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Q&A: Design Thinking and Its Role in Industry and Education

The notion of "design thinking" has emerged as a topic of great discussion in recent years among design practitioners, educators across disciplines, and organizations of all kinds. Whether you’re a student, graduate, or seasoned veteran you’ll find value in the following dialogue which explores some of its many interpretations and applications.

This interview was conducted by Dianne Hardin, a Master of Design Candidate at The University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Art, Architecture & Planning as part of her research for the DMI FutureED project. Hardin wanted to get perspectives on design thinking from practitioners responsible for providing it to clients and teaching it to students. This past summer, she spoke with frog Design Research Director Jon Freach and Associate Creative Director Lauren Serota, who are also founding professors at the Austin Center for Design, which aims to transform society through design and design education.

Diane Hardin: 1) How would you define what ‘design thinking’ means to you? What is it and what value does it bring to your field?

Jon Freach: I feel like it’s a strange term mainly because design is active. It’s a very tactile, physical kind of discipline born of the apprentice model of training. I’ve learned design through mastering instruments AND theory (this is now a 20 year + process), and the best design graduates of today seem to retain very similar skills, although the raw material is different. I wouldn’t want my students to gain the impression that all they were learning how to do was think through ”thinking”. In design, there is a lot of model building, shaping, and forming no matter what the subject matter is, such as a phone or an interaction or a process.

Lauren Serota: I’m not a big fan of the phrase design thinking. I think because I’m a designer and I’ve always had a little bit of a difficult time with the notion of it just being a philosophy, or set of values, or way to think about things versus a way to act on things. That being said, I appreciate that the concept is being incorporated into curricula and into business in a meaningful way. To me, the term means three things: human-centered, always putting people in the middle; system-aware, recognizing that everything we make or do exists in and affects a larger system; and lateral, and valuing the thoughtful, creative and appropriate over the efficient.

2) How would you characterize the role of design thinking in business? How do you think that might evolve in the future in terms of importance and value?

JF: As an example, our clients are a little surprised when we (frog) show up to facilitate a work session that applies design thinking methods and we quickly set the expectation that they’ll be moving around, sketching, and building ideas with pieces of sticky paper. Routinely, what I hear is something on the order of ”I’m not very creative, so don’t expect much.” Design introduces new methods in the business process and culture that force a juxtaposition between different entities and produces something unexpected. This is what De Bono is getting at with “lateral thinking”.

The evolution of design methods is really tied to their ability to move an organization or institution. How do the methods facilitate storytelling across the company? What kind of stories get told? More importantly, what ”sticks” to the extent that groups invest in them? Then, how do they manifest in the world? What products, services, or experiences are brought to market?

LS: We are in the thick of a macro-trend - of things that used to be novelty, or even merely appreciated becoming commoditized. More and more we are basing our perception of value on the overall experience we have with the things that we purchase or the services to which we subscribe. This experience can be many things - the feeling that we have using something, the association we have with the brand, a call with customer service, or the other people using it and the platform it provides us. The differentiation for business is becoming less the product and more the spaces between the product and its user, and the amount of choreography needed to make this pleasant requires a cohesive and person-centered approach. All of these things provide value and differentiate a product or service, and are the result of businesses evolving towards design thinking.

3) How would you rate the potential value of design thinking to business? (1 – no value, 2 – low value, 3 – good value, 4 – excellent value)?

JF: 4 - It’s related to my earlier point about applying creativity, forcing combinations between ideas that might not have existed, and using the output to facilitate the telling of a different kind of story across an organization (a more human/empathic/creative one). 

LS: 4 - Businesses see it as something they don’t know how to do, but something that’s becoming important - so it has a high value right now. As this type of approach becomes more common across and outside of design curricula, it will be more common and therefore less valuable - hopefully it will become a regular part of the way that many businesses are run.

4) What do you see as the core principles and practices of design thinking that are broadly valuable to business today?

JF: Abductive logic - making a quick decision with the best information available while understanding the bias in your thinking. Design methods add a certain type of discipline to the very ambiguous experience of trying to define and tame wicked problems. Some design methods, like iteration, can remove inhibitions to try out an idea because even if it’s not right you know that you’re going to do it again.

LS: A belief that it’s right to test things out (and it’s OK to fail), that it’s right to iterate and it’s mandatory look outside of your own experience. The ability to try on different perspectives, to take a step back, or a step deeper. And willingness to truly be objective - to recognize that there aren’t always “wrong” or “right” ways to do things, and that decisions don’t always need to be quantified.

5) Do you believe design thinking is best done by people with a degree in a design discipline, or can anyone learn to practice it?

JF: I think anyone can learn given the right conditions and instruction.

LS: I don’t think it has anything to do with design, actually. I think that somehow design has just been the vessel through which this kind of thinking has manifested itself. And it happens that we have to do it often as designers. There are people who are, by trade or occupation, very far from designers who are naturally able to look at the world objectively and connect the dots in a meaningful way. Some people are born doing this, some can be taught through exposure to it, and some people either choose not to or aren’t naturally predisposed to it. I think a big part of it is how you’re wired. On the contrary, I know traditional designers who are extremely talented in their craft, whom I wouldn’t consider “design thinkers.”

