If there are wicked problems, there must also be good problems and also, perhaps, bad problems – those not quite so wicked. If there is such a thing as design thinking, there must also be other types of thinking. Is there a form of thinking that is used by designers that is different from other forms of thinking? Is it possible to design without thinking?
The phrase design thinking originally referred to a way of thinking about complex (wicked) problems – problems that are poorly defined and intertwined with solutions, a definition suggested by Horst Rittel, a mathematician, design theorist, and university professor at the Ulm School of Design in Germany in the 1960s. Such thinking is routinely used by expert designers, artists, and craftsman. However, in recent years, the phrase has been hijacked by the likes of IDEO and Stanford University’s design school (called d.school), to refer to a simple design process that can be easily taught to novices in a couple of days. Blogger Lee Vinsel compares the corporate spread of design thinking, somewhat inappropriately, to the spread of an infectious disease (syphilis), and suggests that design thinking as it is now taught in schools is just “design lite.” Natasha Jen, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, in her talk “Design Thinking is Bullshit,” complains that design thinking has become a meaningless buzzword and facetiously suggests that the complex process of design has been reduced to a single tool, the 3M Post-It note. She notes what is often missing, and in this I heartily agree, is critical thought.
Image and text from d.school
Design thinking now stands for a set of ideas completely different from the original intent. It now typically denotes a process involving collaboration, empathy, idea generation, and frequent failure. However, for the professional, the ability to think independently is a valuable asset. Empathy and human values are more a characteristic of a good designer than a step in a process. Simply generating as many solutions as possible lacks critical interaction and does not address the problem, it merely enlarges the solution space, sometimes unnecessarily. Success is the goal rather than failure. And the end result should be a solution to the problem, which does not necessarily have to be an innovation.
In the current parlance, design thinking has become a mindless and uncritical process, a commodity that can be used by anyone, not really thinking at all. Design thinking has been dumbed down to appeal to the masses. It is presented as a special new technique that has just been invented, a simple “methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.” The goal of this article is to recapture some intellectual ground. With current advances of artificial intelligence (AI), I believe real design thinking, as opposed to design without thinking, will become critically important.
Designers, scientists, and engineers all typically use a systematic approach for solving problems. Scientists, for example, use the scientific method. A comparison between the design process and the scientific method suggests that the methods are similar. The design process as a disciplined method is as valid as the scientific method and arguably, if followed, does produce good results. But it is a bit of a stretch to call this a special means of thinking.
A systematic approach, by definition, serves to minimize thinking. Thinking is required to select a hypothesis, to ideate, to figure out how to make prototypes, to devise a testing procedure, and to implement a solution but not so much to follow a recipe. You would not say a scientist following the scientific method was using scientific thinking. Nor would you consider someone following the scientific method necessarily to be thinking like a scientist. In a previous article (Zen and the Art of Design Thinking), I maintained that design thinking is related to doing – the type of thinking one engages in when making or repairing something. This, however, does not really define the mode of thinking taking place.
If design thinking is a unique form of thinking typically used by designers, it must be only one of a few different modes of thought that are possible and there must be a form of design that does not involve thinking. I will address both these possibilities in the remainder of this article.
Symbolic versus analogue thinking
There is an important distinction to be made between the way designers, in particular, and the way everyone else, typically, think about problems. I propose that design thinking is a form of thinking that utilizes analogy and metaphorical thought, and is one of two main modes of human thought. The other non-designer mode of thought I will call symbolic thinking. This is thinking, primarily through the use of language with direct signification through the use of meaningful symbols.
It is likely that metaphoric thinking came before symbolic thinking in our evolution and is a natural way to think. It is the thinking that occurs while dreaming. Communication regarding something new occurs by pointing out an analogy to something already understood. Design exploits this natural metaphoric thinking in order to discover new concepts that are beyond conventional experience, and conceives or constructs models that are a direct analogy to reality. More specifically, designers will often construct analogues such as sketches, models, and prototypes to describe and solve problems.
Symbolic thinking involves a combination of symbols – often words – that have agreed meanings. This form of thinking is fine for the solution of most problems and very efficient for transmitting information from one person to another. However, it is limiting when attempting to solve more complex or “wicked” problems. With symbolic thinking, symbols with previously agreed meanings are combined to consider options and to communicate. Metaphoric thinking is still required for new concepts or for ideas too subtle for the agreed upon symbology. Metaphoric thinking is found in all artistic works including even literary works composed of language symbols.
