Revisiting Design Thinking: Pondering the process and principles

I have not written on design thinking in more than a decade. The era when I’d be cited in Fast Company or Rita Sue Siegel’s handbook on Industrial Design careers is long gone. Which one of these definitions should I use going forward?

“Design thinking in business takes this problem solving aspect one step further [than human centered design]. Now the tools and techniques from the field of design such as ethnographic research, rapid prototyping and conceptual brainstorming integrate with the pragmatic business frameworks of strategy, analysis and metrics to create and provide roadmaps for business [service, policy, organization] innovation and competitive advantage. In this context, design has evolved away from traditional form giving to becoming an integral part of corporate strategy.” Niti Bhan

And ye olde “Design vs Design Thinking” from August 2005:

The biggest change in the last 15 years has been the shift in design’s purpose, away from commercial objectives towards societal challenges. Design thinking (DT) in business settings and the impetus to elevate design from a line activity in the marketing or engineering department to the boardroom provides evidence of this commercial legacy. As the discipline of design is challenged by more complex multifarious expectations, these underlying assumptions still influence the more popular processes and practices. What might have originally been a fun, creative activity for staid suits in the boardroom may not have the robustness to accommodate the necessary diversity of  knowledge systems, nor incorporate the necessary preparation in advance of project design. Another oft-quoted critique is DT’s propensity to enter into any kind of challenge without necessarily doing the homework required for contextual understanding of the operating environment or the subject matter.

Referencing the previous post exploring transdisciplinarity in design, this post can be said to be the deep questioning required to evaluate whether design thinking is fit for purpose in its most commonly known approaches i.e. design processes and practices, as understood by scholars, practitioners, and researchers from other disciplines. I will use Gonera and Pabst’s 2019 paper for referencing DT’s processes and practices as the authors are not from a design background yet have incorporated elements of design thinking into their work, offering a transdisciplinary perspective on things we might take for granted. They introduce design thinking (DT) as given below:

DT in an innovation management context can be described as a human-centered approach to problem-solving, creativity and innovation combining what is technologically feasible, with what is desirable and economically viable (Brown, 2008, Brown & Katz, 2011, Verganti, 2008, Beckman & Barry, 2007, Liedtka, 2015, Carlgren, Rauth & Elmquist, 2016b). ~ Gonera and Pabst (2019)

Simply taking the concept of the overlap between feasibility, viability, and desirability as a place to begin evaluation, one can see that the popular Venn Diagram commonly used to communicate the innovation sweetspot is floating in mid-air without the “Universe” to contextualize and ground the concepts in the Venn Diagram. And, this lack of context leads to assumptions on the operating environment and the landscape within which technological feasibility, economic viability and solution desirability must be evaluated.

This in turn leads to design teams or designer-led teams jumping in to solve projects without necessarily doing the background homework in the form of secondary research aka desk research or a literature review. User research alone may not offer all the comprehensive insights necessary to address the issues of viability and desirability, without specific focus in the user research protocol to explore and gather inputs on these factors. That is, the concept as it stands now is not portable across complexity of novel and challenging operating conditions for the outputs and solutions of the designer process.

For example, when we operate in rural and urban informal economic systems in the African continent, we found the need to iterate the broaden the research scope for each of the three attributes – feasibility, viability, and desirability – in order to not only provide the necessary room in the design process for background research and onsite discovery but also to be able to justify the additional phase in the project plan in terms of time and budget.

Second, Gonera and Pabst (2019) introduce the need for a DT mindset:

DT is a meta-disciplinary methodology where pre-established rationales of one discipline are replaced with a mindset that helps to develop a common basis of knowledge and agreement between disciplines (Lindberg et al., 2010). […] It should be noted, that DT is not only a toolset but also a mind-set and therefore not easy to implement in settings where linear thinking and hypothesis-based working are the dominant logic (Carlgren, Elmquist & Rauth, 2016; Liedtka et al., 2017). ~ Gonera and Pabst (2019)

It is this encapsulation of the challenge that leads me to revisit the very first definition of DT attributed to me, cited by LukeW back in 2006:

“Design thinking is one of enlightened trial and error wherein one observes the world, identifies the patterns of behavior, generates ideas, gets feedback, repeats the process, and keeps on refining.” Niti Bhan

This is a mindset, an attitude to life itself, one could say, and I did, back in the early days of exploring the concept of design thinking. Its one that requires a willingness to fail, and to being open to exploring through primary and secondary research without a hypothesis to guide one’s way. In addition to the mindset, Gonera and Pabst (2019) encapsulate the principles and processes most popularly attributed to design thinking so:

The core elements of DT are empathy and people focus, problem framing, visualization, experimentation, and diversity (Carlgren et al., 2016b). They are often paraphrased or visualized by an array of diverging and converging processes of need finding, idea generation, and testing(Liedtka, 2015) in contrast to more traditional product-centric stage gate and linear innovation processes (Cooper, 1990). ~ Gonera and Pabst (2019)

For “settings where linear thinking and hypothesis-based working are the dominant logic” (Gonera and Pabst, 2019), the classic design squiggle familiar to designers comfortable with ambiguity as one of the dominant logics of practicing design, particularly in complex settings with multidisciplinary teams, can often be the first hurdle to be crossed in embracing DT as the way forward. Ambiguity has not been mentioned in the literature of design thinking, yet it is a core component of a design practitioner’s experienced skill, as they learn to become comfortable with not knowing the outcome of their work in advance nor with the certainties so beloved of business and finance, not to mention the hard sciences.

Damien Newman, 2006

It is at this point, therefore, I would ask if design thinking as a meta-process is robust enough for transdisciplinary project design, along with the principles and elements already identified by numerous scholars as core to DT, or whether a more explicit discovery phase for the project’s design and wayfinding is also required in order to maintain a coherence of goals and outcomes across disciplinary boundaries and approaches? What else might be necessary?

Some useful blogposts:
Goal Directed Research for Innovation Planning in Emerging Markets
Can the structure for innovation planning be used to disrupt itself?
Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process
People, Pesa & Place: A Multidisciplinary lens for innovation in social & economic development

And, in addition to Gonera and Pabst (2019), I would like to add Giancarlo De Carlo’s 1969 work on participation

De Carlo, G. Architecture’s public. 2005. In Blundell-Jones, Peter, Peter Blundell-Jones, Doina
Petrescu, and Jeremy Till. (eds.) Architecture and Participation

Gonera, A., & Pabst, R. (2019). The use of design thinking in transdisciplinary research and innovation consortia: challenges, enablers, and benefits. Journal of Innovation Management, 7(3), 96-122.

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