The characteristics of design thinking
Design thinking is rhetorical and exploratory
- The lesson that we have to learn from this example, I believe, is that design thinking is rhetorical. By this, I mean that design is persuasive. You, like me, have probably experienced this for yourself.
- For example, you go shopping in your town, looking for a sensible, modest product, and come away with something that is impractical but beautiful! Perhaps the most famous example worldwide was the design of the Sony Walkman – a product launched in 1979. It was a ‘tape recorder’ that didn’t record! What it DID do was create the phenomenon of personal music players that we take for granted today in the form of MP3 players, etc. Sony couldn’t base the Walkman on market demands because people didn’t realise they wanted it until they saw it or experienced it.
Design thinking is emergent
- The vagueness, or slipperiness of the relationship between problem and solution in designing is also conveyed in the comment of the furniture designer Geoffrey Harcourt, discussing how one of his particular designs emerged "As a matter of fact, the solution that I came up with wasn’t a solution to the problem at all. […] But when the chair was actually put together, in a way it solved the problem quite well, but from a completely different point of view."(Harcourt, 2006)
- Harcourt’s comment implies that design thinking is emergent – features that may be considered as valuable to the maker of a sketch or design model (or the viewer for that matter) emerge as vague ideas for resolving a design problem. They can be recognised as having properties that suggest how the developing solution might be matched to the developing problem. In design, the solution and the problem develop together. The ill-defined nature of design problems means that they cannot be solved simply by collecting and synthesising information, as the architect Richard MacCormac has observed I don’t think you can design anything just by absorbing information and then hoping to synthesise it into a solution. What you need to know about the problem only becomes apparent as you’re trying to solve it.(MacCormac, 1976)
Design thinking is intuitive and abductive
- Given the apparently ad hoc and often surprising nature of creative design activity, it is not unusual for designers, when talking about design thinking, to refer to the role of intuition in their reasoning processes. For instance, the engineering product designer Jack Howe has commented "I believe in intuition. I think that’s the difference between a designer and an engineer … I make a distinction between engineers and engineering designers … An engineering designer is just as creative as any other sort of designer." (Howe, 1995)
- This emphasis on ‘intuition’ is, perhaps, a bit surprising, coming from someone with a reputation for rather severe, rational design work. But I think that the concept of intuition is a convenient, shorthand word for what really happens in design thinking. The more useful concept that has been used by design researchers in explaining the reasoning processes of designers is that design thinking is abductive.
Design thinking is reflective
- The thinking processes of the designer seem to hinge around the relationship between internal mental processes and their external expression and representation in sketches. As the engineer–architect Santiago Calatrava has said
- "To start with you see the thing in your mind and it doesn’t exist on paper and then you start making simple sketches and organising things and then you start doing layer after layer … it is very much a dialogue.(Calatrava, 2005)
- Acknowledging the dialogue or ‘conversation’ that goes on between internal and external representations is part of the recognition that design thinking is reflective.The designer has to have some medium – which might be a sketch or a three-dimensional model – that enables half-formed ideas to be expressed and to be reflected upon; to be considered, revised, developed, rejected and returned to.
Design thinking is ambiguous and adventurous
- Given the complex nature of design thinking, therefore, it hardly seems surprising that the structural engineering designer Ted Happold should have suggested that "I really have, perhaps, one real talent; which is that I don’t mind at all living in the area of total uncertainty. (Happold, 2007)
- Happold certainly needed this talent. He has been a leading member of the structural design team for some of the most challenging buildings in the world, such as the Sydney Opera House (Figure 7) and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Design thinking is co-evolutionary
I’d like to add one further proposition to end this reading. Design thinking is also co-evolutionary. We may not understand a design problem without immersing ourselves in its exploration and development. That is to say, our ideas help us understand the problem our ideas seek to address! Conversely, we need to understand something of a design problem before we can bring our creative and systematic design thinking to bear. In short, the design problem and the design solution evolve together.