TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
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    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >

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    « Spirituality and Design, Part 2 | Main | An odd little book: Everyday Engineering: What Engineers See, by Andrew Burroughs »

    August 31, 2007

    Design Thinking

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    Posted by Paula Thornton

    I was attempting to edit the abysmal entry for Design Thinking on Wikipedia. I began to doubt the appropriateness of what I was writing – not for its validity but for its style. I finally decided to simply put what I would have wanted for an entry there, here.

    Design Thinking leverages implicit elements of design practices, as a means to approach problem solving. It is a critical factor for innovation.

    "Design thinking is a term being used today to define a way of thinking that produces transformative innovation." [1] The term has gained significance as it is being embraced outside of the normal realm for which it might have traditionally been applied.

    Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, suggests that Design Thinking is central to value creation in the 21st century (see "Design of Business"). It is not a matter of gaining an understanding of design, it's a matter of embracing design – a way of operating. Martin further suggests that success in the 20th century was defined by an ability to move through a continuum, from mystery, to heuristic, to algorithm, to binary code. In this way things are identified, a pattern is made, and exact replicas are generated. For a mass production economy this is an ideal model for operating success.

    But as barriers to information are lowered (less expensive, more readily available/shared), the economics of competition change dramatically. The value of intellectual capital is now often greater when it is shared and allowed to evolve openly (a lot of lawyers suddenly become irrelevant). Fundamental business models rely on minimizing risk. Getting to binary code was an ideal way to lock down fluctuation and variance – both associated with risk.

    New economic models embrace risk as reality, requiring a move back up the continuum to 'heuristic'. Roger Martin specifically suggests: "I would argue that to be successful in the future, businesspeople will have to become more like designers – more ‘masters of heuristics’ than ‘managers of algorithms’." For classic business models this is uncomfortable. The idea of managing something squishy is foreign. Design Thinking is required to operate in squishy-mode.

    It's not to be confused with a method – it's fundamentally a culture, a genotype to reshape methods of operating. Contemporary organizational structures are antithetical to this culture. Martin elaborates,

    Whereas traditional firms organize around ongoing tasks and permanent assignments, in design shops, work flows around projects with defined terms. The source of status in traditional firms is ‘managing big budgets and large staffs’, but in design shops, it derives from building a track record of finding solutions to ‘wicked problems’ – solving tough mysteries with elegant solutions.

    Whereas the style of work in traditional firms involves defined roles and seeking the perfect answer, design firms feature extensive collaboration, ‘charettes’ (focused brainstorming sessions), and constant dialogue with clients.

    Design Thinking is critical to and at the same time relies on emergent structures. As such, it is central to all aspects of 2.0 design.

    Design Thinking is a specific concept (the significance between specific and general use of a term is illustrated in the reference to complexity). While common methods of thought include deductive and inductive reasoning, Design Thinking embraces these but adds abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is effectively embracing a posture of "Why not?", but with a layer of rationale.

    Random trial and error is expensive. Rationale is too often replaced by random opinion. While predominantly driven by profit-motivation (e.g. search engine optimization, transactional growth), there is clear professional growth in the discipline of web analytics. To be most effective, Design Thinking must be informed by Design Research (transactional analytics, behavioral analytics, feedback loops, usability studies, and ethnography). I call this evidence-based design, Jeffrey Pfeffer calls it evidence-based management.

    Another differentiating element of Design Thinking is a focus on synthesis rather than analysis. Claudia Kotchka notes:

    Designers problem-solve holistically, not in a linear fashion. While the scientific method for problem solving uses problem focused strategies and analysis, designers use solution focused strategies and synthesis. They start with a whole solution rather than break it down into parts.

    Good Design Thinking is the ability to see things not readily apparent to others (that's where market differentiation can occur). Thus my favorite Schopenhauer quote:

    “Thus the task is
    not so much to see
    what no one yet has seen,
    but to think
    what nobody yet has thought
    about that which
    everybody sees”

    It's the ability to see the 'edges' of something, to find shape and form in a mass of stuff. It's the ability to see things differently – to see the implicit and make it explicit.

