What does design thinking feel like?

September 7, 2008 — 11 Comments

John Maeda (President of RISD) would likely answer that question by saying “a banana”. He often talks about how hard it is to describe design and I agree with him.

On the other hand I think one of the biggest obstacles to using design thinking as an effective problem solving approach is anticipating what it feels like. We are not used to wondering about how processes feel. I think we assume they all feel the same and in conventional business that is probably true. They are mostly analytical, rational, formal and convergent. Analytical in that we break problems up to study them. Rational in that we take an ordered approach. Formal in that we can describe the approach and replicate it easily and convergent in that we start with available choices and work toward a single best solution. We have been experiencing processes like this ever since studying math or science at school.

Design thinking is different and therefore it feels different.

Firstly it is not only convergent. It is a series of divergent and convergent steps. During divergence we are creating choices and during convergence we are making choices. For people who are looking to have a good sense of the answer, or at least a previous example of one, before they start divergence is frustrating. It almost feels like you are going backwards and getting further away from the answer but this is the essence of creativity. Divergence needs to feel optimistic, exploratory and experimental but it often feels foggy to people who are more used to operating on a plan. Divergence has to be supported by the culture.

The second difference is that design thinking relies on an interplay between analysis and synthesis, breaking problems apart and putting ideas together. Synthesis is hard because we are trying to put things together which are often in tension. Less expensive, higher quality for instance. This is where Roger Martin’s idea of integrative thinking is important. Check out his book The Opposable Mind if you haven’t already seen it.

Designers have evolved visual ways to synthesize ideas and this is another one of the obstacles for those new to design thinking; a discomfort with visual thinking. A sketch of a new product is a piece of synthesis. So is a scenario that tells a story about an experience. A framework is a tool for synthesis and design thinkers create visual frameworks that in themselves describe spaces for further creative thinking.

I have always felt that the uncertainty of divergence and the integrative head-hurting complexity of synthesis are the unique characteristics of design thinking and they are also the things that make it really challenging.

The pay-off  is that feeling of flow that comes when ideas come together and take form. Is this when convergence is happening?

Tim Brown


11 responses to What does design thinking feel like?

  1. I think the divergent-synthesis part of design thinking is actually very easy for designers, while the convergence is often more challenging.

    Does design thinking fall in one place on your quadrant map sketch? In my mind, it either floats around or could be placed directly in the center.

  2. I think it feels like Cory’s Chair, Aruther Ganson’s kinetic sculpture.

    Fortunately, in practice, the chair is different each time it comes together. The magic happens when we capture the convergent synthesis at the right time and from the right perspective resulting in the artifact. As in the video, you hear the snap and feel the moment… only to start the process once again.

  3. Why is Design Thinking, something with so much potential, such a rare (thus even more valuable than it is inherently) ability? I say education.

    From the beginning, students are taught to solve the math problem, put the puzzle together, synthesize information into reports. Off the top of my head I am having a real tough time trying to think of any divergent activities,save for maybe a few in a Mech Eng. Design course (which didn’t come until ~17 years into my formal education).

    It stinks, but this stagnant concept is baked into what our society at large perceives as “intelligent”. Just take a peek at the Mensa Practice Test: In order to qualify as a “Genius” you need only identify patterns, not create patterns.

    Just imagine a new generation of students who have a foundation for what we call “Design Thinking” built into their psyche.

    If any teacher comes across this post, think about this: What a fun exercise it would be to give students a math solution and have them brainstorm all the potential problems that would correlate. Or to create a puzzle instead of solve it. It can’t hurt right?

  4. After reading your post and Clark Quinn’s post on design, I created this map:
    Design Map

  5. “I have always felt that the uncertainty of divergence and the integrative head-hurting complexity of synthesis are the unique characteristics of design thinking and they are also the things that make it really challenging.

    The pay-off is that feeling of flow that comes when ideas come together and take form.”

    very interesting and the word ‘flow’ almost bring it into a poetic realm.

    how else does it feel?
    it also feels ‘optimistic’.

    meaning: you need to BELIEVE that you can solve the riddle in order to solve it.
    you need to believe that ‘somehow’ – through analysis, through empathy, through trial and error, through short cuts or even through a lucky compromise – by chance or plan – things will fall into place.

    it is this optimism – this belief – that gives you the drive to look in all the right and in all the wrong places at the same time and with the same curiosity.

    design thinking has an appetite, a hunger for constraints. it can thrive on budget restrictions for example…

    and design thinking is questioning, shifting and reorganizing priorities. in this way design thinking can be very open for compromise.

    the only compromise design thinking cannot accept, is the final compromise: a committee solution – a solution where compromises as a nasty fragmentation are apparent in the result.

    design thinking feels safe and enthusiastic. it feels that the right team is working on the right project.
    it does not have to be the best team – that is hardly ever to find. – but it has to be the RIGHT team – like in one of those sports movies where an outsider team has all the right chemistry and spirit.
    once a project starts, the team has to be the ‘right team’. – that is very much a question of project management. – and that is what will make it the best team.

  6. Hi, the blog is getting better with every other article. I am loving it, Tim.

    ‘jkh’ has added quite a lot to what Tim has started. I ‘d like to add couple of things to it. The divergent approach is seldom sought after even though it can light up untouched and hidden problem areas. The uncertainty associated with divergence may be the reason for this scenario. In fact its more difficult to evaluate the directions in the divergent approach as most of them might seem to point to nowhere.

    At the same time its very interesting that every other direction in a divergent approach might give totally new perspective to the problem which in turn might lead to great solutions. Well, the whole idea of manipulating the thought process and the understanding that it is possible, makes design thinking interesting and worth the effort. As mentioned, Optimism is the key.

  7. I have been playing with the term “singularity” for some months and in my thinking had to come up with an opposite “pluralarity”. This is a step beyond R. Buckminster Fuller’s and Issac Newtons thinking of gravity and bodies as points and into Einstein’s thinking of curved space.

    I see singularity as a time of homogeneity and pluralarity as a time heterogeneity in design. A convergent design is a “one design fits all” product while a divergent design is a “one design fits one” product. I think Fuller would have termed them omni-design and uni-design respectively.

  8. This is awesome !!! Good work

  9. How true, it does feel different.
    I’m a recent graduate and while in school I strongly advocated the practice of a design thinking approach. I found that it was difficult for many to comprehend. It wasn’t until they began putting it into practice did they grasp the ideology. It’s a much more active and hands-on method that offers no guarantees in what the result will be. To often do we start a project conceptualizing the solution prior to thinking about the problem. By thinking we’re feeling, seeing, relating and giving explanation to the problem. Design Thinking challenges our perspective and that’s why I feel this approach is best explained through it’s process then by it’s definition.

  10. Need to trust the process. It all turns out well. How? I don’t know, it’s a mystery.

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