This literature critique examines the concept of design thinking as evidenced by the six pieces of literature listed below. My critique will highlight some of the key contradictions, tensions or discord in the pieces I have chosen. Furthermore, I will compare and contrast these highlights with real world design thinking.
Here are the pieces of literature I have chosen to examine:
- Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperCollins e-books.
- Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.
- Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.
- Kumar, V. (2012). 101 design methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. John Wiley & Sons.
- Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348.
- Seidel, V., & Fixson, S. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30, 19–33.
Design thinking is a classic example of semantic discord in the sense that while there are plenty of people talking about the concept of design thinking there’s no real consensus around what it actually means. Moreover, just as there are many different types of design there are many different flavours of design thinking with each design studio defining design thinking according to their own terms and executing initiatives that are appropriate to their own internal cultures.
Design thinking has evolved into a fragmented discipline without a common meaning, a common vocabulary and a common language. Since there’s no commonality when it comes to the concept of design thinking many design thinking practitioners have simply had to go it alone. They have taken the somewhat nebulous concept of design thinking, interpreted the concept in their own way, developed their own vision of what design thinking might look like, then implemented their own vision thereof.
Although there have been a number of people who have made a significant contribution to the concept of design thinking two people in particular deserve a special mention, namely Tim Brown and Roger Martin. For Brown, design thinking has gone beyond being a theory; it has become a way of life. Where once design thinking would have been characterised as a designer sitting alone in a studio and meditating upon the relation between form and function now design thinking has left the studio and is starting to permeate every part of our lives. Brown is the ultimate optimist when it comes to the potential benefits of design thinking. In his view design thinking has a role to play in addressing the big challenges we face today from pediatric obesity to crime prevention to climate change (Brown, 2009, p. 7).
For Martin (2009a, p. 5) design thinking is a dynamic interplay between analytical mastery and intuitive originality. He states that most companies have an obsessive reliance on efficiency and predictability and as such implicitly favour exploitation over exploration. Furthermore, “A person or organization instilled with the discipline of design thinking is constantly seeking a fruitful balance between reliability and validity, between art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation” (Martin, 2009a, pp. 61-62).
Although Brown and Martin have quite different approaches to design thinking one of the things they share is their belief in the power of integrative thinking. Brown (2009, p. 85) states that “design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity, ultimately, for integrative thinking”. Brown (2009, p. 85) posits that integrative thinkers “… resist the “either/or” in favor of the “both/and” and see nonlinear and multidirectional relationships as a source of inspiration, not contradiction”. Furthermore, Brown (2009, p. 229) writes that “Because design thinking balances the perspectives of users, technology and business, it is by its nature integrative”.
Martin (2009a, pp. 164-165) suggests that design thinking and integrative thinking have much in common. Integrative thinking as the metaskill of being able to face two (or more) opposing ideas or models and instead of choosing one versus the other, to generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a better model, which contains elements of each model but is superior to each (or all). Similarly, for Martin (2009a, p. 165), “Design thinking is the application of integrative thinking to the task of resolving the conflict between reliability and validity, between exploitation and exploration, and between analytical and intuitive thinking”.
Kimbell (2011, p. 133) reviews the origins of the term design thinking before going on to examine some of the claims made for design thinking. He emphasises the established dualisms that are inherent in design thinking including “… dualisms between subject/object, nature/culture and body/mind”.
On the other hand, some commentators are much less effusive about design thinking. Walters (2011) maintains that design thinking is nothing more than a tool that may be used to “… illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself”. Nussbaum (2011) describes design thinking as a failed experiment. In his view, the construction and framing of design thinking itself has become a key issue. He states that “Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process” (Nussbaum, 2011). However, the corporate world “… absorbed the process of design thinking all too well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation” (Nussbaum, 2011).
There are a range of key contradictions, tensions and discords resulting from a design thinking approach. According to Brown (2009, p. 176) one of the issues with design thinking is that of balancing “… management’s legitimate requirement for stability, efficiency, and predictability with the design thinker’s need for spontaneity, serendipity, and experimentation”. Similarly, Pariser (2011, loc. 462) argues that “the search for perfect relevance and the kind of serendipity that promotes creativity push in opposite directions”.
For innovation to occur we need to successfully integrate the two approaches so that they are held in perpetual tension. This tension between management and the designer is at the heart of the concept of conceiving spaces for learning. If either approach gains the upper hand then any learning space created will most likely be sterile, devoid of creativity and lacking in innovation. Siemens (2005) states that we need to design spaces for learning (or learning ecologies) that foster rich interaction between disparate fields of information, allowing growth and adaptation of ideas and concepts.
