William Storage 11 Jun 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society
Design Thinking is getting a new life. We should bury it instead. Here’s why.
Its Humble Origins
In 1979 Bruce Archer, the great mechanical engineer and professor at the Royal College of Art, wrote in a Design Studies paper,
“There exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems.”
Innocent enough in context, Archer’s statement was likely the impetus for the problematic term, Design Thinking. Archer convincingly argued that design warranted a third fundamental area of education along with science and humanities. The next year Bryan Lawson at University of Sheffield wrote How Designers Think, now in 4th edition. Peter Rowe then authored Design Thinking in the mid 1980s. At that time, design thinking mainly referred to thinking about design and the mental process of designing well. In the mid 1990s, management consultancies, seeking new approaches to sell to clients looking outside their box for a competitive edge, pounced on Design Thinking. Design Thinking then transformed into a conceptual framework, a design-centered management initiative, that deified a rather narrow subgroup of people engaged in design – those who defined the shape of products, typically called “designers.”
Designers think differently, Lawson told us. He has a good point; but many professionals, some of them designers, read much more into his observation: designers have a special – almost mystical – way of knowing. Designers, now with guru status, were in demand for advisory roles. Design firms didn’t at all mind becoming management consultancies and being put in the position of advising CEOs not only on product definition but on matters ranging from personnel to market segment analysis. It paid well and designers found the view from atop this new pedestal refreshing. But any value that may have existed from teaching “designerly” ways to paper pushers, bean counters and silo builders deflated as Design Thinking was then reshaped into another n-step improvement process by legacy consulting firms.
If you find my summary overly cynical, consider that Bruce Nussbaum, once one of design thinking’s most vocal advocates, calls design thinking a failed experiment. Don Norman, IDEO fellow and former VP of Apple, calls the idea that designers possess some creative thought process above all others in their skills at creative thought “a myth lacking any evidence.” He sees Design Thinking as now being a public relations term aimed at mystifying an ineffective approach to convince business that designers can add value to problems like healthcare, pollution, and organizational dynamics. It’s a term that needs to die, says Norman. Peter Merholz, president of Adaptive Path, calls BusinessWeek’s recent praise of design thinking “fetishistic.” He facetiously suggests that to fix things, you can simply “apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing ‘creatives,’ ‘ideating’ tons of concepts … out of whole cloth.”
Analysis and Synthesis Again
Misunderstood science contributed to the early days of Design Thinking in the same way that it informed Systems Thinking. As with Systems Thinking, confusion about the relationship between analysis and synthesis was fundamental to the development of Design Thinking. Recall that in science, synthesis is the process of inferring effects from given causes; whereas analysis is the route by which we seek the causes of observed effects. Loosely speaking, using this first definition of synthesis, analysis is the opposite of synthesis. In broader usage synthesis indicates combining components to form something new that has properties not found in its components (definition 2). I’ll touch on the consequence of conflating the two definitions of synthesis below.
In How Designers Think, Lawson performed a famous experiment on two groups, one of architects and one of scientists, involving combining colored blocks to achieve a specified design, where some of rules about block combinations were revealed only by experimentation. The architects did better than the scientists in this test. Lawson repeated the experiment with groups of students just entering educational programs for scientists and architects. Both these groups did poorer than both groups of their trained equivalents. From this observation Lawson concluded that the educational experience of the different professions caused the difference in thinking styles, while acknowledging that those more adept at thinking in the abstract might be more inclined toward architecture than science.
Lawson concludes that the scientists tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations; i.e., they sought to identify the governing rules. In contrast, the architects, he concluded, aimed directly at achieving the desired result, only replacing blocks when rules emerged to show the attempted arrangement unworkable or disallowed. From these conclusions about why the groups behaved the way he observed them to behave, Lawson secondarily concluded that:
The essential difference between these two strategies is that while the scientists focused their attention on discovering the rule, the architects were obsessed with achieving the desired result. The scientists adopted a generally problem-focused strategy and the architects a solution-focused strategy.
Lawson’s work is fascinating, and How Designers Think is still a great read 30 years later; but there are huge leaps of inference in his conclusions summarized above. Further, the choice of language is a bit opportunistic. A simpler reading of the facts (one less reliant on characterizing states of mind of the participants) might be that architects are better at building structures (architecting) than are scientists. A likely cause is that architects are trained to build structures and scientists are not. An experiment involving design of a corrosion-resistant steel alloy might well find scientists to be more creative (successful at creating or synthesizing such a result).
Despite these problems with design of experiments and reporting language, I believe Lawson’s basic conclusions are valid nonetheless. My belief on this is supported by meta-experiment – Lawson as part of his own test. Lawson is, in fact, an architect; and he has leapt at an early conclusion (as he concludes architects did in his experiment) only adjusting the conclusion when forced to do so. Had he been a scientist, he might have analyzed the experiment’s results more thoroughly first, thus confirming he was a scientist.
