What is the buzz surrounding this thing called “design thinking”? Where has it come from and why should we care? All very good questions given that it is hard not to see a new publication or twitter post that does not mention it in some way or another. For many this is a familiar phrase while for others this may be the first they have heard of it. Either way, it should be something that all design educators consider as part of their teaching methodology so that our students are amply prepared to become the leaders of the next design revolution.

The past five years or so have brought about seismic shifts in the way that business is done both here in the U.S. and abroad. Old business models are no longer looked upon as ways of achieving innovation in the market place. Many of the leading companies such as Apple, Proctor & Gamble and Steelcase have achieved great success in these challenging times by incorporating the “tools” of design thinking. These companies have leveraged the ways of design: holistic thinking, collaboration, empathy, prototyping and user experience, (just to name a few) to build strong brand positions and product lines that continue to outperform the competition. But if we were to look at the curriculum of most design degrees we would hardly find any of these words. Why is that? Well, most design curriculums are built on the premise that the designer is an artist or craftsperson. This idea has lead to designers being looked upon as “other”, especially when it comes to our relationship to business. Instead of designing the business model/direction, the designer is usually asked to style it.

How we, as educators of future designers, think about our curriculum, will directly impact this trend. We can continue to teach style or we can teach the redefinition of problems. The opportunity is before us; let us reconceive our definitions of design.

Two years ago I began an investigation into a direction that I felt the discipline of graphic design was heading. I had read Daniel Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” and was intrigued by the idea that designers will be the leaders of the next generation. Mr. Pink’s premise was that the designer skill set which included story-telling, empathy, value through meaning, to name a few, were the skills needed for the next generation of business leaders. He stated that jobs that could be automated, such as computer programming, would soon lose their position as highly regarded jobs because of the fact that a computer can now write code at a speed of over 400 lines per second instead of 400 lines per day as their human counterpart can.

This led me to question what I was teaching on both the graduate and undergraduate level. Having come to teaching by way of practice, my goals were always wrapped up in the idea of pragmatism. How could I teach my students actionable skills that they could then own and bring to the marketplace? Most of these skills were based on the basic premise of “correct”1 formal outcomes that were based on strong conceptual positions. This concept of design and design pedagogy seemed increasingly outdated to me. I had colleagues who where quite interested in other ideas where designers needed to be moving: some were interested in postmodern ideologies such as authorship, while others were interested in the designer as social advocate, while still others were interested in the area of sustainable practices. Depending on the course, I had worked all of these theoretical constructs into my courses along with my “modern” tendencies. But there had to be something else!?

What I was really interested in was defining what would be the skills necessary for my students to thrive in the industry five, ten years from now. I became increasingly dissatisfied with the skills that I was taught and continued to teach. I had always been interested in developing their intellect, but so did every other discipline on college campuses across the country. What I wanted to give them was something different, something much more forward thinking rather than relying on past design models. Concentrating solely on formal concerns seemed so limiting and continued to position the designer as an end-of-the-rung participant in the formulation of the strategic positioning. It seems to state that a designer is a problem solver, rather than a problem seeker. The industrial designer Frank Nuovo stated, “design in its simplest form is the activity of creating solutions”. If this is the case then how can designers move to the table where decisions are being made rather than placing a veneer on prescribed strategic decisions?

“Design is no longer a style attached to a project before it is handed off to
marketing.” — Tim Brown

Another thing that began to gnaw at me was the idea of the designer as ‘maker’. How is that I could propagate the idea that what you needed to learn was how to make more “stuff”?2 I was (am still am) constantly reading articles stating that at our present rate we will need five more planets if we do not find a way to curb our consumption/production/waste model. Designers, and the business of design, are certainly part of this problem and only sometimes creating solutions toward this pressing issue. This needed to change.

One of the things that became apparent to me was that I needed to reconceive my understanding of (graphic) design.3 My research took me to many places and one of the most striking definitions that I came across was the following from Victor Margolin that stated:

“Design is the conception and planning of the artificial, that broad domain of human
made products which includes: material objects, visual and verbal communications,
organized activities and services, and complex systems and environments for living,
working, playing, and learning.”

Here I found a definition that does not include an adherence to the aesthetic, rather an expansion of design as a discipline that can move through different “orders” consisting of objects, communications, activities and services and systems.4 As we move further away from objects, toward the third and the fourth order, the designed outcome becomes less artistic and speaks less to the formal qualities of design but instead toward a practice that is much more holistic. This view expands our understanding of design as well as our responsibilities. The designer that moves into these domains must be ready to represent their ideas, not only in form but also through research methodologies that can support final outcomes. Both Margolin and Buchanan state that a designer can work in all orders/areas within the framework of one project. A wonderful example of this is chronicled in the writing of Tony Golsby-Smith, “Fourth Order Design: A Practical Perspective”. Here Golsby-Smith not only speaks of fourth order design in theoretical terms but in practical terms showcasing case studies where the fourth order designer can and should practice in. By moving beyond the theoretical Golsby-Smith presents designers with the knowledge that these are areas in which they need to see their place and understand the changing landscape of design.5

Design Thinking
About this same time I began to see the words “design thinking” popping up everywhere in design literature. Designers were writing about it in books, journals, blogs, tweets… it seemed as if I could not go a day without bumping into this phrase. Now, whether you like the rhetoric or not, it cannot be denied that it is something that not only designers are interested in. Corporations and non-profits seem to be interested in design thinking as well. Roger Martin, in his book The Design of Business, states that in years to come, the most successful businesses will be those who can balance “analytical mastery” (or rational thinking) with “intuitive originality” to build a design thinking organization. This concept of merging the rational with the intuitive to represent “design thinking” is interesting, to say the least. One of the things that concerned me was how could designers be at the forefront of this movement. Well, if we can go back to Daniel Pink’s writing and analyze the make up of the needs of this new “R-Directed” economy you will notice that the attributes are attributes that designers possess in plentitude. Now I am not saying that we own these attributes exclusively but we do them well enough and own them to the point that Mr. Martin states, “Businesspeople do not need to understand designers better. They need to be designers”.

