Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all explaining what design thinking is, how important it is, how to do it, etc. Some are good. They present an understanding of designing that is ok, but in many cases they are quite simplistic, and surprisingly quite often based on the speakers personal experience of realizing the "power" of design as a new creative process to solve problems. The speaker have "seen the light", and the light is design thinking. Again, this is all well, we do need as many as possible to be introduced to a designerly way of thinking. The world needs design thinking.

But, it is not enough. Any approach used by humans to engage with the world in an intentional way, for producing knowledge (as the scientific process) or for producing art (as the artistic process) or for producing change (as the design process) has to be supported. The scientific process has for the last couple of centuries been develop within a larger culture that recognizes, enables, supports and advances it--the academic culture as manifested by universities. This academic culture has developed together, in parallel, with the scientific process. The two have over time influenced each other, and they have more or less had a common goal. The broader academic culture knows what a scientific process is and what it requires to be successful and it sees as its task to make that happen.

If we now look at design thinking instead of the scientific process, a very different picture emerges. Design thinking is in most cases not protected and supported by a broader culture such as the academic culture protects and support the scientific process. When I talk to professional designers in all kinds of industries this is one of the most frequent 'complaints' I hear. these professional designers are happy to be involved in design, but they do not feel understood and definitely not 'safe' or protected. Instead, I often hear them describe their reality having to 'defend', 'explain', and 'fight' for design as a suitable approach. They feel threatened and are always looking for ways to argue for what they do, even to the extent that they start to change the process to look more like processes that might already be recognized and appreciated within the culture where they work.

This is why design thinking (in all its varieties) is not enough. Any design approach needs to be situated within a designerly culture that understands what design is, what is requires, and when it is appropriate (and not). Design thinking needs a surrounding culture that protects its strengths, uniqueness and core so it can perform and deliver what it promises. Companies that bring in design thinking as a quick fix, as a 'tool', as a 'method' will fail unless they engage in creating a broader designerly culture.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Why design judgment matters more than ever..

I was today made aware about an interesting text about complexity (thanks Abiel Tomás Parra Hernández for the pointer). The article has the title "Why this will be the Century of Complexity..." written by Kieran D. Kelly. The article is mostly aimed at the world of physics and how that discipline has and is changing in relation to the growing understanding of complex phenomena. To what extent the article correctly describes physics and its development is not something I can determine, but, the article makes some interesting observations that can be relevant to the philosophy and theory of designing.

In the article Kelly argues that complexity and chaos is something natural and something that we have to live with and that can't be reduced to traditional thinking based on some fundamental ideas of stability. Anyway, if this is interesting from a scientific perspective I don't know and for the purpose of my post, I don't care. Instead, what is interesting to me are some of the definitions that Kelly examines. For instance, he defines chaos as “adaptive instability” and as “unresolved internal adaptation to feedback, surfacing as turbulent diversity on the system level”. And he writes that "Natural Chaos is Incompressible Adaptive Diversity".

When I read these definitions they fit quite well into some advanced ideas about designing as a process of intentional change struggling with unpredictability. To try to intentionally design while dealing with "constantly changing feedback" in a context of emerging complex systems is an overwhelming task. And this is only on the side of designing that tries to understand the context and conditions within which the design is supposed to make a difference. We have a similar complexity on the side of intentionality, or desiderata, that is, on the side of the purpose and goal of a design. What all involved want or desire from a design is equally influenced by complexity, feedback and emergence.

So, is intentional design even possible? Of course it is, we see examples of wonderful intentional designs in the most complex contexts and conditions. But we also see a lot of examples of failed designs. Designing is not easy. It demands a designerly mind that is able to understand how to approach and deal with the complexity and richness of reality through the use of design wisdom and design judgment. It will never be possible to fully examine and understand reality for designerly purposes in a way that reduces the need for a designerly judgment. A designer judgment is needed to cut through the overwhelming but insufficient information about the reality that we can produce with all our approaches and methods. A designer judgment is need to find out what the desiderata is, that is, what is the desire and purpose with a design. Desiderata is not a consequence of reality, of any complex and emergent contexts, or deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of reality. Desiderata can only be established by designers in conspiracy with all stakeholders based on their desires, wants and needs. Ok, enough for now...

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces"

I am at the moment, together with my PhD student Jordan Beck, working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces".

I would like to teach a course that captures the breadth and diversity in the way interfaces are manifested today. It would include a lot of capturing, collecting and curating. It would lead to categorizations, clusterings, and types. I imagine it as a quite exciting course for undergraduate students primarily with the purpose to challenge their perceived ideas about what interfaces are, can be and should be. I also imagine a graduate course on the same topic but with more theoretical ambitions (related to my new book "Things that keep us busy -- elements of interaction".

If you have ideas about a course like this, maybe already teach one or took one, or know good readings, I would love to hear from you. My email is

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How (not) to improve design practice

One of my intellectual hero's is Donald Schön. I have sine the mid 1980s been impressed and inspired by his writings on design. His theoretical framework is broad in scope, deep in detail and ambitious and by most today overlooked. Of course, Schön is one of the most cited design thinkers but his ideas has been reduced and are usually referred to only be about "reflection". Schön's work is much more than that.

Anyway, to those to engage in trying to produce new methods and tools that can support design practice, there is a wonderful quote from Schön that is worth 'reflecting' upon.

(You have to exchange 'policy academics' with 'design academics' in this quote.)

"If policy academics want to build a better understanding of policy practice in a way useful to practitioners as well as appropriately rigorous, then they must not bypass the research in which practitioners are already engaged. If they disregard what practitioners already know or are already trying to discover, they are unlikely either to grasp what is really going on or to succeed in getting practitioners to listen to them." (Schön & Rein, "Frame Reflection", 1994, p.193.)

Way too often we can observe attempt from academia to improve design practice that is not grounded in any serious understanding of practice. What Schön is arguing for is what I have in other places called "rationality resonance", which is a concept that captures the ideal situation when the rationality underlying an 'improver's' suggested change resonates with the 'improved' practitioners own rationality. When this is not in place, the noble attempt to improve design practice ends up either being neglected or destroying the very nature of design practice.

So, go back, read Schön's books. They constitute an extraordinary source of design wisdom.