The Place of Design in "Design Thinking

By Associate Professor Bente Irminger and Associate Professor Linda Lien,
Department of Design, Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design,
University of Bergen, Norway

In recent years, the provision of courses in “Design Thinking” has increased significantly. Such courses can take the form of a “Learn Design Thinking” seminar lasting a few hours . These courses can give insights into the Design Thinking process, but can also lead to Design Thinking soon being perceived as a trendy buzzword. Design Thinking is actually not a quick fix for any problem. Performing a good Design Thinking process needs more than an introductory course: Design Thinking is a process that requires knowledge, training, time and hard work. The process consists of various methods that in principle are interdisciplinary and close to the users. The Design Thinking process begins by creating empathy and understanding of the user, and ends with the real world, and the implementation of products, services, processes, experiences and/or systems. This article is about the background to the concept of Design Thinking and the designer’s role in the process. The starting point is our own teaching experience from the interdisciplinary “Design Thinking” programme anchored at the University of Bergen, the Norwegian School of Economics and the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.

The concept of “Design Thinking” arose when design was integrated into economics and management programmes in the USA in the 1970s. Designers contributed to teaching these programmes, creating an understanding of design processes and the relevance of the processes to business development. “Design Thinking” can be divided into subcategories according to whether the processes are to lead to innovation or are part of management theory or practical management. Based on the interest in using the designer’s methods of innovation and problem solving within management and economics programmes, three directions within Design Thinking arose:

“Design Thinking” and “designerly thinking”

The designer has traditionally been concerned with designing products and surroundings. The design process itself was perceived as less interesting and other fields of study showed little interest in it. This has changed as a result of greater interest in creative problem solving in business and the public sector. For example, in 2014, an interdisciplinary continuing and further education programme, “Design Thinking: Strategic Design for Innovation”, was established in Norway in the form of a pilot initiated and owned by the University of Bergen, the Norwegian School of Economics and the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, with Design Region Bergen serving as a neutral fourth party and facilitator. The programme, from which so far four year-groups of students have graduated, is aimed at designers, economists and engineers. The students are grouped into interdisciplinary teams to solve real and complex issues.

Society’s increased interest in innovation has also had an impact on interest in the design field, prompting more people to seek insight into and knowledge of the designer’s working methods. In many contexts, interdisciplinarity has become a norm and almost a requirement, as a consequence of increasing complexity and unclear boundaries between subject areas.

The “Design Thinking” process is perceived as a relevant contribution to achieving innovation and as an effective process for resolving complex issues.

In the article “Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures”, authors Johansson-Skøldberg et al. (2013) differentiate between “designerly thinking” and “Design Thinking”. “Designerly thinking” can be interpreted as a theoretical description of the designer’s thinking, reflection and working methods. “Design Thinking” can be understood as a method of working and a process to identify and resolve practical/specific issues. Below, we use both terms, “Design Thinking” and “designerly thinking”, which have also become well established in Norway.

“Designerly thinking” – research of the designer’s way of thinking (THEORY).

Research into the designer’s thought process and practice has been taking place for the past 40 years. In as early as the 1960s and 1970s, discussion arose as to whether the designer was an artist and form-giver, or a problem solver, and the designer’s non-verbal work process became the subject of research. In 1964, in the book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander defined design as “[t]he process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function” (Alexander, 1973, p. 1). In The Sciences of the Artificial from 1969, which is considered a classic in the design field, Herbert Simon writes: "The engineer, and more generally the designer, is concerned with how things ought to be – how they ought to be in order to attain goals, and to function" (Simon, 1996, p. 4).

In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), Donald Schøn, who had a different view of the design process to Herbert Simon, criticises Simon and his technical view of design, which he believed was influenced by logical positivism (Schøn, 1983). For their part, Johansson-Skøldberg et al. describe the philosopher and researcher Donald Schøn as pragmatic and argue that Schøn believed that the way of thinking was more hermeneutic. By focusing on the relationship between creation (practice-based), and reflection on that creation, continuous improvement is possible. This reflection (which Schøn found among both architects and psychoanalysts) was understood as the core of the design work and part of design practice (Johansson-Skøldberg et al. 2013).

Several studies and observations were undertaken during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to survey the designer’s way of working and problem-solving strategies. Examples include Rittel & Webber (1973), Krippendorff & Butter (1984), Kotler & Rath (1984) and Bucharan (1992). Other important contributors to new insights are architect and psychologist Bryan Lawson (2005) and designer N. Cross (2007), who for many years have studied how designers think and act.

Through observations of designers at work, interviews with designers, their customers and partners. and investigation of working methods, Cross (2007) and Lawson (2005) have mapped the design field and how designers think. Cross divides the designer’s way of thinking into three main categories: “design epistemology”, “design praxiology” and “design phenomenology”, based on people, processes and products (Cross, 2007, p. 126). Lawson writes in How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified: “Design is a form of thinking, and thinking is a skill. Skills can be acquired and developed” (Lawson 2005, p. 303). Cross quotes Thomas and Carroll: “Design is a type of problem solving in which the problem solver views the problem or acts as though there is some ill-definedness in the goals, initial conditions or allowable transformations” (Cross, 2007, p. 37).