If Roger Martin is correct then why is it that so many of the design schools that are feeding the design industry today continue to be connected to art departments and not to liberal art schools6 or even business schools? Now some, like the D School at Stanford University have taken that step and stated, for the most part, design is too important to be left to designers.7 What is disconcerting to me is that if we do not understand the importance of design within our own ranks then how can we expect those outside the discipline to give us our just do? The expansion of the discourse of design to areas of society outside of art or form is something that we need to take hold of or someone else will take it for us. Other disciplines have waded into our “space” within the past five years claiming service or experience as their area of expertise. These have always been areas where graphic designers8 have worked only to be pushed aside in recent years for more specific disciplines. This is an area were the educational institutes and design educators need to understand the changing face of graphic design and continue to develop curriculum that will meet this changing demand.

Design thinking is rooted in a capacity to understand the world and our relationship to it, and within it, in a different way. It is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. It takes the discipline of graphic design out of the realm of surface into the realm of human-centered understanding; it relies less on the designer being told what his target audience needs to the designer truly understanding these needs through ethnographic research.

What does the “artful” designer know about people, beyond what the design brief states? It has been my observation that most of the young designers that I have been in charge of have no idea what research endeavors are. They believe by spending an hour or two on the Internet doing some key word searches that they will have all of the knowledge that they will need to design from. Or, I have seen in my travels, that practicing designers still rely quiet heavily on the focus group as a means of acquiring information about their target audience. I have to believe that it is not only the culture of the industry but also the culture of the educational institute that leads to this.

“Design thinking is a process that endeavours to solve problems and create new
possibilities, generally by relying on empathic research (studying people to try to
figure out what they need) combined with creative experimentation and extensive
prototyping and refinement—all aimed at the goal of producing better, more useful
objects, experiences, services, and systems. — Warren Berger

Daniel Pink states that those who are able to understand what makes their fellow human beings tick will prosper in the R-directed evolutionary stage. How are we preparing the designers of tomorrow to step away from their computers, into the world, to observe, first hand, how their concepts will work, or if they will work? In my classes over the past six years I have been introducing ethnography and other research methodologies that have expanded upon the usual Google search. My classes and I have been out in the field observing uses of communication and products; we have taken photographs and videos; used online surveys as well as one-on-one surveys; we have storyboarded our observations, mind-mapped, diagramed and prototyped. All of these have helped expand their research positions and knowledge and have lead to more successful strategies.9

“The intrinsically human-centered nature of design thinking points to the next step: we can use our empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation”. — Tim Brown

Design thinkers are most interested in “how could we, how might we,...?” This constant reframing of the question/brief is done not necessarily to come up with an “answer” but to posit what possibly could be true, i.e. abductive reasoning.10 Most professors teach the discipline of graphic design in a linear fashion, rather than stating the interconnectedness of all that goes into any one outcome of design. Because of this particular teaching methodology many students fail to see the interconnectedness of strategy to communication to type to packaging to sustainability, etc. And most tend to forget one discipline from one quarter to the next. If exercises or projects where presented in relationship to their larger context students may retain the knowledge since all knowledge can then be applied in each and every class.

Clearly this concept presents some difficulty. How does one teach the ideas of “system” as appose to “artifact”? The challenge that we all face is to connect our teaching to this bigger picture. By not only asking, “Why is hierarchy important?” or “Why is color choice important?” but “How do these details relate to the overall position of the [package, poster] so that it is fits into the context of the society it is to be viewed?” as well as, “How will these choices effect the environment in which the outcome is to live?” Whether it is the design of a book, the design of a brand strategy or the design of a new healthcare system, if it is not looked at holistically then the details will never really matter.

By teaching our students the concept of systems and providing them with the methodologies to research and conceive of the design outcomes beyond the notion of the artifact we will be giving them the tools to prepare themselves for the coming generations. Beyond that we will be positioning the discipline of (graphic) design to take on a greater role in society.

“The need for design has never been greater.” — David Butler 2009 AIGA National

1. Read Modernist ideas of form.
2. See the “Story of Stufff”, www.storyofstuff.com
3. The dictionary definition of design is as follows: 1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), esp. to plan the form and structure of; or 2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully.
4. Margolin is not the first person to expand his concept of design. J. Christopher Jones was one of the first to do so in his book Design Methods followed by Richard Buchanan in his writing “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”.
5. One of the more interesting things to note are the dates of most of this writing. The Golsby-Smith article was published in 1996.
6. Again see “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” and “Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture”.
7. This is my own hyperbole, not the D School’s.
8. One of the main issues that the discipline has is this moniker that, to me, places it at a disadvantage. The qualifier of “graphic” states that the work of the designer remains in the order of surface, or even worse, style.
9. Sorry, but I have not developed metrics for these finding to date, but will be looking for ways to quantify this position.
10. See Roger Martin’s book where he refers to Jennifer Riel’s writing entitled “Why you have never heard of Charles Sanders Peirce”

Brown, Tim. Change by Design. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Martin, Roger. The Design of Business. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009.
Neumeier, Marty. The Designful Company. California: New Riders, 2009.
Peters, Tom. Design (From the Essentials Series). New York: DK Publishing, Inc. 2005.
Pink, Daniel H.. A Whole New Mind. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.
Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.
Conversations with Paul Rand. Rhode Island: PMFilms LLC, 1995.