecosystem, focusing on single parts, but acknowledging its larger whole. Change takes time, but so does life.

As a budding designer, the problems I immediately encounter may not seem inherently wicked, but I suggest we search for the messiness in every problem we face.

Connecting each problem to its larger ecosystem is the first step towards addressing the wicked problems of our world. 


Trippin’ on Design

Slide 1. Meet Alex, Polly, and Brent. They’re designers at the “Make It Happen” design consultancy firm.


Slide 2. Recently at work, they’ve got complex projects to work on and they got stuck and felt frustrated.

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Slide 2. All three decided to go into the forest to clear their minds.

Slide 3. On their way, Alex saw a potion on the stone. He decided to try it. Polly and Brent joined him.

Slide 4. Each of them made sips and felt strange but energized. After another gulp, each of them went to explore the forest on their own.


Slide 6. Brent went first. He walked quite a bit and saw two roads diverged in a yellow wood. He looked down one and noticed a homeless person sitting on one side. He knew the guy. It was Jack he passes every day on the corner.  Weird, he said to himself.


Slide 7. He took another path and Jack appeared again.  However, this time he seemed a bit happier. Jack had better clothes and his wife and daughter were accompanying him.


Slide 8. And then Brent’s body felt light and he took off from the ground.  Two diverged paths became an interconnected web of many possibilities. Each node of this web had Jack in it at different points of his life — better, worse and everything in between.


Slide 9. Meanwhile, Alex gets lost in the forest. He sees a bridge guarded by a giant.


Slide 10. The giant gives him a riddle to answer to cross the bridge: What is the one thing that all wise men, regardless of their religion or politics, agree is between heaven and earth? Alex does not know the answer to this question.

Slide 11. Instead, he uses stone and pokes a giant in the eye. The giant roars: “The game is over. You won!” And the bridge opens for him.


Slide 12. At the same time, Polly got herself into trouble. She came to the enchanted meadow with musical chairs in the center of it. She has been running circles near these chairs for hours.


Slide 13. Once the music stopped she had to catch one of the chairs before it disappears. Each time she was sitting on the chairs she had to feel and act differently.  One time she was a King and she needed to use the best of her judgments. Another time she was a Joker and had to poke and provoke. For the third-round, she became Mother Teresa. She walked and hugged everything, felt love, and compassion.

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14. And then she fell asleep.


15. Polly found herself in the evening near the campfire. Alex and Brent were already there as well. All three were sitting in silence tired but happy. They noticed a single cloud hover over the campfire with the words: “Design is for everyone”.


Each of the struggling designers had meaningful journeys and they were offered perspectives/frameworks to look at the situations they struggled the most.

In his trip, Brent saw representations of the wicked problem — poverty that leads Jack to become homeless. He has tangible experience over Rittel’s definitions of a wicked problem. Brent witnesses an interconnected web of many possible directions that problem space takes him to. Each node represents the symptom of a problem, with no clear path to the solution. The solution, in this case, creates another problem. It is a system with open possibilities where the impact is not so easily measurable. It takes constant effort to work on the wicked problem and results are not guaranteed.

Alex in his trip entered the zones of well-structured and ill-structured problems. The riddle that giant gave him was a logical question. If he paid attention “What is the one thing between heaven and earth?” he might find an answer in the riddle itself (the answer is the word “and”). He walked outside of a problem into the ill-structured territory and found thinking outside of a box solution for it. And that worked because there are no right or wrong answers in the ill-structured territory.

Polly as a designer struggled with thinking about the problem from a different lens. She experienced a slightly modified version of E.De Bono’s six hats framework. Each time she had to step out of her own comfort zone and apply a different lens to think about the problem creatively. To reach serious creativity one might exercise constantly going beyond routine patterns. There are techniques to achieve that such as provocation, movement (to think of a solution with slightly modified inputs of a problem, example: construct the car with quadrangle tires), and random word entry can help to cut through the obvious and shed light to the surprising and unpredictable nature of the creative territory.

I would like to end with my own perspective on why design is for everyone.

All authors in the Design Thinking module touched on this notion one way or another. To me, the best designers are generalists. They have deep knowledge of the world and have their own rich cultural experience. In addition to that, they have developed an ability to think creatively. These qualities are not unique to one profession that is why design is open to everyone. However, to become successful in this field a designer needs to work with as many frameworks and mental models as possible. There are no similar problems/situations in the field of design when we think of systems, cultures, experiences, and processes. To access creativity is not easy but applied personal knowledge and frameworks can help a designer to find ways and make sense of complexity. Designers are doers, they make visually presentable artifacts that persuade the public of their own vision. These are amongst the qualities I will definitely continue to develop while in AC4D.


