Is the the buzz around Design Thinking buzzworthy?

I’m really excited and anxious for the opportunity to attend a workshop at Stanford d.Schools K12 Lab this week.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to network and learn how to truly make design thinking actionable in a k12 classroom.  Be looking for notes from the workshop and in a follow up post (part 2 of making DT actionable).

In the meantime I’m curious of different opinions regarding how relevant DT really is.  DT is one of those terms that seems to be reaching a saturation point.  It’s a buzz word.  While I’m cautious of the buzz around DT, I’ve also observed tremendous demand.  The Design & Thinking movie was funded entirely through kickstarter and had its premier this spring.  Resources like  IDEO’s educator toolkit and offerings from Stanford d.School are gobbled up with continued ferocity.  d.School now has a heat map to track interactions with their virtual crash course and twitter buzz.

Design Thinking is not without critics, though.  I was struck by a recent blog post by William Storage on The Multidiciplinarian entitled Design Thinking’s Timely Death.  The article is a  thoughtful criticism on DT…one that gives me pause.  After reading Storage’s piece I found Cameron Norman’s response: The Hyberbole and Exaggerated Demise of Design Thinking.  Please consider reading both.  They are excellent point-counterpoint examples that include recent and relevant literature reviews on design thinking.  The heart of the debate is whether all the buzz around design thinking is indeed buzzworthy.

My response to Storage’s post on whether we should bury the term “design thinking” below:

Defining DT is a bit of a conundrum. From Harvard Business Review Blog: Start-ups, Skunkworks, and Your Next Big Product:

“Much of this confusion stems from applying one term to too many contexts. Most businesses are actually pursuing two types of innovation; product innovation and process innovation. Product innovation focuses on the experiences the company offers to the customer and process innovations refer to the internal improvements to improve operations and delivery. Both are important, but organizations should approach the two types very differently.”

The “letter” of DT is the process proposed by Stanford d.School and Ideo.  The “spirit” of DT is making positive change.   The DT process itself is more conducive to product development in my opinion.  I use DT in a high school environment and it is very difficult for students (and adults!) to apply DT to a process or experience.  So, going through the DT iterations is not necessarily the best route for organizational or process innovation.  By the way, I think DT is often misinterpreted as a linear approach…it is most definitely iterative.

On the other hand, I do feel that designers have a knack, namely creativity, for affecting change.  So the spirit of DT can indeed benefit organizational or process change. It’s a willingness to look for alternatives to the status quo.

Ultimately, I appreciate your willingness to challenge design thinking. I’m squeamish about the way design thinking has been thrown around as a panacea for all our ills, but I don’t think it needs to die…we just need to be real about what it is and what it isn’t.

Updates to the DT Library

One of my original goals of this blog was to be a sort of clearinghouse of information on the topic of Design Thinking in education.  To that ends I’ve finally updated the Links/Library page with a portion of the articles and links from my desktop.  As I revisit these, hopefully it will spark some new posts and commentary.  Enjoy and share!

Quick Post: Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”

I’ve mentioned Bruce Mau before, but just recently found his firm’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.”   (thanks @jonhusband for tweeting) This is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in positively affecting their world.  Depending on your perspective this is good parenting advice, cliff’s notes for Design Thinking, learning objectives for a design class, or humorous satire.  The “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” has 43 points.  Which are your favorites??

Quick Post: Sparking Creativity thru Divergent Thinking

Sir Ken Robinson is a well known thinker and writer who primarily focuses on the ambiguous idea of creativity.  What does it mean to be creative?  How do we become a creative business leader?  Can we teach creativity?  Do schools stamp out creativity rather than encourage it?  Which is better?

Ken Robinson has dozens of lectures available online.  All are informative and he is quite engaging and humorous as well.  As it relates to Design Thinking in schools, I found the following video particularly intriguing.  This clip is on “Changing Education Paradigms.”  I particularly like this one because of the brilliant visual sketches by RSA Animate that bring the talk to life.  Sir Ken Robinson says we must change the model of education by using and encouraging divergent thinking.  To get right to that point skip forward to the 6:28 mark.  Otherwise, enjoy:

Since this blog is meant to be a clearing house of information and links, I’ll occasionally add these quick posts for links I stumble across and find worthwhile.  I’ll also categorize appropriately and am working on an additional page of categorized links that may be easier to refer to in the future.

3 Pillars of Design Thinking (and a Motown Song)

You guys remember the Tams, right?  You know…THE Tams…the matching suit-wearing, beach music sounding, motown group.  They are also from the the greatest city in America – Atlanta, GA (coincidentally my hometown).  You might remember this song as one of their biggest hits:

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy  –  How in the world does this relate to design thinking?  Well, in my feeble mind those three phrases are a very concise and easy way to remember (or explain) a few of the major themes of design thinking.

Be Young :: Think like a child

Think creatively – The “kids say the craziest things” kind of creative.  Design Thinking usually promotes attacking a problem by first discovering the real roots of the problem.  To do this, design guru Bruce Mau suggests asking “stupid questions.”  This goes back to comments in my first post about the disadvantage that experts have when it comes to being innovative.  Experts tend to work within a set of assumptions that result from their years of experience.  I’m not discounting the value of experience or expertise, but innovation requires taking certain leaps of faith.  Outsiders (non-experts) tend to ask “stupid questions” that can challenge assumptions in a way that can glean new truths.  I found one article that called this “creating a disruptive hypothesis.”  In short, designers approach problems like children – by asking “WHY?”  Anyone with young children knows that kids tend to ask “why” A LOT…in succession….to exhaustion.  This is exactly the process that design firm IDEO goes through.  The 5 Whys Technique is a process of proposing a problem and asking 5 successive why questions that challenges assumptions and hopefully redefines and focuses the original proposition.  So, be young, think like a child, and uncover the root of the issue.

