June 04, 2012

What is design thinking?

The production of objects and events takes three forms (which may be more or less mixed up in reality): manufacturing, art, and design.

Manufacturing: sometimes we produce new instances of a familiar pattern or template - manufacturing, either on a craft-workshop basis or on an industrial scale, subject to incremental optimisation but essentially standardised.

Art: other times we produce something that is unique and that "breaks the mould" - artistic creativity being distinguished by some irreducible difference, by a challenge to conventional sense, non-standard and unique to the artwork.

Design: finally, we might produce a new pattern, breaking the mould and creating a new mould - design seeks the best of both worlds, offering something distinctive and new, but also feasible, scalable, durable, usable, accessible, valuable. Design is a compromise between the prevailing conditions and a new future, arrived at by observation, inspiration, experimentation and negotiation (between affordances, constraints, time, money, attention etc).

Designerly projects will typically involve activities like:

  • forming a "brief" that serves people with a purpose but which opens new grounds for innovation;
  • observing prevailing conditions, getting to know where people are at and what holds them back;
  • framing and reframing problems, switching perspectives, dimensions and timescales;
  • organising problems into hierarchies and networks, identifying strategic priorities;
  • getting inspired by materials, processes, and analogies (from other fields, e.g nature, art, literature);
  • finding initial strategies and features that might act to generate more detailed ideas;
  • forming design ideas and proposals;
  • creating and testing prototypes (physical and imaginary);
  • thinking critically about efficient and sustainable production (now and in the future);
  • iteratively developing solutions, in cooperation with users and producers.

Along side these activities there is a "designerly reflexivity" through which the designer actively monitors the balance between artistic and manufacturing tendencies and requirements. Taken together, these aims, strategies and reflexivity are what has recently become known as "design thinking".

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