Design thinking and evolving how we design
Design thinking was the biggest design process innovation of the last decade, and it benefited the many companies that needed a more holistic and collaborative way to solve their brand, service, and product problems. It allowed people who were not designers to understand the creative process better because it framed problems and ideas in common left-brained terms—using questioning, reasoning, iteration and analysis as the foundation for innovation.
Design thinking gets teams closer to understanding the problem—especially end-user problems—but it doesn’t necessarily generate the big disruptive idea or great design. It stacks the kindling beautifully but doesn’t quite make the spark. Many companies expect that if they employ a troop of designers and ask them to do design thinking, a solution will just pop out of the other end. Not surprisingly, the result is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Design thinking sometimes fails because it’s a methodology, and creativity doesn’t like methodology.
Creativity is messy. It flourishes when it’s spontaneous, raw and unguided. It can strike when least expected, and it rarely strikes at all when planned. These unbridled and untimed creative surges aren’t really accounted for in design thinking. Design leaders must let the process breathe, and they must be confident that the chaos will eventually take form. Creativity also thrives when design leaders recognize when a creatively ripe moment is happening, and then stoke every opportunity to advance a solution. This entails carefully extracting important insights from everyone in the room, including the quiet introvert.
I think good design can sputter to life by first trusting a notion, an instinct, or a hunch about how something can be solved, even though it might not be logical. That’s called seeing. To me, seeing is the most important part of any creative process. Seeing is observation, feeling and perception. Seeing is listening. Seeing is where insight is born.
One’s best work comes from sitting with a problem, watching a user, or being a user yourself for a week or two, while letting it all seep in without being too analytical. Seeing fills the subconscious with root understanding. This understanding feeds your creative stem cells, and then there’s a sudden burst of creative energy where ideas start to flow.
Design seeing is very personal, and it doesn’t fit neatly into a design thinking process teeming with Venn diagrams and Post-Its. A timid but brilliant little sketch by that quiet designer in the corner can easily get lost in a sea of design thinking, but it may very well be the right answer. I have been involved in so many projects where those little sparks are what ignite the fire, but they must be seen and given oxygen to flourish.
At Whipsaw, we have our own design process that is informed by these emotive factors in addition to design thinking and cognitive reasoning. We call our process ESTEEM which stands for “Examine, See, Think, Explore, Evaluate and Make.” Note that the seeing happens before the thinking, unlike conventional schools of creative thought. ESTEEM works best when it’s cyclical: Complete one round then do it again and again until you perfect the solution. Creativity is delicate. It’s like gothic architecture that’s so light and diaphanous it needs flying buttresses to stay up. ESTEEM buttresses creativity because it’s so elusive, capricious and fleeting. It needs all the support it can get to take hold and thrive.
Considering all the societal changes and challenges, this decade will likely become a more serious and sober one. I think design processes need to expand to include this fuzzy intuitive side of design in order to make a solution more complete and more human. I truly believe that thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than seeing. Amazing things happen when you incorporate all three. I suspect more designers will realize this in the next decade as we move beyond design thinking.
Ever since the founding of the industrial design profession roughly 100 years ago, its primary business objective has been to sell more product. The corporate rationale was that if you made your products better looking, they would be more marketable…and they were. Design pioneers like Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Henry Dreyfuss and Elliot Noyes proved that. Their design helped catapult companies like GE, AT&T, IBM, and John Deere into the giants they are today.
Since then, design has evolved into a much more sophisticated and multidimensional profession that considers not only product appearance, but the entire user experience—from optimizing initial brand exposure all the way to product disposal. Nowadays, every aspect of the product is usually researched and tailor-made for a desired market effect. One key factor remains the same though: The core purpose of industrial design is to sell more product and fuel prosperity. Specifically, its purpose is to fuel prosperity as defined by the capitalist model, which means make more money. The formula consists of the following: increase profit, reduce cost, build shareholder value, and get to number one market stature.
Now, there’s nothing totally wrong with all that. After all, a good economy is usually good for individuals and helps to maintain global peace (since interdependent trade policies motivate us to get along under the “what’s good for you is good for me too” reasoning). However, economic prosperity and growth often run counter to human prosperity.
This relentless corporate drive to make more money through design doesn’t inspire me as a creative person. My definition of prosperity is the complete opposite. Like many designers, I value meaning over money, outcome for users over income for corporations, and growth of cultural value over growth of shareholder value.
Don’t get me wrong, I like and respect business, but ironically, when your priorities shift like this as a designer, it actually creates much more demand. That is, when consumers sense there is meaning and genuine care behind what is being sold to them, they want it more. When a brand presents a range of “prosperity options,” like health, mindfulness or happiness, of course you want it more. I call it ROC (Return on Creativity) instead of ROI (Return on Investment). ROC yields a generous return because it invests in solving a wide range of problems for the consumer that can be instantly accessed and appreciated.