How might we create the right conditions for design thinking to occur? One of the ways we can do this is to provide the designer with “a well-constructed brief [that] will allow for serendipity, unpredictability, and the capricious whims of fate” (Brown, 2009, pp. 22-23). A design brief must be engineered for serendipity in the sense that it has just the right level of constraint so that the design thinker creating the learning space will hopefully come up with something that is truly innovative rather than something that is less than mediocre. In outlining his doctrine of placements, Buchanan (1992, p.13) states that designers will often describe “… the intuitive or serendipitous quality of their work”.
In design thinking there’s an inherent tension between reliability and validity. Martin (2009a, p. 4) outlines his concept of the knowledge funnel as being the “… route followed by successful business innovators in every domain”. He then states that “The challenge is how to balance the irresolvable tension between operating within the current knowledge stage and moving through the knowledge funnel” (2009a, p. 37). Another key contradiction in the literature is that some of the authors we have looked at have emphasised the value of multidisciplinary teamwork in the field of experience-focused innovation while others have been somewhat more guarded about the perceived value of such teamwork.
After analyzing some of the most innovative companies in the world, and studying hundreds of successful innovations, Kumar (2012) takes a structured approach to design thinking. He states (2012, Loc 422) that “Successful innovation can and should be planned and managed like any other organizational function”. He goes on to say that “Design-driven innovations start by understanding people, developing concepts, and then conceiving business around those concepts. Knowing when and where all these processes touch and interact is key to successful collaboration in organizations” (2012, Loc 422).
Kumar (2012, Loc 4726) states that “when multidisciplinary teams brainstorm, the outcome can be strongly influenced by the biases and preferences held by the different disciplines”. Similarly, Baldwin (2007, p. 27) states that “The most common challenges of collaborating revolve around cultural differences, finding common interests and goals, time, geographic constraints, and power differences present in the group”.
In a study of design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams Seidel & Fixson (2013) employed a case-based research approach to gather data about group task reflexivity across the two main phases of concept development, namely concept generation and concept evaluation. When they looked at the data they discovered that “… increased group task reflexivity … was associated with more successful outcomes during concept generation but during concept selection the opposite was true” (Seidel & Fixson, 2013, p. 20).
After looking at the data, Seidel & Fixson (2013, p. 29) formulate two proposals. Firstly, they propose that successful novice teams combine methods, such that it is not the quantity of brainstorming sessions, but their linkage to other methods that matter. Secondly, they propose that brainstorming can serve the purpose of socializing new members, especially within teams in which new members are added midway through concept development. Seidel & Fixson conclude by suggesting further directions for research into design thinking. In particular, they suggest that other research “… could focus on team composition among novice teams and how the use of one or more experts alters the application of methods and practices” (Seidel & Fixson, 2013, p. 31).
Razzouk & Shute (2012) examine the nature of design thinking which they describe as an iterative and interactive process. They also summarize the differences between novice and expert design thinkers. After reviewing the literature and creating a design thinking competency model the authors come to the conclusion that expert designers are solution focussed rather than problem focussed. Razzouk & Shute (2012, p. 343) posit that “… schools continue to focus on increasing students’ proficiency in traditional subjects … which leaves many students disengaged”. They go on to argue that “We can and should move beyond that limited focus and consider new educationally valuable skills (e.g., including design thinking, multitasking and digital literacy) to value, assess and support” (pp. 343-344).
Buchanan (1992, p. 6) explores the differences between the old and new liberal arts with the former being concerned with the facts of a subject matter whilst the latter are centred around the use of new disciplines of integrative thinking. He posits that design thinking is a new liberal art: one that has been “a significant factor in shaping human experience” (Buchanan, 1992, p. 8). He argues however that there have been problems “… between designers and members of the scientific community …” over “… the broader nature of design and its relation to the arts and sciences, industry and manufacturing, marketing and distribution …” (Buchanan, 1992, p. 8).
Buchanan (1992, p. 14) states that we need “… to reach a clearer understanding of design as an integrative discipline”. He argues that design thinkers “… are not drawn together because they share a common definition of design, a common methodology, a common philosophy, or even a common set of objects to which everyone agrees that the term “design” should be applied. They are drawn together because they share a mutual interest in a common theme: the conception and planning of the artificial”.
Kimbell (2011, p. 141) identifies three strands of design thinking with the first strand being design thinking as a cognitive style, the second strand being design thinking as a general theory of design and the third strand being design thinking as a resource for organisations. She argues that there has been too much of an emphasis on individual designers and their cognitive styles. She goes on to advocate for the need to “… shift the conversation away from questions of individual cognition or organizational innovation” (Kimbell, 2011, p. 20).
In particular, according to Kimbell (2011, p. 17), “… it remains important to explore how political, socio-cultural and economic developments have shaped design practice over time”. She states “… that accounts of design thinking often rest on a dualism that makes a distinction between “thinking” and “doing’ and between designers and the worlds they do design in, rather than acknowledging the situated, embodied work of design thinking in practice” (Kimbell, 2011, p. 6).
