Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Design Thinking: Reflections on an Unconference

August 21st, 2011

Reflections on the Language and Process of Design Thinking

From August 19-20th, dozens of design-oriented people from different backgrounds came together in Vancouver to meet and discuss the concept of design thinking: its meaning, its application, and its future. These are some reflections on what I took away from the two day event. 

Design thinking is becoming a hot topic — or term — and while there are those who argue that it has jumped the shark (i.e., outshone its utility and over-reached — see Bruce Nussbaum’s thoughts on this) the past two days showed how clearly this is not the case.

A cluster of passionate people from various worlds of design, architecture, education, business consulting and even public health came together to listen to examples of how design thinking is being applied and conceived of (day 1) and work through the issues in small discussion through an unconference (day 2).

Throughout the two days a few patterns emerged from the Design Thinking Unconference 2011, which I will summarize here.

1. The language of design thinking is ripe for evolution. Bruce Nussbaum aside, there has been much written on the concern with the term “design thinking”, most notably that it focuses on thought and cognition and not action, which is what design is also about. Rather than re-ignite this discussion, a more interesting turn was initiated by Sudhir Desai, an innovation strategist based in Cambridge, MA, who noted the problem of using terms that were intended for something else to mean what we mean with design thinking. Quoting the work of Management scholar and pracititioner Dave Snowden (of Cognitive Edge):

We cannot use the same words to describe our solution with those used to define the problem

Through his brief presentation on Friday and the unconference session he convened Saturday, Sudhir succeeded in inspiring dialogue on whether we need a new term altogether — something that might not even be one that we know of at present. Terms like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ were thrown out, but they met with criticisms and a sense of dissatisfaction. No viable term was proposed, but the seeds for a contemplative discussion on what that should be, whether we need one, and what the challenges of language are for design thinkers was made clear.

2. Design thinking and design tools are not the same thing. Another strong theme was a railing against the popular held notion that design thinking is all about what it does. This is another twist on the argument about design + thinking, but one that instead focuses on the way of approaching problems, not just the tools to solve them. Although there was much interest in tools and strategies, there was also agreement that design thinking is about practice, a way of approaching problems, and manners by which tools and strategies bring them together as a whole, not as a series of parts.

Which brings me to the next point…

3. Design thinking is (very often) systems thinking. This is something I noted even if it wasn’t made as prominently explicit among the discussions. Design thinkers might be one of the best groups I’ve been associated with at systems thinking; that is part of what they do. Whether it was something about this group or something about the discussions that took place, there was a real, palpable sense of looking to the past, the present and future of any design project and exploring the wider system of where design takes place. On Friday, Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver urbanist and author (PDF), took a group out on a walking tour of the city to show how the landscape was changed and transformed over time through a series of successive steps and interconnected actors and policies. This way of seeing Vancouver permeated through the ways in which the attendees saw their issues as part of systems, not just isolated activities.

4. Context is everything/designers have to be excellent listeners. The resistance to the idea that there is a recipe — something that many attendees voiced wanting to get at the start of the two-day event — for design thinking was made visible and loud. Context counts more than almost anything else and designers cannot succeed with cookbook strategies to generate solutions to design problems. Context, context, context was plastered all over the place during the summary session yesterday after the unconference.

At the same time, there was a quieter, but equally powerful push for designers to be good — indeed great — listeners.

The need for design thinkers to engage in deep, contemplative listening was something that permeated a lot of the sessions at the unconference that I was a part of (and not necessarily because I brought it up). The challenges and ironies associated with deeper listening were also noted as many noted that there is such a push, particularly for those working in corporate environments, to do more and do it faster instead of slow down and think. To this end, I am reminded of the work of Ezio Manzini and his push towards a culture of slow in support of sustainable social innovation and the work of the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society who work to promote mindfulness in academia and education.

As we wish to speed innovation, sometimes slowing down is the way to go faster.

5. Design thinking is best done visually. Visual communication — sketching, digital rendering, mock-ups, art in various forms — was presented repeatedly as a means of conveying the complexity of the information that is often generated from tackling the problems design is called on to address (see below). Thankfully, a room filled with creatives generated a lot of visual media to support ideation and synthesis. Sketching on notepads and craft paper, model building (literally, with fruit and food sometimes!), and graphical presentations featured prominently in the conference; not by design, but by necessity. Building on the points raised earlier, it was evident how challenging our current language is in describing design problems and situations. I’ve elaborated on this in previous posts, but these two days only served to strengthen my conviction that we need more creative means of expression introduced into our work and people who can render ideas in visual forms on our teams.

6. Design thinking is wicked. The conference began with a discussion of the wicked problems that designers are frequently employed to tackle and over two days it was obvious that not only are the problems wicked, so too are the design thinkers involved in those problems. By wicked the reference is to a set of conditions that are unstable, non-directional, dynamic, context-sensitive, and in need of diverse, coordinated, flexible responses. This is design thinking to a tee.

To paraphrase the great Winston Churchill:

This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Much more will come in the months ahead and the networks forged and extended because of this event, for which I am grateful for the opportunity to attend, will advance and so too will the ideas for what is design thinking.  For readers interested in engaging in this discussion and learning more, check out the Design Thinking LinkedIn group that is the hub and the source for this entire two-day event.


Filed under: design thinking Tagged: complexity, design thinking, innovation, language, unconference, Vancouver, wicked problems

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Categories: complexity, design thinking, innovation, Language, unconference, Vancouver, wicked problems

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