    Additional References

    Comments (6) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Commentary


    1. Marc Rettig on September 2, 2007 8:35 AM writes...

    Two key characteristics of design thinking that come to mind:

    (as opposed to "decision-making" mindset; see the excellent first essay in "Managing as Designing", Boland and Collopy, for more on this)

    Decision mindset: "I am going to identify all the alternatives, weigh their consequences, and choose one."

    Design mindset: "Many of the alternatives are yet to be discovered, and the true consequences of choosing any of them are difficult to be sure of; let's iteratively explore the possibilities together, discovering new ones and choosing as best we can at each step."

    Design thinking is built on confidence in The Design Process:

    - understand the context you are addressing -- the people, relevant activities and environments,... the forces at work must necessarily shape any workable solution

    - try to conceive something that might serve the situation you've started to understand

    - embody the potential solution in some form that lets you put it into the target context and see how it works

    - this takes you back to the "understand" step, and around you go again

    These two, for me, define "design thinking" for the extremely wide variety of situations I've found myself addressing in my career.

    The definition of "value," the shape of the working culture, choice of methods and tools,... the rest all follow.

    Permalink to Comment

    2. Paula Thornton on September 14, 2007 6:37 PM writes...

    Mark: I'm not disagreeing with your premise about the relationship of Design Thinking to the Design Process, however, the critical issue 'today' is to work toward increased adoption of the principles among people who do not think of themselves as designers or engaging in design processes (ala. the hairball syndrome).

    Permalink to Comment

    3. Chas Martin on September 15, 2007 11:37 AM writes...

    The term "design thinking" seems to suggest an intentional and thorough approach to solution development. Unfortunately, I believe the term is too often used superficially. For example, Whirlpool president, David Swift and VP of Global Consumer Design, Charles Jones, presented perspectives at The Front End of Innovation conference in May of 2007. (See:

    A more thorough design thinking approach would have to include the issue of sustainability, which was suspiciously lacking from all of the presentations at this event.

    The Oregon Natural Step Network, the U.S. headquarters of the international organization founded by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, promotes an approach that integrates products, services and processes into a more holistic system of design thinking. (See:

    The sustainability angle is still new turf for many, but not new to companies like Interface, Inc. of Atlanta, GA.
    Deep design thinking, as opposed to superficial design thinking, must address the entire product or service life cycle and also consider the impact on the supply chain from end to end.

    Permalink to Comment

    4. Paula Thornton on September 26, 2007 9:44 AM writes...

    Chas: Thanks for adding the breadth to this topic, to remind the "we" who are voicing this message of the full spectrum of interest/concern. The points you make are those items that I'd add 'after' getting the original concepts across.

    This is all a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated to begin with. I literally had a non-practicing technical leader (meaning he's more resposible for relationships than for 'doing' technical implementations) roll his eyes back in his head when I had presented the basics of these concepts and insist that this was all just 'marketing stuff'.

    Permalink to Comment

    5. Michael Josefowicz on February 15, 2010 12:45 PM writes...

    I got here from a link in another comment thread. What I still can't figure out is why so much energy on defining "design thinking?" It seems to me that successful entrepreneur captures all that is important and is not subject to the ambiguity of "design."

    Help. What exactly am I missing?

    Permalink to Comment

    6. Rokapchen on February 15, 2010 1:05 PM writes...

    I guess that all depends on how you articulate what makes for a "successful entrepreneur". Indeed, part of the issue for which we are struggling is that everything known in the past is not working.

    As was pointed out in the other discussion, design is most relevant for this era for which we are now faced: where nothing from the past makes sense in the new environment.

    Come back after you read "The Age of Paradox" by Charles Handy, where he summarily rejects his prior writings because of his new findings: "there are never any simple or right answers in any part of life" p.xi

    "We used to think that we knew how to run organizations. Now we know better...the successful ones live with paradox, or what they call 'dilemmas'" p.34

    Design Thinking is the realm of embracing paradox for solving problems.

    Permalink to Comment


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Design Thinking:

    Are You A Design Thinker? from iRise Blog
    Are you taking advantage of design to generate strategic business differentiation? I got turned onto the topic of design thinking from Cone Johnson - an iRise user who helped organize an event around design thinking in Dallas today. So what is desig... [Read More]

    Tracked on October 19, 2007 1:53 PM


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