Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Power of First Impressions

Lately, I've been researching and reflecting on the history of design and Design Thinking in particular. While doing that, I've often found it necessary to reframe my verbal and visual vocabulary in order to understand someone else's points of view about what they think is and isn't Design Thinking.

For example, there are times when Dave Kelley's conversational style feels very non-linear, almost chaotic, with threads of ideas spreading out in different directions, each asking to be understood and evaluated.  On the other hand, Nigel Cross' style is more linear, although every bit as thorough.

I've also noted differences in the graphics which have been used to describe the Design Thinking process flow.  The one on the inside front cover of Tim Brown's latest book; Change By Design is an example. Since it's the very first thing you see upon opening the cover it sets the tone for what follows;

Here is the front cover of the's Virtual Crash Course Playbook;

Given the intimate relationship between IDEO and the, the similarities aren't too surprising. 

One of the things that Matt Kahn taught in Art 60 was that content communicates intent.  (Not a direct quote.) These two images present some very interesting elements for our consideration.

First, their composition is very informal and fluid. The fonts are casual and seem handwritten, letter sizes and spacings vary, circles and arrows are scattered about.  They provide clues to the flow and priority, but all in all it's a bit chaotic. The at Stanford is center stage in the second one.  It's also interesting that tone is called a playbook - which bids to you to "READ ME".

Here are a couple of other graphics, which are someone else's work, but also intended to express the Design Thinking process:

What is interesting here is that although they are much simpler and orderly,  neither of them accurately capture the cyclical and re-iterative nature of the Design Thinking process flow accurately. To me, they also seem a bit static.

Let's look at q couple of other charts which are intended to communicate process flow; The first is a type of software flow chart and the second a football play diagram;

FAA TEA-21 Project Process

Football Play

There are (at least) two things going on here.  Both have to do with vocabulary, one visual, the other verbal.  First to the visual;

Compared to the types of flow diagrams used by computer programmers and business analysts, the charts used to illustrate Design Thinking are much more like the football play diagram than the software flow chart.  Anyone who has watched football knows, things don't always work out according to the playbook, even with professionals who are getting paid much better than any designer I know.

One could argue that both types of charts are accurate depictions and that they reflect the true nature of their respective processes.  That would be true, but - and this is a BIG BUT - to the neophyte, or someone from another field of study, like Finance and Accounting, the message they deliver may be very different.  

The logic diagram graphic says;  

"This process may appear complicated, but it has an organized flow, which I understand, explain (and hopefully manage) well enough for you to understand it."  

The other says;  

"Bowl of spaghetti! It's a crap shoot at best and futile at worst, but trust me, I know the territory."

The problem with chaos is that it is unpredictable, unteachable, and therefore un-learnable by analytical means.  Becoming a Jedi Master requires overcoming your fears and endless practice on a planet that is light years away in another galaxy. This is where DT really shines, because it gives you tools to explore the unknown and embrace the ambiguities.

The next problem is confusion about meaning. What does "design thinking" actually mean?  Dave Kelley says its the way designers think, but professional biologists and sociologists have been studying that for decades and they haven't advocated a "best" method of doing it yet. Although that is partly because they are researchers and don't apply theory. Which is also probably also why David Kelley does classes, and Joi Ito at MIT does projects.  

This is also where analytical personalities, like businessmen, may start repeatedly checking their stock portfolios and emails on their Blackberries.  Some of this is cultural, but I wonder if images of Design Thinking as a chaotic process fail to send a comforting message to the more analytical professions.  (Note: At IDEO new clients are prevented from seeing the chaos behind the curtain until they can be acclimated. 8^•

Home, Sweet Loft Space, Stanford style.

Note to aspiring Design Thinkers; The folks who pay the bills are often nervous about chaos.  
If the first rule of Design Thinking is Start with Empathy, maybe the visual, spacial, non-sequential thinkers need to have a little more empathy for the linear thinkers who balance their checkbooks to the penny every night before turning out the light.

A Brief Diversion -

Heading over to storytelling for just a minute;

Marcy Barton and the 5th Grade Dimension

Now, Tom Kelly is telling a really cool story here, but it's buried in the middle of a 90 minute video with no chapter headings.

Now, back to our story -

These examples are taken directly from Stanford, IDEO and the, but the observations may be useful to others who are interested in, or frustrated by, the current state of acceptance of Design Thinking in the business world.

Remember, the first rule is; Start with Empathy.

To that end, I have a proposal for what may be a more accurate expression of the Design Thinking process, and is built up out of three elements; the color wheel, the phases and, most importantly, users.

The basic idea here is pretty simple; There is a multi step process, expressed by the hexagons. Their colors transition blend, like a color wheel, representing moving thru all the aspects of the situation and illuminating the scene with all possible points of view. In the middle, where they belong, we have users.  Arrows guide the re-cyclical process flow and the text explains the function of each phase. The background is a perforated metal grill, which just looks cool and feels "professional".

Taking this a bit further, towards a softer, less industrial feel, we get this:

Another possible configuration...

Which is actually a re-arrangement of this image from the HPI School of design.

I know, they aren't a brainstorm of post-it notes, and flowing, loose, stop-action marker pen animation, but maybe it can provide a framework for everyone to comfortably play in.

This isn't the only area we struggle in our efforts to "sell" Design Thinking.  Our verbal expressions are often imprecise and laden with metaphors. We need to clearly show the process and describe it in terms which bridge the languages of art, engineering and business. 


  1. While much of what you say may be true there have been many efforts to clarify things in a much more orderly and clear manner. You've chosen the chaotic graphical depictions only. The problem is that when others try to give DT some sense of order critics attack them for that as well. There needs to be some way of giving it some ordered chaos so that enough patterns emerge to make the ambiguous seem structured.

    A quick google image search should prove that many attempts have been made to bring clarity to the phases, steps, parts of DT

    It's exactly because all other systems are so rigid that we even need something like DT in the first place

  2. Nur - Thank you for that observation. You made me realize that I was really aiming my comments mostly at my Stanford/ friends and affiliates and I've updated the post to reflect that.