Monday, July 18, 2011

The Death of Design Thinking...

Lately there have been some writers arguing that "design thinking" is over, maybe even dead. For instance, Bruce Nussbaum recently wrote "The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ". Helen Walters discusses this position in her column and makes some interesting observations. As someone who has been dealing with design theory for about 30 years, it is both amusing and sad to see the way the question of the status of design thinking is being approached. The intellectual development around design as a special human approach to inquiry and action has been around much longer than the "last decade" and is a deep and  profound attempt to understand a particular kind of human activity that for a long time was not appropriately understood.

Looking back through history it is obvious that some human approaches, such as art and science, have attracted centuries of intellectual interest. People have tried to grasp what they are, what their purpose is, what they can deliver, what they can't deliver, when they are appropriate, and how they relate to each other. To me "design" is a human approach to intentional change at the same level of importance and stature as art and science.

Over the last 40 years we have come a long way in developing an understanding of design as an approach in its own right. But it is still a new project and we are only taking the first steps. There are serious questions still to explore, for instance, why was design not recognized as an approach worthy of intellectual investigation until recently? What are some of the best ways to define design, how can it best be taught, what are the philosophical foundations best suited to explain design, how does design relate to art and science, etc?

It is however not, as many state, difficult to define design. At least, it is not more difficult than defining what science or art is. As we all know, there is no precise and generally agreed upon definition of either of them, but that does not really make anyone argue that neither of them exist or that it is not important to continue to study them, trying to understand them, and of course to improve them.

However, if we take on a highly simplistic view of design--if we see it as a management "tool", a straightforward recipe to reach innovative new products, or a way of "thinking" that will drastically improve  our capacities in certain ways-- then it will of course lead to failure. But if we see design as an always present human approach aimed at the creation of the not-yet-existing then the challenge and its potential contribution becomes different in size and scope.

In the last 30 years there have been a tremendous change in the understanding of design. We have seen educations, professions, and ideas of competence change. There is a slowly growing understanding of design that has real consequences in real human activities and projects. These consequences can of course be seen as a result of a "fad" that will soon go away and be replaced by something else  (like Nussbaum's attempt to launch CQ). But this is not what is going on. What we are witnessing is a broad and deep, but slow, recognition of the fact that there is a form of human approach to intentional change that is not appropriately captured by our more developed traditions. And as humans, we need to find ways to talk about what that is. We need a language and we can't just borrow that from other traditions.  Design is not a form of art, not a form of science, and not a form of management. Design is not applied art, not applied science, and not the same as business practice. It is not the same as invention or creativity in general. Design is not a simple change in practical step-by-step procedures or the use of particular tools. Design is the activity we humans engage in when we are not satisfied with our reality and we decide to intentionally change it. It is an approach that deals with overwhelming complexity, that rely on judgment as its logic, and that is focused on the creation of the ultimate particular.

Design as an approach or as a form of "thinking" is not dead. At the same time, it is not yet  alive as a fully developed intellectual and philosophical tradition. A lot of people are doing a great job today trying to develop such an understanding, but it will probably take another century to reach a situation where design as an approach is recognized at the same level and in the same intellectual and intuitive sense as art and science.


Prof M P Ranjan said...


Design Thinking and action have been the very basis of human development from the time fire was "Designed" about 2 million years ago and these have been followed by each new step that has opened up further avenues for the unfolding journey. We will need to rewrite the history of technology and science by placing design thought and action at the forefront of all the key strategic changes that were wrought by thinking and feeling risk taking individuals who paved a way forward for the rest to follow through imitation and then standardisation.

hayduke said...


Nice article. I once read design described as "combining two or more disparate elements into a new, cohesive whole". As Prof Ranjan mentioned "Wood + Heat = Fire".

Design happens in my life everyday whether I'm folding my laundry, cooking at work or setting my Fantasy Baseball line up.

It's a basic human trait.

Fil Salustri said...

Eric, good article!

I agree; I believe everyone designs - not everyone knows their designing, though, and through training one can improve one's design ability.

Fil Salustri said...

Argh! I meant "they're designing" not "their designing."

Hard to believe English is my first language....

Dave said...

Reading the commentators here, I get the feeling that they are saying Design = creativity. Fire was not designed. Fire was discovered. It's control was then maintained through that discovery. There is no design here. It is logical experimentation and discovery.

Design is the intentionality of planned serendipity. It is the engagement of visualizing possible futures and analyzing or judging as Eric states from experience and not from analytics. That experience is a shared philosophical critique which is passed down from generations like storytelling, ever evolving, but holding onto a core. It is reflexive to its holistic environment and incorporates other knowledge systems as they too grow.

Design Thinking is a marketing tool to allow designers to sit at a table they have always had a right to. It is a way of speaking both within the culture of design and of business just like Lean or Agile UX is doing the same between designers and developers.

But no one has said that "design" is dead or dying, but design thinking and I could live w/ that and w/ user experience for that matter.

Erik Stolterman said...

Thank you all for your comments. I have realized that there are several other writers who have written similar texts on the "death" of design thinking, especially David Sless and Wolfgang Jonas, I should have linked them.


Stella said...

Dear Erik,

thanks for your nice article,
could you perhaps link them here still, Sless and Jonas? I would like to perhaps cite them if I can and I don't know which ones you mean, exactly.

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