One person who has taken a major interest in the designer as a problem solver and the challenges surrounding unclearly defined issues, is Richard Bucharan. His article “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” (1992) is considered an important reference within the field. The article is based on Horst Rittel’s work in the 1960s, where complex problems were illustrated through Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning (Rittel & Webber, 1973). In Design Activism, Alastair Fuad-Luke (2009) describes “wicked problems” as “a class of social system problems which are illformulated; where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values; and where the ramification of the whole system is thoroughly confusing” (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p. 142).

Bucharan refers to four different areas in which Design Thinking can have value as a problem definition and solution process: 1) development of symbols and visual communication (e.g. graphic design); 2) photography, film and data related to material objects (e.g. design of clothing, furniture and products); 3) activities and organised services (e.g. design of services and logistics); and 4) complex systems or environment for work, play and learning (e.g. within architecture and interaction). Bucharan writes that while it is natural to categorise the process as shown above, in practice these areas overlap. This is also where the designer’s way of thinking and approach can contribute to innovation through a reassessment of problems, and thereby also the development of new solutions (Bucharan, 1992).

However, design can also be about creating meaning, rather than creating an artefact (Johansson-Skøldberg et al., 2013). The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design (Krippendorff, 2006) refers to a paradigm shift within design; from an emphasis on how objects should work, to what objects can mean to the user. In as early as 1984, Krippendorff and Butter wrote the article “Product Semantics: Exploring the Symbolic Qualities of Form”, where they claim: “Product semantics is not a new style. It is a serious study of the meanings that emerge in human interaction with objects” (Krippendorff and Butter, 1984, p. 9). The emotional aspects of the product are communicated through design. What is the product’s message and what symbols does it transmit? The symbols can consist of shapes, colours and materials, but also sound elements (Redstrøm, 2017).

Research through design

A design process can have much in common with a research process. Artistic development work (also called artistic research) is characterised by how new insights are developed through an alternation between creation and reflection. A distinction is drawn between research through design*,* research of design and research for design. The distinctions were first introduced by Christopher Frayling in Research in Art and Design (1993). Here, he distinguishes between “research through art and design, research into art and design and research for art and design” (Frayling, 1993, p. 5). It is important to understand the difference between developing, for instance, new experiences through design, and measuring how an experience is perceived or what effect it has. The latter will require a scientific approach, such as research of the designer’s processes and methods (“designerly thinking”).

Henk Borgdorff (2006) writes in The Debate on Research in the Arts about research through art (and design): “Research in the arts is the most controversial of the three ideal types. Donald Schön speaks in this context of ‘reflection in action’, and I earlier described this approach as the ‘immanent’ and ‘performative perspective’. It concerns research that does not assume the separation of subject and object, and does not observe a distance between the researcher and the practice of art” (Borgdorff, 2006, p. 12).

In further education within Design Thinking in Bergen, the goal is to solve or illuminate specific problems. To exemplify this, we can cite one of the projects, which serves to illustrate the parallel aspects of a design process and a research process, and how new insights can be developed through an alternation between creating and reflecting. The project issue was related to reducing the number of children with burn injuries in Norway. Each year, a large number of children are scalded by coffee or tea, and their injuries are often the result of an accident involving close relatives. Although child health centres inform parents about the danger, the number of burn victims is not falling. The group that worked on the issue found that while good information material was available with rational arguments and statistics, the target group had a hard time believing that an accident could happen to them. After many rounds of exploration, the group developed a doll dressed in a fabric that reacts to heat: When hot coffee or tea is poured over the doll, the skin of the baby doll takes on the appearance of being severely burned. The purpose of the demonstration is to awaken an emotional response; a visceral experience of physical discomfort. The group concluded that developing additional information materials would have little purpose. To change behaviour, parents not only had to understand, but also to feel how little hot water it takes to cause a severe burn injury. The doll is at the prototype stage, and no scientific studies have been conducted of whether the introduction of dolls as a standard educational tool at child health centres will result in any real decrease in the number of children suffering burn injuries. In this case, the Design Thinking process is being used as an innovation tool, whereby the methods support the process, but it does not constitute actual research. Research through design will show how findings and testing during the project are placed in a broader context, and the methods and processes that are used (this can be other processes than Design Thinking).

