Design thinking thoughts

What could be more passe than to define Design Thinking now — now that it has been over-hyped, described in a million ways, implemented very glamorously and expensively, found to not live up to the hype and finally publicly declared dead?

Nonetheless, Design Thinking ought to be defined, as crisply as possible, because it is a real thing with a precise meaning, and knowing its precise meaning is required to approach it in the right way and get those promised results. Without this precision, Design Thinking is really little more than an appearance of systematic creative activity, a style of carrying on, and unwarranted hopes.

So here’s my definition. Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems that involve hybrid systems composed of both objective and subjective elements. By objective elements I mean entities that exist “out there”, as physical objects, virtual objects, environments, services, and anything else a person can encounter in the world. And by subjective elements I mean ideas, thoughts, emotions, decisions, perceptions — all those things a person experiences “in here”.

In its inclusion of subjective elements in its problem definitions, design distinguishes itself from engineering, which treats only systems composed of objective elements.

The 20th Century was obsessed with the creative possibilities of cleansing problems of subjective elements. And in many areas, especially in the physical sciences and the technologies based on the physical sciences, this was the key to progress. However, this systematic elimination of subjectivity was misunderstood by many to be one of the key principles of scientific method. A scientific approach to anything involving human beings  meant treating human beings strictly as objective entities (behaving objects) and removing the messier and more arbitrary elements of human experience — subjectivity.

In fact, the scientific method does not necessitate the objectification of problems except in instances where the phenomenon to be understood is itself purely objective. What scientific method requires is clarification of the problem, inclusion of all relevant factors in exploring the problem. So to understand a social problem scientifically, it is necessary to include not only the objective factors at play but also the subjective ones. This, of course is what the social sciences do in a variety of different ways.

So, another way to grasp what Design Thinking is is to make an analogy between engineering and the physical sciences. To some extent, you can engineer by instinct referring explicitly to theories from physics or drawing on science to test the adequacy of your engineering solution. Or you can harness scientific knowledge, use your instincts to come up with crazy possible approaches to try out, and then test them to make sure they actually work. The exact same thing goes for design, except where engineering uses the physical sciences, design thinking uses the knowledge and methods of the social sciences.


Some analogies:

Design thinking is to the social sciences what engineering is to the physical sciences.

Design thinking is to agency “creative” as engineering is to tinkering.

2 thoughts on “Design thinking thoughts

  1. I think you’ve touched briefly on the critical differentiator of Design Thinking, but may not have gone far enough. It’s real potential is it’s recognition and even celebration of the ‘unseen’ — of which science predominantly eschews and engineering only recognizes in the form of physical vibrations. In reality engineering is close because of the recognition of vibrations.

    Here’s the deal — all life, everything, all life force, is a mass of pulsating vibrations. At least in the version of Design Thinking in my head, the real potential is to tap that energy and direct it in some direction for good.

    Science and Engineering know nothing of emotion, but Design Thinking has to consider all the human elements of a solution — emotion is a critical one.

    I like to think of Design Thinking as the engineering of the kinetic potential of all things. In this case, the engineer is more like that of a railroad professional — there are tracks in place and equipment with .limitations. Capitalizing on these limitations is key. That’s where design comes in — the science of constraints. Then you become both conductor and composer, creating a new symphony and playing it out.

    Indeed we are problem solving, but we also have to reframe our perspective of problems as we often see them in negative terms. In music, the ‘problems’ being solved have to do with honoring the constraints of the vibrations — knowing the rules of chords and dissonance and how to break them successfully, when relevant.

    Design Thinking is not the tool of professional designers. Design Thinking is a mechanism for all disciplines. Any time there is a plan, or something to be coordinated, or an effort — any time people or things are involved, Design Thinking is relevant.

    I still insist that there is significance to using the pattern test for all of these things when considering the ‘optimal’ value of a solution/answer: have you embraced the relevant unseen elements (emotions, concerns, apathy, forces unknown — all vibrations that can propel something forward or stifle it), have you capitalized on the human potential contribution, have you mechanized the repeatable with minimal variation or decision (where the human contribution holds minimal value), and have you automated with no variability those things that must be ‘firm’? Have you created a relevant balance between these 4 dimensions that allows them to inform one another and adapt to changing conditions?

    That’s the true potential of Design Thinking.

    1. Part of where we seem to be diverging is that my understanding of science includes all these mysterious unseen, often entirely unseeable elements. As you know, I have drawn a lot on the work of Bruno Latour, who is not only a sociologist of scientific practice, but also one of the most profound theologians I’ve ever been able to read. He says this about science and religion:

      “My idea, as I hope it is now clear, is to move the listener from one
      opposition between science and religion, to another one between two
      types of objectivities. The first traditional fight has pitted science,
      defined as the grasp of the visible, the near, the close, the
      impersonal, the knowable, against religion, which is supposed to deal
      with the far, the vague, the mysterious, the personal, the uncertain,
      and the unknowable. … To this opposition, which is, in my view, an
      artifact, I want to substitute another opposition between, on the one
      hand, the long and mediated referential chains of science that lead to
      the distant and the absent, and, on the other, the search for the
      representation of the close and present in religion.”

      (Btw, if you like this line of thought, Adam Miller has developed it into an
      excellent book called “Speculative Grace”, which interprets Latour’s brief essays on religion along with the sociology of science work Latour is best known for into a stunning theological framework based on LDS Christianity. I mean, how can you NOT read this? It’s like Miller sat down and wrote a book to you.)

      So, for me, these many transcendences — the conceptual “behind” of our thinking and and the intersubjective “beyond” of other people’s thoughts, not to mention the permanently semi-concealed realities lurking behind even the most mundane physical phenomena — are a reality of just about every human situation. I assume it is present even in dry engineering problems, but in design it is brought close so we can experience the mysterious elements.

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