(Attempting to) Define Design Thinking

So here is the elephant in the room.  What is Design Thinking?  You might intuitively know that it’s not a thing but a process.  That’s a start.  Since Design Thinking is indeed a process – let’s attempt to define it in a systematic way.  So, the first question is:

What is Design?

::humphhhh::  I’m only just starting this post and already realize I bit off a big one here.  Design is everywhere.  LITERALLY, EVERYWHERE!  Some soul out there determined that the very keyboard I’m using at this moment should have the keys arranged as Q,W,E,R,T,Y, etc, etc.  (I bet that’s your password for something.  I jest.  Not really).  The epitome of innovative design – the iPod – plays next to me.  The armoire, sharpie pen, TV, colorful book jacket, lamp in my immediate vicinity were all thoughtfully designed by someone to serve a function, elicit an emotion, or just look pretty.  In short –STUFF is design.  In fact this is the predominately accepted definition.  Designers create things. Objects.  If you were to browse through the design section of Barnes and Noble – itself a product of design thinking (stay tuned) – you’ll find volumes of illustrations and photographs of objects that transcend function.  It’s the chairs and toasters that reside at the MET or MOMA not in your home.  Somewhere along the way designers seemed to feel dissatisfied with function alone.  Take the  Laz-e-Boy for example- great for napping, watching the game, rocking the baby, and anchoring grandpa –  is somehow not thought of in the same way as the crisp lines of a clear, acrylic, chair that is sure to leave your ass sore.

But design comes in a much more conceptual flavor as well.  Designers are influential in both the look and function of libraries, banks, museums, and a host of other services.  And, how do we classify the world’s oldest and most experienced designer – Mother Nature?  Humming birds’ hover and geckos’ sticky feet are amazing examples of function, but they are hardly stuff.  Interestingly, the highly useful adaptations in nature have given rise to another subject for another day – biomimicry.  The point is that design so consumes our world that it’s difficult to ascertain where it stops.  It’s easier to define what is designed than what isn’t.

What is thinking?

Well that’s a good one for Socrates or someone a whole lot smarter than me.  BUT, since I’m here I’ll just call it:  the way we organize and make sense of our experiences.  I’d guess that means I lean more toward the Piaget social constructivist approach to cognition.  :: I digress::   If I go with that definition, though, and we agree that we each have unique experiences unto ourselves, then perhaps we can conclude that thinking is more about perception than processing.  The way you think about Italy (art! Romance! Gladiators!) may be wholly different than the way I do (mmmmmmmm……Gelato).  But if I, as a designer, actively work to see the world through your perspective, then that is acting with empathy.  Empathy is a key theme that I’ve seen recur in various articles, books, blogs, etc. about design thinking.

Put it together and what d’ya got?

To conclude this exercise I’d be happy with a definition of Design Thinking as: A process of looking at the world from different perspectives in order to affect positive change.  I’m happy with that, but it’s a bit clinical.  I recently read a book by Warren Berger called Glimmer (released under other titles as well).  It is absolutely a must read if interested on this topic.  In the book, Berger dedicates a section to the defining of Design and the difficulty therein.  Lots of designers contributed their personal working definitions – many of which I like – but don’t necessarily translate to design thinking in a K12 classroom.  Regardless, design firm IA Collaborative produced a brilliant illustration that summarizes the varying degrees of design definition (say that 5 times fast):

(picture from IA Collaborative – downloaded from Glimmersite Blog)

Note the credit to Glimmersite.com.  This is the companion site for the afore mentioned book full of LOTS of good stuff.  Check it out, think about it, and please comment on what your own working definition of design thinking would be.

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5 Comments on “(Attempting to) Define Design Thinking”

  1. Thanks for the great discussion on defining design thinking. We have launched the “Decade of Design Education 2010-2020” to help K-12 teachers gain a better understanding of design education and help students who are interested in design but can’t find what they need in their schools.
    http://andDESIGNmagazine.blogspot.com

  2. […] you read my previous post (Attempting to) Define Design Thinking, you might remember that I settled on a definition that had to do with looking at problems from […]

  3. […] design thinking which Hurson calls “productive thinking” (told you designers can’t agree on a definition).   Just to be different, I want to consider using Hurson’s methods in my classroom, but call […]

  4. […] from pursuing careers in science and engineering.  After a year of reflection and research on Design Thinking, it is apparent to me that closing the gender gap in science and engineering is more critical than […]

  5. […] bit of information that I left out of my “argument” was perhaps my all time favorite definition of designing thinking as proposed by Roger Martin – @RogerLMartin – of the Rotman School of Business. Martin […]


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