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.