In 2011 and 2012 I was fortunate to be involved in several collaborative design projects. One of these projects involved teaming up with others who were geographically dispersed in order to work on redesigning the TAFESA’s “21C Tools for Educators and Trainers” course which was starting to look a bit dated. At the outset it all sounded so easy but it wasn’t long before some challenges arose.
Our team consisted of four professional educators who barely knew each other. We had two people in Melbourne including myself, another two in Adelaide (including a representative of the client) and our team leader in regional Victoria. Obviously, we were not going to be able to meet face-to-face because of the tyranny of distance. However, we needed to find some way of managing the project so that we were all included and could get the work done in a timely manner.
We had our first meeting online via Skype. Since this was our first meeting we didn’t really achieve much. We simply got to know each other a bit and discussed the learning technologies we would be using over the next couple of months in order to complete this project. In particular, as a group it was decided that we would use Moodle, Popplet, Dropbox and Smartsheet.
To facilitate team collaboration it was decided that we would have weekly online team meetings via Skype since we were all familiar with Skype. We briefly discussed possibly holding our meetings in a Google Hangout but in the end we decided to go with Skype simply because its just so easy to use.
Once we’d come up with a solution to the problem of communication we then discussed what technologies we might use to manage the project. Our team leader had worked on many similar projects and suggested we should look at using Smartsheet. At the time, I’d never even heard of it however after taking a look at the Smartsheet website I was pretty confident I’d be able to get my head around it in no time at all.
Our team leader already had a paid account with Smartsheet but she was adamant that we would be able to use it for this project. In particular, she told us that she would create a project and invite each team member to work with her on the project as a collaborators. In other words, being collaborators would allow us to view and edit the project for free. As well as that we would get automatically generated email updates and reminders.
Martin (2009a, pp. 119-120) states that “Rather than waiting until the outcome is just right, the client is exposed to a succession of prototypes that grow more right and more elegant with every iteration”. This has been my experience over the period of time during which I have done course design work. Getting back to the example of the collaborative project this is exactly what we did. We started to redesign the course in Moodle and invited the representative from the College to take a look as we reached various milestones. The College person would have an online meeting with our team leader who would then give that feedback to the team at our next team meeting.
In outlining his “Seven Modes of the Design Innovation Process” Kumar (2012, loc. 540) states that the team members build on each other’s concepts while carefully postponing critical evaluation. With regards to the College project outlined earlier this is exactly what happened. At the start, we had a couple of structured brainstorming sessions around the concept of bringing the course up to date both in terms of the content as well as the look and feel. Lots of ideas were put forward which were incorporated into a shared Google doc.
Guided by the judgement of the team leader, the team then made a decision as to which ideas were worth pursuing. We each went away and whoever was charged with implementing any new idea/s would do so before inviting the rest of the team to provide critical feedback. In discussing task conflict and relationship conflict Seidel & Fixson (2013, p. 22) state that “ … not only do teams face various kinds of conflict in first establishing a concept and the process to follow, there can also be debate about later changes”. In terms of the group dynamics of the team when I worked on the College project, we were very much a novice multidisciplinary team. At all times, I had to be mindful of the fact that I was working closely with several people I had never even met. In doing so, I had to learn to be flexible about the design process. I had to learn to not take it personally.
Baldwin, R. G. (2007). Collaborating to learn, learning to collaborate. Peer Review, 9(4), 27-30.
Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. HarperCollins e-books.
Brown, T. (2014). The power of engineered serendipity. Retrieved from http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140430125746-10842349-why-you-should-plan-for-serendipity.
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1511637.
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Ford, S. (2012, January 27). Reports of design thinking’s death were an exaggeration [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/1811688/reports-design-thinkings-death-were-exaggeration.
Hailes, M. (2012). Breaking barriers: Assessing the value of multidisciplinary teamwork for sustainable creative business. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Northumbria.
Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.
Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.
Kumar, V. (2012). 101 design methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. John Wiley & Sons.
Lee, A. (2014, May 23). The benefits of “healthy tension” [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.design-concepts.com/blog/the-benefits-of-healthy-tension
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Martin, R. (2009a). The design of business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage. Harvard Business Press.
Martin, R. (2009b). The opposable mind: Winning through integrative thinking. Harvard Business Press.
Nussbaum, B. (2011, April 5). Design thinking is a failed experiment. So what’s next? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663558/design-thinking-is-a-failed-experiment-so-whats-next
Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: What the internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin Books.
Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348.
Seidel, V., & Fixson, S. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30, 19–33.
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Walters, H. (2011, March 24). “Design thinking” isn’t a miracle cure, but here’s how it helps [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663480/design-thinking-isnt-a-miracle-cure-but-heres-how-it-helps
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