Recently there has been much talk of corporate cultures —and other disciplines— engaging in the practice of “design thinking“. Such announcements are usually paralleled with ideas of creativity, innovation, and user-centeredness; associations that sound cool and hip but many times result in superficial, inaccurate, and vague information. Wether we like it or not, the buzzword of design thinking is everywhere.

On a recent article in the New York Times, Unboxed: Design Is More Than Packaging, the author, Janet Rae-Dupree, makes an effort to unbox “design” by concentrating on this thing designers do called design thinking. She says: “…design thinking usually involves a period of field research —usually close observation of people— to generate inspiration and a better understanding of what is needed, followed by open, nonjudgmental generation of ideas. After a brief analysis, a number of the more promising ideas are combined and expanded to go into “rapid prototyping,” which can vary from a simple drawing or text description to a three-dimensional mock-up. Feedback on the prototypes helps hone the ideas so that a select few can be used. The results can be startling.

On another article in the Fast Company website, Design Thinking… What is that?, its author, Mark Dziersk, defines design thinking as consisting of four steps: defining the problem, creating many options, refining selected directions, and picking a winner for execution. He says: “At this point enough road has been traveled to insure success. It’s the time to commit resources to achieve the early objectives. The byproduct of the process is often other unique ideas and strategies that are tangential to the initial objective as defined. Prototypes of solutions are created in earnest, and testing becomes more critical and intense. At the end of stage 4 the problem is solved or the opportunity is fully uncovered.” He concludes the article with: “Design thinking describes a repeatable process employing unique and creative techniques which yield guaranteed results — usually results that exceed initial expectations. Extraordinary results that leapfrog the expected. This is why it is such an attractive, dynamic and important methodology for businesses to embrace today.

While these two examples, noble in their intentions and approach, describe a bit of what design thinking can be in terms of a traditional object-oriented approach where processes conclude in tangible objects, they do not elaborate on how design thinking operates in this contemporary landscape of information and ever-changing job descriptions.

Stanford University’s Institute of Design, probably the academic institution that most publicly associates itself with this idea of design thinking, defines it as “a catalyst for innovation and bringing new things into the world“. Their website elaborates: “We believe having designers in the mix is key to success in multidisciplinary collaboration and critical to uncovering unexplored areas of innovation. Designers provide a methodology that all parties can embrace and a design environment conducive to innovation. In our experience, design thinking is the glue that holds these kinds of communities together and makes them successful.

This approach, on a positive note to my understanding of design thinking, extends design beyond its relation to objects. It helps us better imagine how it can respond to the changing definitions of form and making in this digital information era, but it still does not inform us of how it can achieve all that it preaches.

Many more myriad perspectives exist out there. This plural landscape of varied definitions —just google search design thinking to find out— blurs the clear understanding of design thinking.

What is design thinking? How does it work? How can we reveal its benefits and potential? Achieving such clarity was the goal of our first studio project this semester. We were interested in seperating the idea of design thinking from its most common association with the business world.

Here at the NC State graphic design graduate program, design thinking is defined as the use, consideration, and implementation of a series of thinking strategies and cognitive frameworks in the formulation, articulation, and implementation of design processes.

Sounds complicated? It is, but the the goal of the project was to “define and explain in plain English that a non-designer can understand“. Each classmate was assigned a strategy or framework to research and communicate the findings. It was our goal to explain design thinking through the explanation of these 16 ideas.

by Robert Ruehlman

by Liese Zahabi

by Marty Maxwell Lane

by Dan McCafferty

by Brooke Chornyak

by Rebecca Tegtmeyer

by Tania Allen

by Lincoln Hancock

by Kelly Murdoch-Kitt

by Sidney Fritts

by Samyul Kim

by Cady Bean-Smith

by Alberto Rigau

by Caroline Prietz

by Anthony Fugulo

by Lauren Waugh

These posters not only present definitions, they also explain case-studies of real projects to show how each particular concept can be applied and used.

I think that as a class we were successful in communicating that design thinking is not about being hip, flashy or into the latest trend, but about a serious take on the understanding of experiences, behaviors and social interactions to produce context-relevant work which not only solves problems, but innovates to create meaning and reflection.

[These posters were exhibited at Leazar Hall in the College of Design at North Carolina State University from September 12 thru the 26th of 2008 ][see 1][see 2]

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4 Responses to Simon says: design thinking …but wait… what is it? / The poster collection

  1. […] are some images of the installation that was part of our first semester studio project where the class attempted to define design thinking in terms of a series of thinking strategies and […]

  2. […] I decided to make a gift to my classmates, and I made a button out of every single one of the Design Thinking Posters that we each made for this semester’s studio class. The set has all 16 concepts represented. […]

  3. John Stevens says:

    This looks like a great piece of work – thorough and beautifully presented. I’m writing about the ‘design thinking’ phenomenon / bandwagon, and I wonder where your list of 16 concepts came from. Did you work them out as a class, perhaps combining other attempts, or are they attributed to another source?


  4. […] channels. As a response, the Graduate Design Program at NC State University explored a series of thinking strategies and cognitive frameworks that are part of a designer’s way of working: schemas, situatedness, concept mapping, […]

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