Language achieves meaning using a technique of successive approximation. “Red, convertible, compact automobile” creates a more specific image in the mind than just “automobile,” but the technique is limiting if trying to design a new automobile.
Draft sketch for Ferrari Dino Berlinetta competition
Torusuzuki at Italian Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)
Design thinking is thus the use of metaphor including analogy, models, and prototypes. Instead of using reason, consensus, and past experience to solve problems, designers construct an analogous reality that is more subtly expressed, accessible, and modifiable in order to better understand the problem and to experiment with alternative solutions. Symbolic thinking is used to decide between alternative design solutions and to present and prioritize ideas.
Human thought occurs with a string of associations, meaning through convention, metaphor, and analogy. Words appear to have unique meanings but really the meaning of each word changes subtly with context and a string of these meanings create an even more subtle inference that a computer program struggles to interpret. Symbolic thinking, or the use of language for thinking, results in an instant answer to a problem as it is based on an accepted meaning of the symbols. The use of language, which involves not only symbols with precisely denoted meanings, but also multiple connotations, can be used as a metaphorical means to represent reality in a more analogue way. There is thus a spectrum of possible thinking, from a purely symbolic (language without the use of metaphor) representation of reality, to direct analogue representations utilizing models and prototypes. In between is a metaphorical language that seeks a more particular and accurate representation. Design thinking is thinking metaphorically and analogously in order to solve a difficult and highly contextual problem. In my book Rationing Earth, I attempted to use a design thinking approach to solve the complex problems of the economy and the environment. In contrast, symbolic thinking attempts to solve particular problems with generalizations and conventional agreements. Thinking tends to involve black and white choices rather than more subtle shades of grey.
Design thinking involves a constant rehearsal of potential solutions within the mind by using analogue representations of a possible new reality. Analogue representations are more difficult to conceive of and manipulate than symbolic representations of reality but are direct and data efficient.
Design Thinking versus Artificial Intelligence
The basis of human consciousness is impulse. With consciousness, humans have the ability to make decisions quickly and act on the basis of very little or even no information. Design thinking is a direct impulse to act, to solve problems by imagining, by doing, by creating, and by testing. Computers do not really think but instead process information digitally. Digital approximations of reality require large amounts of data. The combination of thinking and a continuous impulse to action makes consciousness possible. Symbolic thinking with language and mathematical symbols maintains the advantages of a conscious mind – a continuous ability to shift direction and act decisively, but often with a sacrifice of originality leading to an acceptance of the conventional or the status quo.
Thinking involves a consciousness. So we can assume that computers, regardless of sophistication of programming, do not really think. Incredible advances have been made in AI. The defeat of the world champion Go player is a remarkable achievement. In order to accomplish this feat, however, the neural network had to be taught by viewing millions of games and then playing against itself for millions more. It would take a human brain several lifetimes to process this amount of information. So apparently, the brain is able to learn much more efficiently, and make decisions much more accurately, based on far less information available to it.
AI systems have a long way to go before achieving human-like intelligence (called Artificial General Intelligence or AGI). This is the ability to perform general intelligent action or the ability to think and experience consciousness. The current AI systems simply iterate endlessly, checking for solutions accurately and flawlessly. The advantage of human intelligence and perhaps the basis of consciousness is the ability to make decisions quickly based on almost no information.
Hack-Rod AI generated race car frame. Image courtesy of Autodesk
Artificial Intelligence can be creative. Autodesk claims that its software has been used to create the first AI engineered racing car. Hack Rod and Autodesk took data from sensors attached to a custom car that measured strains and stresses. That data was then fed into Dreamcatcher, which created a new body design, which improved the vehicle’s ability to withstand those stresses. However, it was a partnership of design thinking, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality that created the new design. Creativity is not limited to human intelligence but, so far, thinking is. Humans are required to decide what to make, how something should be made, and what technology should be used to aid in the design process.
