Monday, May 15, 2017

"..matters which no lips of man could teach"

One of the most frequent questions and comments I hear in relation to the notion of 'Design Thinking' is actually not about design, instead it is about the word 'thinking'. "If design thinking is such an efficient approach to change why is it only about thinking?" This is a very good question and in many cases a question that leads to highly uncomfortable answers.

In our book, The Design Way, we argue that designing is about the hand and the mind, about thought and action. We do this by introducing the old greek notion of sophia as a form of knowledge that combines the hand and the mind. Or as we call it "the knowing hand".

This idea that as an excellent designer of any kind you need both your mind (theory) and your hand (practical skills) is not new. For instance, in one of the first books on design, Vitruvius wrote: "Pytheos made a mistake by not observing that the arts are each composed of two things, the actual work and the theory of it." (Vitruvius, P 11). In the following pages Vitruvius makes a strong case that any architect [or designer] needs to be trained and skilled in both theory and practice.

Christoffer Frayling makes a similar comment in his book "On craftmanship". In one of the chapters, he elaborates on the need for students to have practical hands-on experiences complementing their education. He refers to John Ruskin who wrote: "Let a man once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick  level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters that no lips of man could teach him." (Frayling, p 84)

Of course, Donald Schön made the same argument over and over in his writings (heavily inspired by the ideas of John Dewey). One of my favorite texts on this topic is to be found in Dewey's book "How we think". In the chapter on Judgment, Dewey makes an extraordinary case for how to develop once judgment ability. One core argument is the need for repeating encounters with situations of different kinds, that is, the particulars of each practical situation teaches us more than any theory without action can.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where the 'split of sophia' is still alive, where the hand (practical knowledge) is separated from the mind (theoretical knowledge). The proponents for each of these tend to look down on the other. It is as common to see statements that denigrate any form of theoretical or philosophical knowledge as to see statements that look down on practical knowledge and skills.

When it comes to designing, this type of division is completely out of place. Designers need to have a deep understanding of the theory, principles and philosophy that guides their own work and how it relates to more universal ideas and philosophies, while at the same time have sophisticated training in the concrete skills, materials, techniques, and procedures needed in their field. And of course, neither of these two is enough in itself, it is only when they are combined into a whole, when 'sophia' is reconstituted that they create the knowledge foundation that can lead to excellent designs.

This means that 'design thinking' is not only about thinking. It is about doing design. And doing includes both the hand and mind. I mentioned above that this is a conclusion that is in many cases highly uncomfortable since it means that those who are drawn to the thinking aspects of design has to accept that no design is a result of pure thinking. At the same time, those who love to do design, has to accept that excellent design is a result of their actions being inspired and informed by thinking. So, go think and do.


Dewey, John. (1991, originally 1910). How We Think. Prometheus Books.

Frayling, Christoffer. (2012. On Craftmanship--towards a new Bauhaus. Oberon Masters.

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

Vitruvius. “Ten Books on Architecture" Chapter 1. ( the whole book is here

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