I talk to my students about this often, because while some of them will graduate and find themselves in a design role - e.g. as an interaction designer or visual designer - many of them will end up doing something meaningful, applying the process they’ve been taught but without “design” in their title. There is such a predisposition to what “design” is and should be, that it is often in disservice of itself.

6) What is the role of design thinking in education? What role does education play in cultivating design thinking?

JF: We need to start sooner. I wrote an article a couple of years ago for The Atlantic in which I attempted to resurrect design educator Nigel Cross’ call for design as the “Third Pillar” of education, taking a seat between the Sciences and Humanities. It seems to fit logically there. Design isn’t quite a science because it has an end state that’s very important to realize, and one could argue that it isn’t exactly a Humanity because of its technical nature. But, design is everywhere and I think it’s important that young people develop an early understanding of design beyond the making of patterns, color combinations, or buildings. This understanding can really shape how a kid relates to the world in so far as they realize they can make an impact on it through design and develop some skills and tools to help them create with.

LS: I believe that it should be part of much more than design curricula - but it needs to be called something different. Think about medicine — learning medicine is all about learning systems, but doing so literally. People are at the center of medicine — all of medicine exists around people, and the body as an ecosystem, and understanding the ecosystem in which the body exists. There is a place for design thinking at the foundational level of many different types of education.

7) If you were to create the ultimate design thinking curriculum, what essential principles or teaching components would it include?

JF:I think we’re in the process of it at ac4d (the Austin Center for Design) which includes a mixture of methods, theory, and application in a studio environment. The contemporary design discipline at the center of this education is Interaction Design — the design of verbs, sequences, and exchanges between people, place, and information across many, many different contexts. The contemporary problems our students are tackling are societal, such as homelessness, healthcare, and education. What we’re really teaching is Social Entrepreneurship — the pursuit of a better world through problem solving and design. A Social Entrepreneur addresses some of the largest issues facing our world, including those of poverty, sustainability, inequality, access to natural resources, through creativity and innovative uses of technology and capital.

8) What do you believe designers need to know to help effectively build a design-driven culture?

JF: First, that today’s problems are wicked and ill-defined, in part because they are so systemic. Hugh Dubberly is very proficient about the importance of understanding the huge metaphorical shift between the industrial age and ours - from mechanical to biological. With biology comes a certain amount of unpredictability and pretzel logic, which contributes to the general wickedness of the problem.

Second, that designers can contribute an enormous amount of value because of their ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, manage complexity, and make a model, be it conceptual or physical. Models help designers tell stories and provide a conceptual foundation to build on.

LS: Designers can have as much of a blindness as business people do about design thinking. We (designers) tend to go to our clients and think that we have all the answers - and we forget that their business makes money, it works, and it has a culture that we need to understand before we can design for it. Working with clients requires design thinking as much as solving their problems does. When we embrace this, we can have tremendous impact on our client organizations; they watch learn from our process as we learn from them. We also need to remember that we are unique in our role, and design is a field established by constraint. We ought to embrace that not everybody should think, be and act like a designer - otherwise our jobs would be boring and commoditized.

9) Do you think that graduate education in design thinking should live in a business school, in a design school, or where? How would you create an integrated program that accomplishes the right priorities or goals and objectives?

JF: Yes. It’s happening at ac4d (our students are coming from a wide range of backgrounds), and at The Institute of Design, Stanford, Northwestern, Harvard, MIT, and Cincinnati among others. I also think it lives just as robustly in bootcamp-like training sessions and in short learning sprints supplemented by reading, presentations, and other really informative resources you can find online such as TED, YouTube, and RadioLab. This technology trend is greatly influencing education.

LS: I’m not sure where it “lives,” but I know that it’s important that the people teaching the program are people who practice. That’s one of the key reasons I think AC4D is effective - our faculty. We share a philosophy and have an active working relationship - and we practice what we preach, both at our day-jobs (none of us teach full-time) and in the way we develop the curricula for the school. We’re constantly collaborating and iterating on what we teach and how we teach. We respect each other and push each other to do new and interesting things. We are also the opposite of dogmatic with our students. We focus on pushing them to develop their own points of view, and to try things. We embrace that there will always be things we (the faculty) don’t know, so we do our best to give them a framework, a foundation and a sounding board. It is a tremendously productive environment to practice design thinking.

10) Which graduate schools do you believe to be most effective in bridging the gap between design and business?  Why do you say that and what do they do that you think is most valuable?

JF: What’s most valuable is that the student go through the experience in full, working through the messiness of problem definition, conducting research, making observations about the world and the context of the problem, designing something that solves the problem (or part of it), and packaging it in a tactile experience and viable business model.

LS: The most important thing is that a school recognizes the power of experience and makes that the core of its program. In design school, you learn something then do it - but the topic is always different. It’s never a “rinse and repeat.” Beautiful and articulate case studies are great reference, however students should be encouraged to make their own - to reinvent a process, not be constrained by it. That can only come through practice and curiosity.