We also need to be reminded that prosperity has a broad definition. Buddhists think of prosperity as a measure of spiritual and group health. In many parts of the developing world, prosperity means you’re eating well. Progressive economists think a circular economy (based on the regenerative closed-loop cycle of use, reuse, recycle and remake) is a blend of prosperity and sustainability.
In terms of design, prosperity, in my opinion, is when you’re improving the welfare of individuals and the planet with good product solutions. I think it’s incumbent upon designers to actively define and promote their own wider definition of prosperity. Otherwise, who else will do it? It’s certainly not coming from businesses, schools, politicians, or the bean counters. They only preach profit and growth.
It’s important to retool our prosperity model now because capitalism as an economic construct is waning. Income inequality is at its most extreme. The environment is being destroyed for the sake of wealth. Greed is practically a religion. Consumerism has gone beyond an economic order that encourages the acquisition of more goods. It has become our modern-day culture.
People lust for the latest thing and then get bored after using it a few times. Product consumption is often so fleeting that it reminds me of how people gobble up Instagram or TikTok content. Consumerism consists of too much stuff, (which sometimes offers too little substance), and our economic machine just keeps churning it out. It’s simply not sustainable unless we expand our prosperity model to include ecological and humanistic sensibilities—and always design for it.
One key to effect positive change is to make the benefits of a wider prosperity model directly applicable and relevant to the corporations that make the stuff. Otherwise, there is no buy-in. Designers need to evangelize the notion that “gain” doesn’t just mean increased profit. Gain is also increased enablement, achievement and meaning.
I hope that in the coming decade the world wakes up and embraces this opportunity to view prosperity in a new light. Ultimately, I suspect we’ll realize that downscaling production and consumption for the sake of happiness and the planet must be done. In the meantime, designers have a marvelous chance to influence how people view prosperity because the very roots of prosperity are already embedded in what designers create.
A decade ago, I was at a conference that examined the topic of computers doing design. I’m not talking about CAD. I’m talking about computers doing the actual design creation. It was called “autocreation,” and it sounded blasphemous to think that a computer could ever design like a touchy-feely human. After all, design is a distinctly human endeavor that requires emotion, sensitivity, and life experiences, of which computers have none…right?
Well, autocreation, now called Artificial Design Intelligence (ADI), is already happening and will pick up speed in the coming decade. With ADI, a designer inputs requirements and objectives into a computer program and voilà, the ADI computer cobbles together and spits out several possible design solutions. Right now the results aren’t good, but just extrapolate out and imagine how far it will probably go.
Where computers vastly surpass humans is in their ability to process tons of data instantaneously. Certain design projects benefit from all that data, such as interface design that needs to be automatically changeable to accommodate shifting user needs, or when products in a system improve on their own because they cross-reference data with other products in the system. Where computers are vastly inferior to humans is when there is little data to work with, and that’s how many design problems start.
Although ADI could be fascinating, I also find it a little sad. Design is fun. Don’t take that away. Design happens in the soul. It’s art, passion and grit all rolled into one. As ADI develops, designers must make sure we keep those values alive in whatever form ADI takes. Designers need to be a part of the software programming teams to ensure that the creative process is augmented by AI, not overtaken by it.
Ideally, ADI software would replicate what our brains go through during the creative design process. Unprompted bursts of inspiration, unrelenting curiosity, illogical combinations, causal inference, rapid win-fail-win cycles, boundless wonder, and the sheer joy of discovery are the human brain proficiencies that allow us to innovate like we do. These creative drivers are fueled by character, ego, individuality, and life experience. How will ADI ever be able to “think” this way?
Hands are also a big part of the creative process. Whether sketching, sculpting, gesturing, or playing an instrument, hands are an extraordinary extension of the creative mind. I’ve been drawing my whole life and I still haven’t figured out how the brain-hand mental apparatus really works. I start with a vague idea about something and let my hand run with it—knowing it will magically solidify the idea. Of course the brain controls the hand, but when you get into a creative flow state, a beautiful conversation occurs between your hands and your head. You start thinking with your hands. Indeed, many experiments have shown that the creative prefrontal cortex and the hand-control motor cortex synchronize closely during acts of creativity.
You could say that ADI’s “hands” are computer graphics and 3D printers. They put down the computer’s thoughts, if you will, like our hands do ours. But computer graphics and printers don’t give back or converse with the processor the way our hands and brains do. Presently, AI lacks this “embodied cognition” which reasons that a living creature’s physical presence has bearing on how it thinks, and that the mind is not only connected to the body, but that the body influences the mind.
Embodied cognition is what happens when we design. We let the physical world of movement, interaction and perception inform our creative process. We ponder and think, while also making and doing. For ADI to ever really work well, I suspect it will have to somehow learn to mimic this extraordinary connection between mind and body.
ADI will eventually have a massive influence on how we design, but the next 10 years of its embryonic state is when it will begin to reveal its true nature and promise. If it does catch up to our level of human creativity, watch out.