For designers, I would like to place less emphasis on the worth of an iterative design process – “fail fast and iterate quickly.” The craft basis of design, in contrast to AI, suggests that there is a strong desire to succeed. Prototypes do fail and this is not a bad thing. Something is always learned and redesign always results in significant improvements. But multiple failure is not the goal as it is with evolutionary processes. Design thinking is used to narrow down the field and find the direction of success, not to iterate blindly. Artificial intelligence takes a random stab in the dark in a long process of elimination in order to eventually find the right solution. The algorithms of AI achieve success only with an inefficient process of trial and error. The inefficiency is hidden by a limitless capacity for memory and repetition.
The difference between design and design thinking
Design and making generally involve design thinking. However, systems of artificial intelligence can design without thinking by embarking on limitless iterations that gradually converge on an optimum solution. Design thinking is the mental process that occurs before doing and before making. In conventional usage the phrase design thinking is rarely applied to the design process. It is more frequently directed at problems not normally thought of as design problems.
The phrase design thinking is not really required to describe a design process. When one is designing, one is obviously thinking as well. Rather, the phrase is more useful to qualify a thinking process that is based, not on symbols with a limited number of conventional meanings, but on unlimited possibilities for analogue references. Metaphorical thought is further delineated by the phrase design thinking, by stipulating that the thought is critical in nature. The designer does not merely think in a dream-like way but actively evaluates potential solutions.
What is the difference between design and design thinking? The answer is that it is possible, using an AI approach, to design without thinking – design, using a purely iterative approach without much thought. The craftsman iterates; each completed version is an improvement over the last but by engaging intimately with the process in a critical way, the intention is to succeed not to fail. Design thinking is the attempt to anticipate failure and to make modifications and adjustments before something is made. It ensures that design is a skill based craft rather than an unintelligent process.
A good problem is one where there is an obvious choice of solutions. Thinking – using symbols or language – involves political debate and deciding which solution is best. A bad problem is one that cannot be easily solved because of a lack of consensus even though the solution is obvious. A bad problem in the world is that despite many obvious solutions, decisions are still not being made. Symbolic thinking stalls on wicked problems and sometimes turn good problems into bad problems. Opinions swirl on social media but nothing happens. Action is blocked by constant disagreement. Design thinking can help to shift debate, to look at the problem from a different angle, and to suggest a new solution.
There is a tendency to present design thinking as a linear process such as Stanford University's empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This deemphasizes the importance of the judgement and skill of the designer and puts too much faith in ideation and testing. The random generation of ideas in an ideation process prevents an informed evolution of understanding. In the following article, I suggest that design thinking is a basic thinking skill—unfortunately ignored in basic education—that everyone already has, and is a circular rather than a linear process.
From 1976 to 1979, I studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London, England while Bruce Archer was head of the Design Research Department there. Archer believed that “there exists a designerly way of thinking and communicating that is both different from scientific and scholarly ways of thinking and communicating, and as powerful as scientific and scholarly methods of enquiry when applied to its own kinds of problems.” He was arguably the first author to use the now common phrase “design thinking.”
Archer was also concerned with designers’ place in society, especially in education. He noted the three Rs—reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic—with reading and writing both referring to language, betray a prejudice against the doing and making professions. The phrase was apparently derived from a speech given by Sir William Curtis, an English Member of Parliament in about 1825, where he listed:
It seems probable that this was shortened, over the years first to reading, reckoning, and wrighting, and finally, reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.
The ability to make things was still an important aspect of society in the 19th century. But as the industrial revolution gathered steam, manufacturing took over much of this responsibility. Industrial design became a vital but somewhat obscure profession responsible, not for making, but for generating the plans for making. At the time, doing and making were important parts of people’s lives. With the industrial revolution, design replaced making as a formal and professional vocation and basic education concentrated on language and science as the primary means of thought.
Archer was convinced that design should stand equal against the sciences and the humanities. He wrote prophetically in 1979, “modern society is faced with problems such as the ecological problem, the environmental problem, the quality-of-urban-life problem … which demand … competence in something else besides literacy and numeracy … a level of awareness of the issues of the material culture.” These problems of the material culture—including economics and the environment—are problems that require a design perspective.
Nigel Cross, another British design researcher, in a series of articles about “designerly ways of knowing,” argues that we are all capable of designing; “… design thinking is something inherent within human cognition; it is a key part of what makes us human.”
