Thursday, 19 May 2011

Design Thinking: Myth or Meme?

I attended a research seminar yesterday entitled: ‘Design Thinking - Myth or Magic’. I assumed it was a straw man argument staged to provide an opportunity for a thorough demolition but, to my surprise, it was actually being seriously considered by the presenters, even in the face of sagacious criticism in a cited online article by Don Norman.

I’ve suggested in the past that certain kinds of materials and procedures can be understood to engender certain kinds of cognitive processing that would otherwise be inconceivable. It might be thought then, that I’d be sympathetic with the idea of Design Thinking. On the contrary though, I find the term vaguely offensive.

In many ways the notion of Design Thinking sits in a netherworld between the general category of ‘Creativity’ and the more granular but nonetheless further dividable disciplines of, for example, Product Design; Illustration; Film, Graphic Design; Architecture and so on. If certain processes and materials do indeed engender certain kinds of thinking, then it seems unlikely that these different kinds of thought processes could easily be placed under a single rubric, and certainly not one as arbitrary and easily contestable as Design Thinking.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that we’re only just beginning to understand how the brain functions, so even the term ‘Thinking’ is riddled with complexity and uncertainty. Equally the boundaries of Design itself are so nebulous as to give us serious pause when asserting a definition of what truly constitutes Design as a practice. Many languages don’t even have a word that directly translates as ‘Design’ and even the current definition of the term is surprisingly recent in origin.

No, the idea of Design Thinking simply doesn’t stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny, though, as Don Norman also points out, it might serve a useful function as a public relations tool and, let’s face it, if anyone is able to make a bankable meme out of something as abstract and indistinct as Design Thinking, then who better than designers?

“Art Thinking” just doesn’t do it somehow does it? And that probably tells us about as much as we need to know about how disingenuous the idea of Design Thinking really is.


Seán said...

I don't suppose engineering design was considered?

J. Hamlyn said...

Oh I'm sure they'd have embraced it in their "tolerance for ambiguity" if apushed. Not sure they'd go as far as Intelligent Design though!!

Seán said...

As ever, the quest for an grand unifying theory obscures matters, when there may be local truths.

I think there might be something in "certain kinds of materials and procedures can be understood to engender certain kinds of cognitive processing that would otherwise be inconceivable" as far as engineering is concerned.

In my experience, professional engineers think alike to quite an extent, differently from non-engineers (and academic engineers, who have the same academic background, but have not the experience of the materials and procedures governing engineering practice).

Engineering for good or ill gives you a consistent perspective, as I discussed previously here:

J. Hamlyn said...

"the quest for an grand unifying theory obscures matters"


Anonymous said...

Nigel Cross, in his book 'Design Methods' says that engineers are analytic thinkers: they are problem solvers, Where as designer's are synthetic thinkers; they are solution finders.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Anonymous,

I'm confused - surely solving a problem IS finding a solution?

Seán said...

That's what I thought too. I thought engineers WERE designers, but the "designers" Cross refers to are really a kind of applied artist, the people who put a nice wrapper on the things engineers design.

Sometimes however the nice wrapper is paramount, for example, water feature designers sometimes employ me to do the engineering design to make their artistic vision come true.

The difference between them and me is that I am an amateur in the field of aesthetics, and they are amateurs in the field of hydraulic design. My water feature wouldn't look nice and theirs wouldn't work efficiently.

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