Friday, May 20, 2011

BOOK COMMENT: NIgel Cross "Design Thinking"

Nigel Cross has for a long time been one of the most prominent researchers of design. He has a background as an architect and industrial designer but has mostly been doing research on and about design. His notion "designerly knowing" has had a great impact and influenced many design thinkers. He has also been instrumental in fostering international design research institutions, such as the DRS. He is also the Editor in Chief of the influential journal "Design Studies".

His new book "Design Thinking" is just out, ironically at the same time as Bruce Nussbaum has claimed that design thinking is dead. Over the last few years there has been an enormous interest in "design thinking" especially in some parts of the business and management community. Design thinking has been seen as an approach to innovation that can radically change business as usual and that can transform organizations to be able to act and respond quickly to new demands and challenges in a creative and designerly way. As always when an approach gets this kind of attention it also rather quickly becomes a fad, it loses it richness. Many over-simplified interpretations are spread by those who see the new approach more as a business or consulting opportunity than a substantial new philosophically sound and knowledge-based approach. Anyway, the people and especially researchers who for many years have studied design as a distinct approach for thinking and action are of course still working and producing new insights and knowledge that are far from being simplistic or a fad.

In this new book Cross is bringing together a lot of the existing research, solid research, that has been done on how designers think and act. This research is not just individuals reflecting on design based on their own subjective experiences but produced by people who have conducted serious studies of designers in interview studies, experiments, case studies, observations, etc. Cross goes through a lot of this research and shows how the findings from many of them have led to similar results and can be seen as providing the base for a more overall comprehensive and coherent understanding of design. 

The book is an excellent summary of good design research in the field. And Cross does a good job in identifying some common patterns from the individual studies he draws upon. The book is highly valuable for anyone who is interested in design thinking and who wants to know more than just some over simplistic journalistic versions found in popular business settings and in magazines. Cross also provides a good source of references to the actual research he references.

At the same time I have some problems with the book. These problems do not at all reduce the value of the book for what it is, but should probably more be seen as a wishlist from me for what it could also be.

My issues about the book comes from the perspective of someone who has a very similar understanding of design as Cross and is also doing research on the nature of design. To me, the book is unfortunately very short and each aspect of design thinking is treated briefly and not in the rich and developed way that I think is needed for it to leave a substantial contribution to the field. To me the book does not really provide any new theoretical or conceptual understandings of design that extends the sources that Cross uses. The conceptual structure of the book and the writing is also more textbook like than offering any conceptual or theoretical framework of how to understand design. This also means that there is nor really any argumentation going on in the book where opposing views and interpretations of design is examined. The text becomes quite neutral and reporting. Even though the book must be seen as primarily reporting on empirical studies of design thinking, I do miss references to more theoretical and compositional attempts to understand design thinking, such as the fairly recent books by Krippendorff, Dorst and Lawson, Nelson and Stolterman, and others.

However, even with these critical comments I am really happy that this book is out. This is one of the first books that takes on design thinking based on research knowledge and studies (even if this is to some extent also done in Lawson & Dorst). This focus on empirical studies of design sets the book apart from many other similar books that to a higher extent try to promote or sell design thinking as a (simple) approach to innovation and change built on an over simplistic understanding of design thinking. Cross shows clearly that design thinking, and to act in a designerly way, is a highly complex process that has it own rich logic and rationality that requires training and a developed understanding of the design process itself. Design thinking is not an approach that anyone can just decide to pick and use, it is not a simple prescriptive program for innovative thinking. Instead it is a complex and rich approach that requires theoretical and reflective thinking and also intense practice and training of skills and competencies. Designerly thinking is as specific, particular, and demanding as scientific thinking and Cross shows some of that complexity and richness in the book.

I think anyone who is engaged in design of any kind should read this book. The book will help us all to make a good argument when design thinking is challenged and questioned or even stated as being "dead".

6 comments:

Nigel Cross said...

Hi Erik,
Thanks for the review - it's very fair. I agree that it doesn't really extend the field: the publishers asked for a short book for an audience of undergraduate design students. So it's a summarising of what I have learned about 'how designers think' from this fascinating area of design research, presented (I hope) in an accessible way. Best wishes, Nigel.

jey said...

nice book review

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Anonymous said...

hi
thanks for this review...
I also wrote a critique of design thinking in a draft paper on

Embodied & artful design
for a creative and sustainable inter-practicing
in organisations and leadership

PAPER FOR
“Rethinking Paths on Creativity and Sustainability”
ARTEM Organizational Creativity international Conference, Nancy 2015


Wendelin Küpers

Following a phenomenological approach, this contribution discusses possibilities of an embodied and artful design in relation to sustainable practices. In contrast or supplementing to design-thinking, and by following Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, design of sustainable practices are seen as a situated, emergent process of bodily beings and dynamic, material, social and systemic embodiments (materio~socio~cultural) in which practices are inter-relationally and meaningfully enmeshed. Furthermore, embodied design of and in (sustainable) organisations is interpreted as artful process of a creative inter-practice. Finally, some practical, political, theoretical and methodological implications will be discussed.

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