The difference between design thinking and the scientific method is inadvertently described in Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
“Actually I’ve never seen a cycle-maintenance problem complex enough really to require full-scale formal scientific method. Repair problems are not that hard.”
Doing, making, repairing, and designing all require design thinking. What distinguishes design thinking from the scientific method is not the difficulty of the problem but the degree of definition. In order to apply the scientific method it is necessary to understand exactly what the problem is. The problem is clear, the solution difficult. With repair, it is the problem that is obscure. Once the problem is known, Persig is right; the solution is generally fairly obvious. The process of design thinking is really ordinary thinking that most people use to solve most everyday problems.
With design thinking, understanding evolves as different solutions are tried. With improved understanding, the quality of the solution also improves.
In Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance, Persig struggles with the definition of quality, at one point saying quality cannot be defined even though everyone knows what it is. I would define quality as a balance of conflicting demands.
A good knife is not so hard that it is brittle or so soft that it bends. Rather it is tempered to the right amount. The right amount is a matter of judgement. This condition is readily apparent when making something. A screw is not tightened so much that the threads strip or left so loose that the parts held together rattle.
Robert Persig notes how Jules Henri Poincaré in his landmark book Foundations of Science realized how scientists had to preselect facts from an infinity of possible facts in order to make breakthrough scientific discoveries. This preselection of facts is not arbitrary, but guided by judgements of quality that are, in essence, design thinking.
“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of Quality.”
The scientific method cannot help us when no solution is apparent because we do not know precisely what the problem is. Persig refers to this as being “stuck.”
“If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good.”
Robert Persig does not mention design thinking or industrial design in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the book did become a sort of manifesto for industrial designers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We strove for “Good Design,” usually focused on the user experience. Industry was all too happy to comply. By focusing on providing a good user experience, they could sell more products while working behind the scenes to minimize cost by reducing other less apparent qualities. Reducing product quality was not the goal, but it was the result. User centred design has focused too much on the experience of buying the product and less on more important long-term qualities. Superficial aesthetics, appealing point-of-sale displays, and better packaging has encouraged people to buy apparently higher quality, but actually lower quality, products. For this reason, most products are thrown away before they wear out.
Quality is more apparent with doing and making. When products are made by hand, determining the quality is easy and there is generally not a problem with user experience. But when a product is made by machine, reproduced precisely, thousands of times, the quality is less obvious. Quality is abstract and wholly dependent on the judgement of the designer. Quality exists only because of design. Quality refers to human decisions, human judgement, and skill. A manufactured product has quality according to the decisions made: quality by design. Without this quality, high volume manufacturing only offers consistency and precision.
Industry has focused on reducing production cost, increasing the volume of production, and using the cheapest materials possible. For every high quality expensive product, there are hundreds of lower quality options. Corporations compete to provide the cheapest product, motivating an economy of steadily increasing quantity of production without real increases in prosperity. Other qualities beneath the surface of products must become the focus of design. Instead of just Good Design, we require Lasting Quality with Better Design.
Quality decisions are required, not only for the design of products, but also for other areas of the economy. In my book Rationing Earth, I suggest that design thinking could be used to improve the economy. Obvious problems of pollution, growing populations, diminishing resources, and the threat of climate change, point to a need to limit or ration environmental impact. This can be done in such a way that prosperity continues to increase by:
Scientific thinking is applied to well defined problems, but in general can only go so far. An economist can determine how the economy works, but someone still has to decide how the economy should be structured. The combination of a changing environmental context and revolutionary new technologies point to an acute need for new design thinking to solve the problems of the economy.
The need for a circular economy suggests the need for a circular design process. Current understanding suggests solutions but those solutions should inform a new understanding and a constant evolution of new ideas.
 Bruce Archer, “Whatever Became of Design Methodology and The Three Rs,” Design Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1979.
 Nigel Cross, Design Thinking: Understanding how Designers Think and Work, (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2011), 6.
 Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, (New York: Bantam Books, 1974),93
 Ibid, 253
 Ibid, 255
Herb Bentz is an industrial designer and a founding partner at Form3 Design, a company in Vancouver, Canada that has a strong commitment to the design of ecologically sustainable products. He holds degrees in science, architecture, and industrial design.