An Improved Intellectual Toolkit

No designer’s toolkit is truly empty.

Throughout quarter one I’ve experienced a massive shift in how I’ve had to behave, think, and analyze. The term thrown in the deep end doesn’t even come close to how this program has worked in my experience. I’ve struggled a great deal in theory with the terminology used around design. The walls constructed around design in some of these readings I found entirely unnecessary. Some of these readings have been thick, and difficult to digest. At times I’ve felt better diving into the dictionary for readable material….

However, as we wrap up our theory course I now see the value in the readings we were presented with, most especially these unit four readings. Something that the readings before these have not explored was a space for inclusivity. I believe that design can be used to benefit humankind and should be accessible to all. I did my best to interweave the readings that spoke to me throughout my own experiences. After our last presentation our teacher, Scott, posed to me several questions that I could get much more value out of than the rubric that was presented to us.

The questions were;
What are the questions I am asking?
What are criteria I see for decision making?
What new intellectual tools have I picked up?

I start out my writing to with a story and photo about my voyage to Australia. I took this photograph north of Newcastle whilst “duning” with two friends of mine. The photo captures a woman with a board that we used to slide down massive hills of sand on. The photo represents what I think to be a common view of Australia, a beach, a board, a truck, and the ocean in the distance. I was sold on going to Australia for work from these friends of mine. I heard things about how easy it was to find a job, with an economy that strong, I could get a fruit picking job by just showing up somewhere. This to me, now sounds like the instagram version of my experience. What you might see on the surface is not exactly what is going on in reality….
My second photo contains a blurred view of a dog chomping on the leg of a kangaroo. This was my reality of Australia. Several months in Surat, Queensland in the middle of nowhere on a cattle ranch feeding the dogs and herding cattle. As I looked through my photos, I thought of defining the problem space I encountered abroad. This seemed to me like an ill structured problem I had created for myself. I was knee deep in a problem space that had no simple solution. There was no eject button.

A quote that spoke to me from Chris Pacione’s reading was “I’ll go a step further and say that design is like reading, writing, and arithmetic, something everyone should do, everyone can and should be taught to do, and many are starting to do.” I share the photo below of a child learning how to assemble a laser cut lamp I helped construct during my time at a fabrication lab in Spain. We held an open house, and all were welcome to assemble the flat cardboard lamp into a functioning 3-dimensional lamp in a matter of minutes! It’s activities like these that solidify my belief that design really is for all, it’s just a matter of how one is able to digest it.

Jocelyn Wyatt stated that “ One of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is fear of failure. I did my best to convey my failures above and in class. I’ve tried many “professions” and given career paths a go, however nothing has seemed to stick. The last two years I was able to participate in the construction of a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert two hours north of Reno, Nevada. I worked amongst a team of people who construct the Burning Man event. Essentially we’re posed with no guidance, only a single GPS point, to create a grid to house 70,000 participants. I feel my experience here relates to Richard Buchanan’s explanation of design is for all.

I reached a point where I’m able to understand and digest the readings in unit 4. I’m walking away from theory excited about being able to finally digest these readings. It took a long time but I feel confident about my newfound abilities in design literacy.

Making D: Principles of Design and Finding Designer Intuition

As we finish our first quarter at AC4D, we continue to ask fundamental questions: What is a design? What makes design unique from other domains? Can a computer design? What’s a design problem?

What is design?

I started this program with a semi-cogent definition of what design is and why I wanted to be a designer: I wanted to make things. I wanted to help people. 

Right now, I’m at the peak of the complexity curve. I’ve gathered so much new information, and haven’t had enough time to internalize it and simplify it. With more information than ever, I’m also more confused than ever. 

So this section as we discussed design thinking, process, and what it means to be a designer — I kept coming back to intuition. Sure, I can absorb information; tell you the difference between an ill-structured problem and a well-structured problem, regurgitate the 10 principles of wicked problems, or teach you a creative exercise using random words. But when presented with a truly wicked problem, can I trust my intuition to know where to start? Can I find my voice as a designer to feel comfortable experimenting with creative problems?

Codifying Design

To help me illustrate this internal tension, I started thinking about the idea of programming these learnings to create a robot design assistant. If you can program something, then you must truly understand it, right?

In 1973, Harold Cohen created AARON, a computer program designed to produce art autonomously.

