The “Thinking” In Design Thinking

Here’s is some more good reading that helps librarians to better grasp what design thinking really means – although there’s one aspect of this post with which I’d quibble. What I like about it though is that it does a good job of pointing out that the “thinking” in design thinking really refers to a process designers use to solve problems – or is that FIND problems.

Edwin Gardner, of the blog Creating Knowledge Through Practice, wrote an essay titled “Thinking through Design Thinking” in which he takes issue with some of the concepts of design thinking as they are promoted by the folks at IDEO and Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek. Although the essay was written in 2009 I discovered it only more recently here. Gardner first takes on design thinking as a process for problem solving (although I’ve heard design thinkers refer to themselves as problem finders, not problem solvers) and innovation. I have some problems with Gardner’s suggestion that design thinking is coupled with technology solutions for innovation, that it is “technocratic”. But many design-based innovations could have little to do with technology, and may focus instead on human-based change.

Where things get interesting is with Gardner’s contention that:

the real problem with design thinking is that [it] mostly deals with methodology, process, ‘how-to,’ it doesn’t deal with how design thinking actually works. Usually cases are brought forward of how a typical design approach has been successful in tackling a problem, but from this we don’t learn how thoughts unfold in the design process, how thinking unfolds. Thus design thinking currently deals with describing behavior, symptoms, the consequence of thoughts but not what design thinking consists of itself.

I agree that there is little about design thinking that actually explains what the “thinking” is, but should we expect it to? We can certainly learn from designers how they approach their work, identify problems, obtain solutions, etc., but does Gardner expect us to go beyond that, to somehow peer into their minds. I think that’s why I like what Warren Berger brings to this issue when he says that one of his main goals is “understanding how designers think and what the rest of us can learn from that”. I understand Gardner’s point, and it is well taken. I certainly would like a more algorithmic explanation of the “thinking” part of design thinking – and I’d like someone to just tell me how and what to do – but I hardly expect that to happen. I do expect that librarians will better understand the thinking part of design thinking when we try to authentically integrate the processes into our own practice. We can learn more about how designers think based on what we see them do and what they share with us about their work – as the folks at IDEO do – even if we can’t look inside their minds.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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