Saturday, March 15, 2008

Design Thinking

Design is not just another discipline or subject area. Design is a way of approaching the world that has, at its base, the optimistic view that the world can be transformed and we are the ones who need to do it.

Design Thinking is the application of design processes across disciplines to solve problems anywhere and anytime we encounter them.

Idea and Empathy
The first step in the design process is to identify and clarify the problem to be solved. Too often people spend a great deal of time and energy solving the wrong problem. Empathy is the key to identifying design challenges. What is it that frustrates our lives and keeps someone in the world from having the highest quality life possible? Buckminster Fuller, over 50 years ago, said that we have the technology needed to enable every person on the planet to live as if we were all millionaires. We only lack the empathy and will to make that happen.

Research and Inquiry
Solving any sufficiently challenging problem usually requires a bit of research. Design problems are often presented about things with which we are personally not well-informed. Someone asks us to design a method to help an elderly person get from their wheelchair to their bed. This requires us to do a bit of empathetic research. We need to think like sociologists, anthropologist, psychologists, kinesiologists, etc. for a while to more clearly understand the problem we are trying to solve. This is the beginning of the design brief.

In design it is OK to steal from, I mean study how others have tried to solve similar problems. Building on the ideas of others is expected. Biomimicry, for example, is the practice of stealing design ideas from nature by studying how plants, insects, animals, and forces of nature provide clues to solving design problems.

Developing Criteria
The goal of design research is to clarify the parameters, the specifications, the criteria that will need to exist in any successful design solution. What are the specifications for cost/benefit ratios, sustainability, materials, safety, maintenance, user-interaction, aesthetics, etc.? How will we know when we have found a viable solution? Well-developed criteria/specifications will help us select the appropriate solutions without being overly enticed by the ones that are most clever or amusing to the designer. There are many examples of clever ideas that resulted in unintended negative effects.

Generating Possibilities
Designers love ideas. They can generate 100 possible solutions to a problem. They aren't satisfied with stopping at their first idea even if, later, it turns out to be the best, because usually the first 10 ideas are the easiest but not necessarily the best. This step is usually done in quick drawings, thumbnails, napkin-drawings, rough sketches, rough prototypes. Visualization (drawing and prototyping) is the medium for much creativity and research in design. Generating possibilities and visualizing them through drawing is really the heart of design - much of the rest is turned over to craftspeople, engineers, contractors and manufacturers to carry the ideas out.

A charrette is a process used by designers in which many stakeholders work together with the designers to develop design solutions that go beyond power-plays, compromises or democratic rules to find solutions that exceed expectations for everyone involved. The goal of a good charrette is to come up with design solutions that don't result in someone not getting what they want but finding the solutions not previously envisioned which are better than anyone's originally expectations.

At some point a decision must be made to determine which, of many possibilities, is the most promising design solution to pursue. This is where designers need to go back to the criteria and specifications developed earlier to see which solution best meets the criteria. With every decision there is a down side and everyone is forced to consider whether they are willing to live with the down side, unintended or unavoidable, of the decision. The clients or stakeholdersare  usually the ones who have the most input on this choice based on a design presentation made by the design team.

At this point the production process can begin. Here is an interesting problem for traditional art teachers trained in fine arts and crafts traditions - design is more of a minds-on than a hands-on activity. Too often students enter the process at this point. The teacher has already decided what the project will be, has done the research and collected examples, has selected the best direction, and presents the solution for the students to produce. Design thinking lives mainly in the steps up to the point of production - often the designer hands the project off to someone else at this point. Frank Lloyd Wright did not build the buildings he designed. That was done by a contractor and the craftspeople. Design is a field of ideas, visualization, sketching, and prototyping - design exists primarily in the preproduction phase. Design thinking usually results in plans, drawings, and prototypes.

Implementation is another step that is not as big a part of traditional arts and crafts programs. Design is not finished after production. Design is only successful if it works for the end-users. Does it solve the problem it was intended to solve? We have all experienced buildings, products and services that are poorly designed and don't satisfy our needs despite how pleased the design team might be with their work. Design is an outward facing activity that is intended to make the world a better place rather than an inward facing activity for self-exploration and self-fulfillment. The whole point of design is to make the world a better place by developing high quality, sustainable, solutions for living, working, and playing.

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