Cohen trained AARON to create drawings through iterative design progress — evaluating the output and then modifying the program to reflect his own aesthetic. AARON cannot learn on its own, it needs input from Cohen. AARON has received a lot of attention as a feat of engineering and artistic effort — but Cohen is cautious to say AARON is creative. 

It is Cohen who codes his process — he provides the rules. AARON is also incredibly prolific, sometimes making 50 images in an evening. But is it Cohen who chooses from this massive collection of work. He curates the experience. It’s the act of deciding what to teach AARON and curating his paintings that is truly the creative process. 

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So even if I could codify all principles of design and internalize them perfectly, when do I apply them? What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?  

Distilling Principles of Design

In my comic, my character seeks to do just that — with the help of our lastest seven authors aka The Design Council. I start by trying to identify distinct design abilities. Pacione, Cross, and deBono have all identified key skills of a designer. 


Pacione says design skills can not only be codified, but they can also be taught. Cross insists that a designer must be able to:

  • “Produce novel, unexpected solutions
  • Tolerate uncertainty, working with incomplete information
  • Apply imagination and constructive forethought to practical problems
  • Use drawings and other modeling media as means of problem-solving”

And deBono feels that serious creativity can be taught — through concepts as simple as his 6-thinking hat system.

While deBono and Pacione’s perspectives are encouraging for making a design robot, Cross forces my character to start to ask questions. How can a program work in uncertainty? Likewise, when do I, as a designer, know when to tolerate uncertainty or when should I dig further?

Despite this setback, my character moves forward with what I know. D, the robot design assistant, can now draw and share deBono’s creative prompts.

Design Frameworks

Then I move onto Wyatt and Buchanan. While Wyatt has a seemingly simple process for design thinking: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation; each process is incredibly nuanced. Buchanan starts to confuse me even further. He says that design can be applied to any area in the human experience. 

If that’s true, then what is a design problem? How can I teach my design assistant (or myself) where to focus?

Again, I move forward with the tangible and my robot can now test prototypes and regurgitate the 3 I’s: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. 

Problem Finding

My character is starting to understand design abilities and frameworks but is stuck on this idea of problem finding. I talk to Simon and Rittel in hopes of gaining clarity. 

Simon has identified the differences between well-structured problems and ill-structured problems. What a great place to start! But unfortunately for my robot — almost all problems are ill-structured. 

Rittel pushes this confusion further, saying:

“In the absence of an overriding social theory or an overriding social ethic, there is no gainsaying which group is right and which should have its ends served.” – Rittel & Webber

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So not only are problems complex and difficult to find, they are everywhere, and there is no unified social order for which problems to prioritize. 

Designer Intuition

Ultimately, my robot ends up spewing out quotes from deBono, Cross, and constantly asking “Why.” While these are all valid contributions to being a designer, it’s vital to know when to apply these tools. You must develop your designerly intuition. 

So just as AARON creates artwork for Cohen, it’s up to Cohen to determine what to teach AARON, and ultimately, which pieces are truly creative. 

I could create a design robot based on the fundamentals of these readings, but it is only through the act of designing that I can start to develop my own voice and intuition.

See the full comic here.

Resonance in Storytelling.

I was deeply moved, some years back, when I saw this video. I think of it quite frequently and the central question the artist asks – who does sound belong to?

As I’ve been reflecting on what makes for effective storytelling the word that immediately comes to mind is resonance. When we want to develop connections through storytelling that are deep, full and reverberating, how do we tap into the quality of resonance? What is resonance?

“Resonance describes the phenomena of amplification that occurs when the frequency of a periodically applied force is in harmonic proportion to a natural frequency of the system in which it acts.”

Looking at Newman

When something resonates, it leaves a lasting impression. You create new space in your self to accommodate, or you fit the new information into existing space that houses likeness. I wondered if, being tapped into resonance, would enable us to more readily tap into resonance with our audiences, our publics, our clients. 

Patterns of Resonance

There’s a relationship here between resonance and intuition. When we tap into our intuition to guide us, are we also tapping into moments of resonance that have instructed us and helped to shape our intuition? Could externalizing our patterns of resonance teach us something about ‘the intuitive or serendipitous quality of [a designer’s] work?’ (Buchanan)

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional, and to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols.” (Brown & Wyatt)

Looking at Klein

If our credibility rests in our ability to make compelling arguments, to tell stories that are relevant and meaningful, then achieving resonance becomes evidence that we’ve tapped into what matters. Harmonic proportion is critical at every juncture of the design process – in the brief, during research and ideation, in articulation of the process, and, ultimately, in the outcome itself.




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.

