Design thinking - Problem solving
Designing way out of a maze

Howard Frederick writes:  The  linked article by Natasha Iskander in Harvard Business Review is an example of ‘Design Thinking Irredentism’.  Irredentism is a movement that seeks to claim/reclaim and occupy lost territory. Iskander seeks to foment the discontent of managers against ‘outsiders’, that new corps of designers that is revolutionizing everything from business models to personal life directions.  She fails to recognize that ‘designerly ways of knowing’ is as important as the scientific method.

Her major defense is that there’s nothing new about Design Thinking; it’s all just a modern rehash of the scientific method, or what she calls the ‘rational-experimental’ approach.  Nigel Cross very early distinguished three ‘cultures’ of knowing: (1) science (what Iskander calls ‘rational-experimental (such as physics or chemistry but also the social sciences); (2) humanities (as in arts and history); and then (3) design (a set of tools that melds form and function into manufacturability and marketability).

Each has different things it seeks to know, different ways of knowing them, and different ways of finding out about them.  ‘Rational-experimental’ is not a designerly way of knowing.  Here are the differences: 

  • What do we study?  In science, we study the natural world; in humanities, the human experience. But in design, we study the artificial world that is all around us. 
  • How do we study each culture?  In the sciences we use experimentation, analysis and classification; in the humanities analogy, metaphor, criticism and evaluation. However, in design we study pattern formation, synthesis and modelling.
  • What are the supreme values of each culture? In the sciences, we value above all else objectivity, rationality, neutrality and truth; in the humanities, subjectivity, imagination, commitment and justice. What makes design different is that here we value most highly practicality, ingenuity, empathy and appropriateness.  See Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.

Iskander says that Design Thinking ‘reaffirms the privileged role of the designer’ (presumably taking ‘territory’ away from management).  But Design Thinking involves a set of cognitive processes that are in some ways different from managerial intelligence.  Cross calls this ‘design intelligence’. Design intelligence is associated with abductive reasoning, critical thinking, intuitive thinking, reflective reframing, holistic viewing, integrative thinking, and divergent/convergent thinking. ‘Designerly intelligent’ individuals can plan, review, reflect, adapt and, above all, create novel solutions. Like other forms of intelligence and ability, design intelligence is not simply a given talent or gift, but can be trained and developed.  Cross, N. (2011). Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work (1 edition). Berg Publishers.

This is quite different from the managerial approach to innovation.  Managers simply don’t have these skills.  New ideas do not emerge from  managerial logic. New ideas come into being through ‘logical leaps of the mind’. You have to make what American philosopher Charles S. Pierce called an ‘inference to the best explanation’.  Design thinking uses this third kind of logic. Abductive logic is what you use when you are confronted with an incomplete set of observations. You make hypotheses using the best information available, which often entails making an educated guess after observing a phenomenon for which there is no clear explanation. Then you test your hunches until you have the likeliest possible explanation for the group of observations.  Peirce, C. (1998). Pragmatism as the Logic of Abduction. In The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Indiana University Press.

Iskander fails to recognize that Design Thinking is the opposite of managerial thinking, where all proof comes from the past and from historical data. Most business schools teach young managers to examine what has already happened before deciding on a course of action and to protect the organization from the ‘randomness of intuitive thinking’.  This is not to say that analytical thinking is unimportant; it is essential when exploiting an opportunity. Intuitive creativity leads to breakthrough concepts, which analytical implementation can then exploit. Martin, R. L. (2009). The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Press, p. 24.

[Design Thinking] is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo — and an old strategy at that. Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process. In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty — like climate change — where doing things the way we always have done them is a sure recipe for disaster.


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