Be Foolish ::  Stupid, Crazy, Wild Ideas

Similar to Being Young, Being Foolish has to do with taking a chance – putting yourself out there – not being afraid to ask “stupid questions.”  Have you ever been in a meeting or classroom and withheld an idea because you were scared others wouldn’t get it?  I’ve been there lots of times.  Well, being foolish is the exact opposite.  Most Design Thinking models include some sort of brainstorming or ideating phase.  In this scenario, any off the wall idea is fair game and is in fact encouraged.  This is not unlike the guy at the bar who asks out every girl he sees under the assumption that eventually one will say yes.  Eventually one idea will be the one that sparks a truly innovative project.  I must stop at this point because I’m reminded of one of my favorite TED talks from TEDxAtlanta.  Armin Vit makes the case for being foolish and thinking stupid far better than I can.  He says: “One is considered stupid until proven creative.”  Watch this one – it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Be Happy :: Empathize to find purpose

If 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 different perspectives in order to affect positive change.  What I was getting at, specifically, was to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.  Preferably through the eyes of the person(s) whom you are attempting to positively effect.  In a word – Empathize.  Admittedly, empathy in and of itself can be depressing.  But designers use empathy as the primary source of inspiration, and solving a problem for a group you empathize with can be immensely rewarding.  The end result can be far reaching like the work that Architecture for Humanity does.  In short someone brave enough to ask the question: “Why does temporary housing for people displaced by natural disaster (like Katrina) have to be tin can trailers?  These people deserve to live in a proper house with dignity.”  So, Architecture for Humanity designed and built small cottages that looked like proper, cozy homes and cost even less than the infamous FEMA trailer.  Brilliant.   Empathy can also uncover solutions to problems that the majority of people didn’t even know they had.  The founder of OXO kitchen utensils began his company after observing his arthritic wife having difficulty using a skinny, all metal vegetable peeler.  He designed a utensil with a large soft handle with “fins” integrated for better grip.  The result was a product that nearly everyone appreciated – not just arthritic grandmothers.  Until OXO came along no one even considered that a lowly kitchen utensil could or even should be improved.  The point is: finding solutions for someone other than oneself can be extremely rewarding whether it impacts one person or a million.

Be Young :: Be Foolish :: Be Happy is an easy way I’ve found to be mindful of some of the major tenants of the Design Thinking process.  Design Thinking is a process, however, and more steps are needed than these three.  I’ll perhaps devote a future post to the similarities and differences between some of the Design Thinking for Education models I’ve come across.  If you can’t stand to wait, check out these great resources:

d. School Bootcamp Bootleg

Design Thinking in the Middle School Classroom

IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit

(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  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.

If you are a teacher, why is there a typo in the name of your blog?

Sorry to disappoint you, but Planting T’s is intentional.  It’s both a shamelessly stolen idea from well known design guru Tim Brown of IDEO as well as the most creative play on words that my Left-Brained self could muster up.  So the T is the focus here.  Tim Brown explains that he likes to recruit designers that are T-shaped.  I’ve tried to modify the analogy a bit to fit a K12 education scenario.  My feeble mind understands the concept as follows:

The base of the T is whatever you are most interested in, most experienced at, perhaps your college major, or what you most want to do.  The top of the T should be an ever expanding interest in other disciplines / concepts / ideas.  So the base of the T embodies the skills you can bring to the table, but the top of the T is critical to collaborating with other perspectives, relating your skills to theirs, and fostering creativity and curiosity.  So if we continue the analogy to a school that fosters Design Thinking then maybe young students are lower case – 8pt – arial type – t’s.  When they graduate, they are capital – 18 pt – Franklin Gothic –  T’s.  What’s the vehicle to grow a T?  My favorite answer: It depends.  Inquiry, project based learning, 21st Century skills, standards based grading, career and technical education, and lots of other concepts all lead us down the right path.  The central theme is finding a mode of teaching and learning that works (for you and students).  At the same time, I subscribe to the idea Standford D school suggests.  That is, design thinking primarily focuses on empathy and a bias toward action.  It makes sense to me.  If you can present a topic such that I empathize with the problem, or concept, or ramifications then I am emotionally invested to a point that I want to know more.  I want to help.  And, as is the case with me and many other engineers, I want the opportunity to either prove you wrong or show that I am always right! {wink}  Such is the plight of a Left Brain-er.  Lots of really smart teachers are out there coming up with lesson plans that create a culture willing to solve “wicked” problems related to energy, pollution, clean water, etc. in a school setting.  I look forward to sharing what I’ve found in another post.

Related to this T concept is the idea that expertise is in many ways counterproductive.  Simply put, the more you know about one domain of knowledge the more likely you are to railroad all new ideas to fit within the context of your expertise – for better or worse.  People with a variety of interests and skills (top part of the T) are better able to ask “stupid” questions that glean new and creative perspectives.  The conundrum is how to reconcile the ability to ask stupid questions while being skilled enough to seek out relevant solutions.  So perhaps planting and growing T’s is a call for radical reform in liberal arts education as Liz Coleman suggests in her TED talk.  Stress breadth and make tools available to seek out depth when inspired.