Design Thinking

Ok, so this will be one post of manyDesign Thinking is all the rage. My interest lies mainly in the longer term study of the cognitive processes of designers and how these are applied to design problems, after all, the term goes back at least as far as the 1987 study Design Thinking by Peter Rowe. The ideas behind this study go back further to Donald Schön's Reflective Practitioner (1983) and research into the structure of problems in the study of artificial intelligence in the 60's and 70's (Simon Herbert and others).

Nigel Cross sums up the distinction between different approaches to the idea 'design thinking' in "Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline versus Design Science" by defining different states of the relationship between science and design. The first is scientific design, which alludes to fields of design which have distinct scientific underpinnings such as material science. The second is design science, which is more of an imposition of scientific discipline (ie the scientific method) on the process of design. As such this describes a systematic method of design which tends to produce a very rigid and insufficient response to design problems. The final relationship can be called the science of design, and this one points to design thinking.

The science of design implies that the study of design may be a scientific endeavor, the purpose of which is the search for an epistemology of practice. This process may uncover the features described in popular literature such as prototyping and brainstorming. However, rather than compiling these features into a teachable method, a science of design approach situates these elements in a cognitive process that is nurtured by experience. This opens up space between the method of design thinking that is being popularized in many different fields and the search for what it is that makes designers tick.

A good deal of the uniqueness of design thinking is design itself. This is not to say that 'design thinking' cannot be applied in other fields, but rather that it will always be a loose fit. So why should designers study the science of design? I find there is much value to the design fields in making manifest what we claim to know intuitively. Clarifying the nature of a designer's approach can help to sharpen that approach. In a basic sense, it would benefit the student of design who may harbor frustrations over seemingly opaque pedagogies and help sharpen the instructor's (or practitioner's) techniques. In future posts I will try to flesh out some of the interesting insights that the science of design has uncovered.

Further Reading:

Nigel Cross, "Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline versus Design Science," (Design Issues, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 2001), pp. 49-55.

Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst, Design Expertise, (Oxford: Elsevier/Architectural Press, 2009)

Peter G. Rowe, Design thinking, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987)

Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner : How Professionals Think in Action, (New York: Basic Books, 1983)

And Tim Brown for good measure.

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