What’s Missing From Your Design Toolkit?

For the last few weeks, my classmates and I have been reading and discussing a set of readings focused on Design Thinking. This has run in parallel with the work in our research class, where we are actively applying the design thinking methodology. In this post I’ll be processing my thoughts on design thinking methodology, where I think it works best, and where I think it might be lacking.

First, some of the main authors and their ideas:

Edward de Bono – Discusses the importance of creativity and gives us a variety of tools to aid in the process of withholding judgement and allowing our brains to go to weird, new places. He argues that “the normal behavior of the brain in perception is to set up routine patterns and to follow these. In order to cut across patterns, we can use deliberate techniques.”

Nigel Cross, Discovering Design Ability – Explores what design is capable of and seeks to establish design as a “discipline in its own right. He also makes the case that design can be taught.

Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber – Asserts that design is meant for big, messy, wicked problems. And, in fact, the formulation of the wicked problem is, itself, the problem.

Tim Brown & Jocelyn Wyatt – Posits that design thinking and design need to be separate words, as they mean different things. They argue that design speaks specifically to the product, whereas design thinking speaks to the system, or the context in which that product will be operating.

Richard Buchanan- Build the idea that design is layered, and operates in the world across four main areas: symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services, and then finally complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

Herbert A. Simon- Believes that a well defined problem isn’t a real thing. If you think you’ve distilled a discrete problem, then you are missing the context. In the world, there is going to be far too much to measure.

Chris Pacione – Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy – Suggests that design is the new math. Essentially, math was once a skill only mathematicians used. But now, it’s integral to our society and to nearly all professions. Design could and should be the next math.

Now, my take on design thinking.

I’m a believer in its power. I am drawn in particular to Pacione’s take on the value of design across a broad array of professions and work types. Design thinking allows us to open up our minds, to see things that no one has seen.  Latent problems exist all around us and we have to be actively engaged in uncovering them in order to do so. The methodology of design thinking helps us do just that.

However, all of the tools we’ve been learning and applying in our design research course only give us a way to gather and make sense of qualitative, biased information. We meet people and we ask them questions and we learn how they operate, what motivates them. Essentially, we are learning their perceptions of reality. From there, patterns emerge from what we have learned.

From this point, there is a HUGE jump toward insights. We gather no new data, but somehow designers are able to jump from identifying a pattern to knowing why it’s interesting and matters in the context of the larger story. That’s a huge leap. And the only way a designer gets there is by using his/her intuition. Intuition, by definition, is instinctual. It’s a gut feeling about something. But that intuition comes from somewhere. It’s made up of all of our life experiences, our knowledge base, and what we know to be true about the world. We use our own lens to evaluate patterns in others perceptions and then we arrive at an entirely new ideas.

But what about times when a designer doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about a space? I’d argue this is where quantitative data could come in. We are out in the field learning as much as we can from people, why not integrate quantitative data to paint a more robust picture?

My classmate, Michelle, crystallizes this idea in her recent post by saying “people may believe quantitative data is reductive, dry, lacks personality or nuance. But when I hear those critiques, I think, ‘You’re just looking at the wrong data!’ The right quantitative data for your problem will spark curiosity, will express nuance, will prompt expansive thinking. With practice interpreting or visualizing data, quantitative data can tell a lively and highly specific story, or at least point you in the direction of one.”

I’d ask designers not to shy away from quantitative data, but to lean into it. Use it as another tool. Quantitative research methods might have flaws, but you can learn some things from it that you can’t learn from 15 interviews. Integrating it into the design thinking methodology would make for a more rigorous process and help drive toward much more significant insights.

Where it all begins…

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Thinking about how to explain the readings we had for this assignment 4 “How designers think”, a lot of ideas came to my mind, but one really stuck me. I am 27 years old and I had never heard the words “Wicked problems”, “Well-structured problems” and “Ill-structured times”. Obviously, I knew they existed but never named them this way. Naming these big problems helps understanding them better. When the reading of Chris Pacione – Design Literate talked about how we should teach design as any other subject in school, gave me the idea that I could do and example of what would happen if we teach design in school. Why not teaching design as we are currently teaching math, chemistry, gym, why not design? In my opinion that would be very helpful, because we need more hands to do the work, every minute that passes, we are filled with more and more problems that add up. Why not teach the little ones that even if they want to be astronauts they can help, design thinking is for everyone!

That is why my story is about a design class in school, and how that could benefit us all. Each character is representing one author and talking about the synthesis of the reading. At the end I talk about certain things I like about the readings and how could they work.

Click here to see the story