Friday, March 06, 2020

A model of how to become a designer

Any type of learning goes through stages or levels of knowledge and abilities. So does design learning. To become a designer is, as any process of becoming a professional expert, a complex and rich process that involves everything from knowing facts to having a sense of who you are as a professional and human.

In our book, "The Design Way", we present this as a hierarchy model of design-learning outcomes. Starting with becoming able to express routine expertise, through adaptive expertise, design expertise to end with value expertise. This journey takes effort and time, learning and practice. The model (see figure below) portrays this journey. The model can be used as a way to measure where you are in your process of becoming a designer and as a "tool" to help to decide how to further develop your competence and expertise.

Below the figure, I have added an excerpt from the book about the model.

"A hierarchy is based on the understanding that the things in a lower level are given significance, meaning, and value by next the higher level. For example, for design capacity, facts and skills are valuable only in the context of the confidence to take action or to do things. The competence to learn is only valuable in designing if there is the courage to be creative and innovative, to take risks with the full understanding of responsibility and accountability which is the next higher level in the hierarchy—that of connection.

The hierarchy of learning outcomes is necessary and crucial to understand since it makes it clear that some outcomes are not possible to achieve if others at a lower level are not already achieved. It also shows that at the end of the day, to become a designer is a process that deepens over time and becomes more personal as you move up the hierarchy." (page 234)

Friday, February 28, 2020

Where do you start if you want your organization to become more designerly?

There are a lot of discussions about design thinking today. And everyone wants to be better at design. Every company wants to be more designerly. This is all good. But where do you start if you want to change people or companies to be more designerly?

In our book "The Design Way" we introduce what we label as "design learning domains". We show it in a simple schema (see Fig 14.12 below). We explain the idea like this

"Design learning can be addressed in four domains: (1) design character, (2) design thinking, (3) design knowing, and (4) design action or praxis (see figure 14.12). These domains can be expressed as sets. The outcome of design learning or inquiry can be seen as a process of managing competency sets that are interrelated among the quadrants formed by the crossing axis of familiar dichotomies such as concrete reality and abstract thinking, and the individual contrasted to social collectives. These sets—mindsets, knowledge sets, skill sets, and tool sets—must be established and filled, in the process of becoming a designer (see figure 14.13)."

What we see today is a lot of different approaches aimed at improving or enhancing design thinking to create more designerly organizations. Most of these approaches do not address all four sets. The argument we make is that to establish a deep understanding of design that can lead to competent design practice, all four quadrants have to be addressed and "filled".

So, the next question then becomes where do you start the process of building design expertise, all quadrants filled? Do you start by teaching people certain tools, or certain skills, or certain knowledge or do you first engage with their mindset? Among contemporary and serious design educations we can easily find all kinds of approaches, some focused first on skills, others on knowledge or on mindset. Most of them over time addressing all quadrants.

Companies that are trying to transform themselves into being more designerly are unfortunately not as ambitious. Commonly they focus on either the mindset or the skill set. This means that they might invite speakers to preach the benefits of a designerly approach with the purpose to change the mindset of the people or they engage in concrete workshops where some simple tools and skills are practiced. Neither of these will lead to any lasting or serious changes in everyday practice.

To be clear, there is no 'right' way of approaching the design competency sets. Each attempt, each organization, is unique and has to be addressed as such. Each attempt to enhance design has to be adapted and designed to fit the specific situation. And nothing will be achieved if not all quadrants are engaged with.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Is your company designerly enough?

Today a lot of organizations are excited by the notion of design and the ways a designerly approach can enhance their business. Some companies even label themselves as "design companies" or state that they want to be seen as designerly companies. This is all well, but what does it mean and how do you know if and when you actually are designerly enough?

In many areas we have seen different forms of maturity models. A maturity model is supposed to help people "measure" and establish how mature they are in relation to some aspects. Examples are plenty, such as capability maturity models for software, project planning maturity models, risk maturity models, etc.

One of the fundamental ideas that underlie maturity models (even though not always stated) is that any progress in an area has to be built on a solid foundation. Without a solid foundation, any introduction of new tools, methods, approaches or procedures will probably over time fail.

So, does your organization have a solid foundation that can support the development of a designerly culture and improved design thinking and action? And do you have the knowledge and tools to find that out?