"Design thinking" process or method applied (PRACTICE)

The term “Design Thinking” has been developed more recently than “designerly thinking”. Johanson-Skøldberg write that “Design Thinking” as a strategic instrument was first mentioned in 1984, by Kotler & Rath, but the term was not discussed systematically in relation to solving complex problems until 20 years later. (Johansson-Skøldberg et al., 2013),

In contrast to “designerly thinking”, “Design Thinking” has not been the subject of research to any great extent (Johansson-Skøldberg et al., 2013). “Design Thinking” used in the context of innovation and creation has primarily become widely known through the IDEO design firm.[1] IDEO’s design team was composed of people with various skills to solve complex challenges, and IDEO emphasised describing, and thereby also formalising, the “Design Thinking” process (Johansson-Skøldberg et al., 2013, p. 128). Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) further developed the process, and worked actively to get more people to see the value of design thinking, in particular leaders and social innovators (Brown, 2009). The “Design Thinking” concept is also associated with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as d.School, at Stanford University.[2] d.School is known particularly for its interdisciplinary approach to innovation.

The second category of “Design Thinking” is associated with Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto, who, in collaboration with IDEO, developed a more structured process than IDEO’s original process (Dunne & Martin, 2006 and Johansson-Skøldberg et al., 2013). The process relates particularly to organisational development and management.

The third category of “Design Thinking” can also be related to business and organisational development and management theory. According to Richard Boland and Frank Collopy, leaders should be inspired by decision-making processes and leadership within architecture, art and design. “… if managers adopt the design attitude the world of business would be different and better” (Boland & Collopy, 2004, p. 3). Boland was professor of information systems and Collopy professor and head of the Department of Information Systems at Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.

“Design Thinking” is controversial

“Design Thinking” is a controversial term among some designers (Verweij, 2016) since it can be perceived as a brand associated with IDEO (Norman, 2016) and because in some cases the designer is not involved in the process, and the process appears superficial.

In 2015, Ezio Manzini published a book with the descriptive title Design, When Everybody Designs. Here, he argues that the concept of design has become blurred and less distinct than before, because he believes that the terms “design” and “designer” have been adopted by people who are traditionally at a distance from the disciplines (Manzini, 2015).

Since 2012, the authors of this article have been involved in the establishment and organisation of the interdisciplinary education programme in Design Thinking in Bergen (DT Bergen). The programme is inspired by IDEO’s model, but has been further developed in an interdisciplinary collaboration between the owners of DT Bergen. Here, the Design Thinking process is divided here into the phases of empathy, definition, idea development, prototyping and testing, whereby the various phases are not implemented linearly, but are part of a repetitive, non-linear process. The first three pilot courses took place consecutively during the 2014-2018 period. The course is a further education programme in which contributions from the departments are part of the curriculum. The contribution of UiB’s Department of Design has been particularly linked to methods of idea development, visual storytelling, visualisation and methods for creating functional creative teams, and new methods associated both with teamwork and the collective and individual creative process have been developed through the modules.

The designer’s role in “Design Thinking”

We sometimes find that designers worry that the “Design Thinking” process has been taken over by “non-designers”. At DT Bergen, there is great awareness of the value of real interdisciplinarity, and a focus on mutual respect and recognition of each other’s field of study, in which design constitutes a contribution on par with economics and technology. The departments contribute lectures, workshops and guides related to economics, design and technology, respectively, but this is not to say that students become designers, economists or engineers. On the other hand, the students gain an understanding of the overall “Design Thinking” process, and hopefully an insight into how each field of study is important in order to arrive at and achieve relevant solutions to complex problems. It is important to acknowledge that the “Design Thinking” process is not a “quick fix” method of solving challenges, but requires time, patience and a deeper understanding.

At DT Bergen, designers contribute knowledge and skills related to visualisation and idea development methods. These are skills that are acquired over time, and where theoretical knowledge is not enough. “Design cannot be learned from a book. In a design process, the work moves back and forth between head and hands, and creativity is not limited to some phase or planned time frame” (Verweij, 2016, blog). In “Design Thinking”, the designer’s ability to visualise in order to explore, define and communicate complex problems is important: “To talk about design and leaving the designer out is like talking about musicians and leaving the music out” (Johansson-Skøldberg et al. 2013, p. 131).

Designers are interested in asking the right questions, rather than rushing to find solutions. Designers have experience from trying and failing, and in particular are keen to put themselves in the user’s place, rather than viewing a challenge solely from the organisation’s or company’s viewpoint. An important contribution from designers is the ability to take a few steps back in order to redefine the issues (Norman, 2016).

“Design Thinking” as an interdisciplinary innovation process is likely to evolve further in the future. The experience we have gained over four years of teaching the programme in Bergen has convinced us that the designer’s expertise is a necessary contribution to the “Design Thinking” process. Knowledge of user interaction and a focus on people, together with knowledge of working on an interdisciplinary basis, are important areas in which the designer can contribute.

Design Thinking is all about figuring out what work.


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  1. IDEO was founded in 1978 (from 1991 as the merger of David Kelly Design and ID Two) by Professor David Kelly of Stanford University in California, USA. IDEO has offices located in the USA, Europe and Asia. Each office is locally adapted, yet steeped in a common ideology. ↩︎

  2. d.School was founded in 2004 by, among others, investor and entrepreneur Georg Kembel and Professor David Kelly, who was also the founder of IDEO. ↩︎