what is design thinking?

This post is in a series of commentaries on a class running at Stanford, Winter Quarter 2010 – “Transformative Design” ENGR 231 – [Link]

We can certainly connect the emergence of the field of “design” with the growth of industrial manufacture in the nineteenth century – designers work with mass manufacturing processes in the industrial design of everyday objects. Design became a process separate from manufacture. Immediately implicated are the structures and cultures of modernity, class, gender, ethnicity – horizontal and vertical distinctions at the core of individual and group identities. Market competition throws emphasis upon innovation – developing artifacts that offer something new or different.


Wedgwood in 1770 – the first industrial designer

Then there are the different and sometimes competing design philosophies that have come to drive much design – notoriously, of course, modernist “form following function”.

More broadly, the term has come to be connected with particular skill sets and fields of application – architecture, software design – and often occurring in studio teams. Human-centered design emphasizes how understanding people’s interactions with things, their experiences of the world, is the key to good design. Human centered design focuses on improving well-being, whether through the ergonomics of a chair or a user-friendly interface for a piece of medical technology. There is usually an ethical orientation, with innovation tied to improving people’s lives. This is where “design thinking” comes in: it refers to the transferable process of innovation at the heart of design – a process for imagining and realizing positive change that can be applied to anything.

So Bill (Moggridge) describes a fourfold field of design:

design awareness – most people are quite expert in choosing assemblages of goods that help make them who they are and want to be – design awareness refers to awareness of how things are designed, as well as how to design our own lives

design skills – in industrial design and architecture these skills can be of a very high order and are developed in (studio) practice

design thinking – the systematic and problem-oriented process for generating innovation

design research – focused on understanding the design process, or referring to the research behind much modern design.


But Bernie (Roth) goes much further and identifies design with living itself, with an attitude or state of mind focused on innovation and change. We are all designers now. For Bernie, design is about making plans for action.

I am beginning to see where he’s coming from. We live in a world concerned with change, not just the changes happening around us and to us. We are concerned now with our very implication in those changes – our sense of human culpability, blame for what is happening today accompanies a call to accept responsibility and to change our ways. Design thinking presents itself as a candidate for doing just this – instigating change.

On this orientation towards change and the notion of “risk society” – [Link] – something I wrote about the crisis surrounding the destruction of the past.

A good proportion of our class is from Stanford’s Graduate School Business. Outsourcing has removed much manufacturing from the US. Many are looking to a new kind of industrial and business leadership – in the creative process at the heart of good business practice. Is not the new MBA an MFA? See the recent article on this in the New York Times [Link] – see also my essay with Jeffrey Schnapp on arts-based pedagogy – [Link].

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