Three schools of thought about designing

Yesterday in my class I was asked by a student if there are any major schools of thought when it comes to design, in particular, how to understand designing (that is as a human activity and process). I really liked the question. I did answer the best I could right there, but since it was not something I have really thought about, it was just a tentative answer. I said that there are at the moment three major schools of thought when it comes to designing.

The first school of thought is very close to what I teach in my class, it is based on a broad understanding of design as an activity that is defined by such thinkers as Schon, Rittel, Cross, Krippendorf, Nelson & Stolterman, etc. It is a school of thought that sees designing as an open, complex and highly non-linear process determined by the particular situation and governed by the designer's judgment.

The second school of thought seems to see designing as a process that is in need of more structure and explicit rationality, as a process that is in need of being 'formalized' and maybe even 'scientized'. Attempts to achieve this can be found in almost every design field and is quite common among design researchers who see as their task to improve designing by increasing its predictability usually by becoming less dependent on the designer's judgment.

The third school of thought is what is today commonly called 'design thinking'. It is mostly found in the business world and in academic fields that has no tradition of design. Design thinking is in many ways a highly simplified version of the first school of thought mentioned above (with some aspects of the second school). It has reduced designing to a simplistic process consisting of some phases with attached tools or techniques. Design thinking usually portrays designing as a process where the steps and phases and its iterative nature in combination with some very simple 'tools' is the core, while the designers judgment is not seen as crucial. Usually this school advocates for crash courses or workshops as a way of mastering designing. This school of thought has been highly successful in making designing popular in the business world and in academia. It has raised the awareness of design as its own tradition, however, in many cases by promising too much and delivering too little.

Ok, so this is the answer I gave the student in my class. I have not really thought more about it. It is obvious though, that these schools of thought only relate to a specific aspect of design, that of design as a process, as designing. But even so, I think it is something that would be really exciting to develop more. It would be a great help to all of us to are navigating the world of design theory. Maybe something that could lead to another book!

Comments

Gilbert Cockton said…
Is the third school a hybrid of the other two? More realistic than the second, but still playing to its insecurities. The first school is the wrong side of the line for many rationalists.
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Gilbert,
You may be right about that. Maybe the third draws from both the others, but I think it 'pretends' to be more in line with the first one.
Erik
Stefan Holmlid said…
Feels like a good distinction between the three. Simple, yes. Possible to develop, yes. From my point of view "design thinking" has come in many forms throughout the last half century; now the use has certain characteristics that it hadn't in the 80's and 90's. Sometimes, I'm trying out the thought that design thinking in today's sense plays the same role as design methods did in the 60's and 70's. I guess we will know in the future, when (design) historians compare terms.
For students that need or would like to dive deeper into design thinking from the (design) management perspective, a good starting point is the paper Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures by Ulla Johansson-Sköldberg, Jill Woodilla, Mehves Çetinkaya.
All the best
Stefan
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Stefan,
Thanks for your comments. I really like the comment about the history, I agree that sometimes we cannot see what is around us until we have enough distance to it, time or otherwise. Thanks for the ref.
Erik
Anonymous said…
Hi Erik- more and more we see data and hypothesis driven design combined with lean entrepreneurial tactics in the business world which is taking the designers judgement out of the equation and morphing the role into that of an orchestrator and prototyper. Design thinking was really all about intoducing human centered thinking but in order to resonate with the business world it had to get codified in an understandable language or as you say "reduced" to a set of tools and techniques.

What was the original question the student asked? Would be great to have a book on the amalgamation of wave 2 and wave 3 which discusses the evolution of design theory as everything and every business around us becomes more design aware/adept.
Gary Dickson said…
I had a very similar conversation with one of my students last week. I pointed him towards a section in Dan Saffer's book "Designing for Interaction" where Saffer outlines "Four Approaches to Interaction Design." Saffer discusses these four approaches as — User-Centered, Activity-Centered, Systems Design and Genius Design. These seem much less philosophical than yours and perhaps less interesting. Your ideas seem to be much more inward looking while Saffer's are more outward looking. I like both views but I wonder how they compare and whether or not they are really talking about the same thing.
Mark said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Notess said…
What about Design as Art (not in your list but in your previous post--in this school the designer matters greatly but the situation less so), Design as Engineering (your #2), Design as Creativity (#3, sort of), and Design as Design (#1)?
A late follow-up on Stefans suggestion, Lucy Kimbell has also written a very thorough (design historians perspective) article on the different strands of design thinking, or thinking about design.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285–306.

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