Kidding aside, I think Lawson nailed it when he concluded that, in general, architects learn about the nature of the problem largely as a result of trying out solutions, whereas scientists set out specifically to study the problem to discover the relevant principles. Presumably, most engineers would fall somewhere between these extremes. While trying out solutions might not be universally applicable (not a good choice for tall buildings, reactors and aircraft) scientists, business managers, and many others too often forget to use the “designerly” approach to challenges – including trying out solutions early in the game. Further, anyone who has seen corporate analysis-paralysis in action (inaction) can readily see where more architect-style thinking might be useful in many business problems.
Design – A Remedy for Destructive Science?
In “Designerly Ways of Knowing,” a 1982 paper in Design Studies, Nigel Cross concluded from Lawson’s work that:
These experiments suggest that scientists problem-solve by analysis, whereas designers problem-solve by synthesis.
Cross’s statement – quoted ad nauseum by the worst hucksters of Design Thinking – has several problems, especially when removed from its context. First, assuming Lawson’s conclusions correct, it equates rule discovery (how scientists solve problems) with analysis. Wrong. Second, it implies that analysis (seeking causes for observed effects) is the opposite not of definition 1 of synthesis above but of definition 2 (building something new out of components). Thus by substitution, the reader infers that building something is the opposite of analyzing something. This position is obviously wrong on logical grounds, yet is deeply engrained in popular thought and in many introductions to Design Thinking.
The error is due to choice of language, choice of examples, and semantic equivocation. Analysis of composition differs from analysis of function. Further, analysis of composition can be physical or conceptual. The destructive connotation of analysis only applies when value judgment is attached to physical decomposition. You analyze a frog by dissecting it (murderer!). You analyze a clock by disassembling it – no, by tearing it apart. But what if you analyze the compressive strength of stone by building a tower of stone blocks? Or if you analyze trends by building software. How about analyzing electrical components by building a circuit? And what of Lawson’s architects who analyzed feasibility of certain arrangements of blocks by using a solution-focused strategy.
In its original context, Cross’s analysis-synthesis statement, though perhaps sacrificing accuracy for form (it’s a designer thing…), works well enough. We gather (stating it without loaded terms) that architects aim initially for a satisfactory solution, then seek to refine it if possible, rather than on methodical discovery of the parameters of the problem. Despite providing fodder for less thoughtful advocates of DesignThinking, Cross does great work. He makes a fantastic case for the value of design education, defending his position that such education develops skills for solving real-world, ill-defined problems, and promotes visual thinking and iconic modes of cognition. It’s unfortunate that his analysis-synthesis quote has been put to such facile use.
For Archer, Lawson, and Cross, Design Thinking was largely about design, design education, and the insights that good design skills bring, such as welcoming new points of view and fresh insights, challenging implicit constraints, and conscious avoidance of stomping on the creative spirit. But Design Thinking after the mid 1990′s set higher and broader goals. It wasn’t Design Thinking’s reliance on a slightly shaky conception of analysis and synthesis that set it adrift. It was the expansion of scope and the mark left by its corporate usurpers, subjecting the term to endless redefinition and reducing it to jargon. While Tim Brown’s Change by Design does venture fairly far into the realm of corporate renewal, he generally remains humble and keeps design on center stage. But in the writings of more ambitious gurus, Design Thinking has lost touch with its roots. For Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value) Design Thinking seems a transformation of consciousness that will not only nourish corporate creativity but will cure societal ails, fix the economy and rescue the environment.
A recent WSJ article explains that Design Thinking “uses close, almost anthropological observation of people to gain insight into problems.” Search Twitter for Design Thinking and you’ll find recent tweets from initiates having discovered this cutting edge concept. ” Kick off your week with a new way of thinking: Design Thinking.” Supply chain thought leadership through Design Thinking. “Use design thinking to find the right-fit job.” One advocate proclaims Design Thinking to be the means to overcome emotional resistance to change.
Don Norman is on the mark when he reminds us that radical breakthrough ideas and creative thinking somehow managed to shape history before the advent of Design Thinking. Norman observes, “‘Design Thinking’ is what creative people in all disciplines have always done.” Breakthroughs happen when people find fresh insights, break outmoded rules, and get new perspectives through conscious effort – all without arcane modes of thinking.
Rational Thinking – The Next Old Thing
Design Thinking has lost its focus – and perhaps its mind. The term has been redefined to the point of absurdity. And its overworked referent has drifted from an attitude and guiding principle to yet another hackneyed process in a long line of bankrupt business improvement initiatives, passionately embraced by amnesic devotees for a few months until the next one comes along. This might be the inevitable fate of brands that no one owns, spawned by innovators, put into the public domain, and consumed by consultancies who prey on business managers seeking that infusion of quick-transformation magic.
In short, Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.