What is Design Thinking?

This summer when I was at Mike and Kathy McCoy’s High Ground gathering in Buena Vista, Bill Moggridge of IDEO handed the attendees a xerox copy of a hand-scrawled 2×2 diagram. I wandered around with it in my notebook for about 4 months, and finally decided to transcribe to the digital realm this past week.

Bill attributed the diagram to Hugh Dubberly, Rick Robinson, Stafford Beer, and Christopher Alexander (which pretty much sums up the pantheon of the design modeling gods); through a quick web search I found one version of it online uploaded by Shelley Evensen of Carnegie Mellon from a presentation she gave earlier this year located here in PDF format.

Although this diagram doesn’t make any claims toward describing what design thinking is (or design strategy for that matter), I think it obliquely provides loads of insight into the value of research and prototype modeling.

In a typical, non-reflective approach, it’s very easy not to leave the ‘concrete’ world, attempting to move directly from “What is” to “What is might be like”. In a sense, this is a typical human approach; I do it, my clients do it, we see it all the time in our day-to-day lives.

But when we’re designing systems, when we’re designing for use, we need to get out of our own heads and not just run to the first solution that presents itself. So, instead we can move from the concrete to the abstract, where we develop models of our understand of what is (research). Then, that model is turned into the ideation/generation mode (prototyping). From this, we move toward concrete ideas of “What it might be like”.

When we take the time to explore research and prototype models – in other words, when we engage in design thinking – the design process yields significantly better results. Add in the potential for iterative cycles, and you have a strong foundation for improved solutions.

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