There are ways to assess an organization when it comes to how designerly they are and the level of their design maturity. Unfortunately, I see a lot of organizations that try to build a design culture without caring about the foundation. Instead, they start to implement (simplistic) tools and methods locally without the appropriate support and without any intentional effort in developing a strong and solid foundation that can support such initiatives. Not surprisingly, many of these initiatives fail and lead to a negative experience, and to a negative view of what a design approach can do.

So, organizations should (1) engage in assessing how designerly they are and (2) develop and use a design maturity model to better understand where they are and what needs to be done to successfully transform into a design-oriented organization.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Design Thinking and Disciplined Thinking

We all think.

Most of us realize that there are different ways of thinking. Most of us also believe and understand that different ways of thinking lead to different outcomes. So, the choice of how to think about something has serious consequences.

Howard Gardner explores forms of thinking in his book "The Disciplined Mind". Gardner is famous for his notion of multiple forms of intelligence. The idea is that people are intelligent in different ways. Ways that more or less are suitable for specific problems and situations. He argues that people need to nurture all forms of intelligence to be able to function well in the world, and his theories are of course highly influential and debated when it comes to education.

In this book, Gardner explores the notion of "disciplined thinking". He writes "over the years, cultures have evolved systematic ways of thinking about these issues" ("issues" referring to questions about the "true, the beautiful, and the good"). He continues "At any given moment, the disciplines represent the most well-honed efforts of human beings to approach questions and concerns of importance in a systematic and reliable way" (p 144). He shows that over time different disciplined ways of thinking may find themselves in conflict, or in competition, or going through a radical change. For instance, the scientific way of thinking has grown over centuries and has evolved into an extraordinarily powerful and efficient way of thinking if the purpose is to establish solid knowledge. However, scientific thinking is aimed at revealing what exists and how it works (the "true") and is less efficient when it comes to finding out what is "beautiful" or "good". So, each disciplined way of thinking has its strengths and weaknesses.

We have all experienced the extraordinary emergence of design thinking as a "new" form of thinking. People in academia and industry have accepted design thinking as a powerful way of approaching the world and to achieve change. Design thinking as a broad approach (and not as a simplistic process) seems to be able to provide humans with a way of approaching the world that other ways of thinking can't. However, if we want design thinking to develop we have to let go of the idea that design thinking is a well defined step-wise process, or a set of tools and techniques, and something that can be learned in an afternoon workshop.

Instead, we have to understand design thinking as a broad disciplined way of thinking, similar to what Gardner describes in his book as a "disciplined approach". Design thinking is not about using post-it notes or being user-oriented, or working in creative teams. It is a broad form of thinking that is disciplined in ways that other approaches are not. If we do not accept this, design thinking will only become a temporary fad and will after a few years disappear and be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The misconception about "simple" designs

One of the misconceptions about design is that some designs are simpler and easier than others. The misconception is based on the idea that some designs in themselves are obvious in the sense that they may have few parts, simple and few functions, simple and obvious form,  etc. which would mean that the overall possible design space is highly reduced and the number of difficult judgments and decisions needed are also reduced.

This misconception is serious since it can lead to the idea that simple designs do not need so much designerly attention, effort, resources, and time. Contrary to this misconception, every particular design is infinitely complex. At the level of the ultimate particular, there is an infinite number of variables that need to be decided.

(Opposite to that, if we move towards the universal, the complexity is reduced as the level of abstraction increases, see diagram below)

I think it is liberating for a designer to acknowledge that every design, no matter how "simple", is equally complex and requires an equal amount of attention and effort. Of course, we may have designs that are almost copies or variations of existing designs, then the complexity in design decisions can be radically reduced, but at the same time, that makes the process less of a design process.

So, designers should be careful with stating what is simple, difficult, easy, complex, etc. Stating that a design is simple and then be blamed for a bad design outcome is not a good situation to be in. The default should be that all designs (unless copies or simple variations) are always infinitely complex and hence require full designerly attention and effort.

From the book "The Design Way" by Nelson & Stolterman

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Design Judgment

In relation to my post about how designers learn I want to add a bit more about judgment and in particular design judgment. I don't think it is possible to overstate the importance of design judgment. Every design situation presents a richness and complexity that is not possible to fully grasp and handle in any comprehensive way. Designers are always dealing with overwhelming amounts of information while not knowing enough. The way to cope with this complexity is to use design judgment.

In our book "The Design Way" (ref below), we devoted a whole chapter to the notion of judgment. This is a section from the beginning of that chapter.

