Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Vat are you sinking?"

Is this it?

One of the questions that frequently comes up in the eSphere is "What is Design Thinking?" Is it a method? Is it a Mindset? Are there rules? Why does it seem to vary from situation to situation?  I'd like to share a couple of ideas about that in this posting.

How about this?
In order to have any sort of understandable conversation about something, it's a good idea to be speaking the same language. Beyond that, it helps to have an agreement regarding the meaning of words, particularly when the word can serve as both a noun and a verb. Such is the case with the words Design and Thinking;

Wait... maybe this one!
Design as a noun is defined as; A plan or drawing, produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object, before it is built or made. Some synonyms for Design include: plan, blueprint, drawing, sketch, outline, map, plot, diagram, draft, representation, scheme, and model.

Used as a verb, Design is defined as; To decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), typically by making a detailed drawing of it - or - To do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.

Similar verb phrases include;  plan, outline, map out, draft, draw, invent, originate, create, think up, come up with, devise, formulate, conceive; make, produce, develop, and fashion.

The same is true of the word Thinking; it has both noun and verb usages;

As a noun Thinking is an opinion, judgment or mindset which is characteristic of a particular group, time period, etc.

As a verb; Thinking is the action of using your mind to produce ideas, decisions, memories, etc., or the activity of thinking about something.

This presents a two by two matrix representing four possible meanings of Design Thinking:

Noun - Noun   |  Verb - Noun
Noun - Verb   |  Verb - Verb

The Noun-Noun pair combines A drawing with an opinion.

The Noun-Verb pair combines A drawing with the action of using your mind.

The Verb-Noun pair combines to produce; The action of deciding upon the look and functioning of something which is an opinion, judgment or mindset.

The Verb-Verb pair becomes; Deciding upon the look and functioning of using your mind to produce ideas.

I'm not sure any of these really make much sense.

This HAS to be it...!
Its interesting to note that one definition of Design states that the result of a design activity is a design. I suppose that makes sense, except that the result of Thinking is called thought.  What does A scientist call the result of design?

Note that the "design" exists before the reality. In that regard the design is theoretical, untested and unproven. What do you call it once it's been tested and proven?  (A product of the design process?)

There is another slant on this; What if Design is used as an adjective to describe a type of thinking?

David Kelley explained that this was his meaning when he first started using the term - that it meant the way designers think. In a 2003 meeting with IDEO's CEO, Tim Brown, Kelley had an epiphany: They would stop calling IDEO's approach "design" and start calling it "design thinking.”

"We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before." -- David Kelley

That still leaves a number of questions; Is it accurate to say that there is one way of thinking which is common to all designers?  Decades of research have gone into this question, starting at least as far back as the 1960's when the way software was written became an intense area of study. That effort expanded into the study of systems, aka; operations research.

I think there is one more unspoken element to Kelley's statement; He was speaking of designs and designers who are successful - which can survive, even thrive in the marketplace.

Are we there yet?
Which leads us to another idea; If Design Thinking is the method used at IDEO, arguably one of the most successful design firms in the world, what is the method used for?  The simplest answer I've heard to that question is; to solve problems. Wicked problems in particular.

I like this answer because it lets us temporarily defer dealing one of the terrible questions; What is creativity?  and focus on the How of the matter.  How do you solve problems? How can you be more creative in your solutions?

Let's take a closer look at this in the next blog; The Fundamental Nature of Problem Solving.

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