"Judgment is not a form of decision making as commonly understood. It is not dependent on rules of logic found within rational systems of inquiry. Judgment is not founded on strict rules of reasoning. It is more likely to be dependent on the accumulation of the experience of consequences from choices made in complex situations. However, judgment is not irrational, because it follows its own form of intuitive logic. Learning to make judgments is not a matter of learning to follow the steps of a technique, or to follow directions dictated by a method or algorithm, or to impose the a priori constraints of a theory. Wittgenstein stated: “What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules” (Wittgenstein 1963).

Judgment is, by definition, an elusive animal. It is the expression of the work of the subconscious mind, and as distinct from rational decision making as it is from intuition. Judgment has practical, pragmatic value and academic legitimacy, without having to be codified and generalized, as science demands on behalf of its cousin, reason. We believe the capacity to judge can be learned and then applied in design circumstances, without destroying its essence and value. This is unlike the case of intuition, where too much intellectual attention is often feared by artists who feel that reason, at its best, is the opposite of intuition, and at its worst, a mortal enemy. The ability to make good judgments is as essential in design as it is in business, law, medicine, politics, art, or any other profession. For a skill that is necessary to so many endeavors, it is surprising that judgment is so little understood and so seldom a part of one’s formal education." (p 139-140)

One aspect of judgment is that it can be understood as dealing with a particular form of knowledge. We also write about this in the following way.

"Judgment can best be understood when it’s considered within the context of knowledge, knowing, and the knower. To put it simply, judgment is knowing based on knowledge that is inseparable from the knower. By this we mean that judgment is based on a type of knowledge that is generated in the particularity or uniqueness of a situation; knowledge that is inseparable from the knower and is only revealed through the actions— cognitive or physical actions—of the knower. This is in contrast to decisions that are made, based on the type of knowledge that is of value primarily because it is separable from the knower.

Judgment knowledge cannot be stored in libraries or in databases. Colleagues in controlled experiments can’t replicate it. It can neither be memorized nor accumulated in any quantity so as to build a field of routine expertise. Judgment knowledge has instrumental value only for a particular situation and loses its direct and immediate relevance in the next setting except as experience.

Therefore, it becomes clear that separable knowledge deals in that which is universal, or generalizable—while the inseparable knowing of judgment deals with particulars and ultimate particulars. This implies that designers can learn to make better judgments, but cannot learn—a priori—the specific kind of knowledge necessary for particular judgments at the moment they occur—namely, adaptive and design expertise." (p 140-141)

Much more can be said about judgement. Designers are every day experiencing design judgment, sometimes as a powerful 'tool' that helps them do their job but sometimes as a way of working that is not understood and recognized by others as valid and respected. Design judgment needs more attention.


Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way-- Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. 2nd Edition, The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA.

Friday, January 10, 2020

How designers learn

Donald Schon writes in his last book ("Frame Reflection" see ref below) about the process with which designers learn from experience and about how knowledge aimed at supporting designers are produced.

He makes the case that one commonly accepted way of developing knowledge is to develop what he calls "covering laws", that is, externally valid propositions, "propositions that are probably true of all the instances to which they are applicable in principle." However, he states that one problem with this kind of knowledge when it comes to design is that it tends to "fail in practice because other things are never entirely equal in all relevant aspects". Design situations are always unique. He also states that "covering laws" that do seem to prove relatively useful commonly turn out to be trivial and not improving practical wisdom.

On the other hand "situation-specific, case-based studies of practice,...., tend to be dismissed by critics of normal social science persuasion because they do not produce externally valid generalizations." So, what is left? what kind of knowledge production actually works for the support of designers?

Schon's answer is that designers "do learn from their own past experience and from their vicarious experience of other people's practice". And that they do, in fact, generalize from these experiences. But their experiences are not "covering laws". Instead, their mode of generalization is what Schon calls "reflective transfer". With this concept, he means the "process by which patterns detected in one situation are carried over as projective models to other situations where they are used to generate new causal inferences and are subjected to new, situation-specific tests of internal validity".

This is a wonderful sentence. It is a sentence that explains why designers have to do design to learn and that the deepest form of learning requires practical experience. But it also means that in order to be able to carry over patterns as projective models, you need to be able to abstract thinking, to in some sense 'theorize" your experiences, which is why you also need tools that help you do this. Doing and thinking together.


Donald A. Schon & Martin Rein, 1994, Frame Reflection - towards the resolution of intractable policy controversies. Basic Books

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