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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Design Thinking for 21st century Designers - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

Design thinkers from Leonardo da Vinci to Buckminister Fuller and everyone else who did not suffer the effects of education systems that lead to development and articulation of linear and fragmented thinking will have reason to smile.

'Design Thinking' is fashionable at long last. As the last remnants of specialised thinking, so useful in the industrial age, begin to die a natural death and business discovers the value of holistic thinking in the creation of wealth, an era spanning roughly 200 years comes to a close. Left-brain thinking that changed the way we built our worlds and conducted our affairs is ready to consolidate its gains and give back the world to holistic paradigms that do not see reality in terms of dualities

But, what is this design thinking? Is it still teleological as was practiced by 20th century designers?

I am afraid it is, and as other disciplines move to embrace it with enthusiasm, designers themselves are grappling with the realities of uncertain ends and the limits of causality. The popular idea of 'Design Thinking' resides within the realm of an Aristotelian universe.

Designers have always been concerned with the human dimension and unlike engineers, treat the human as central to the design process. In a post-modern world where diversity of world views and cultural complexity brings us in touch with peoples who do not live an Aristotelian view of reality, design as teleology becomes vulnerable and must be questioned.

It is no longer given that the form of the end product is clear and designers need only solve for it. End results are no longer clear, that is why innovation becomes key to problem solving. This implies that design process adapts to producing fuzzy solutions that are completed by the consumer. The end user is increasingly a key player in the design process and the making of meaning and form.

And, s/he comes with a variety of world views.

S/he may not understand a causal, teleological view of reality. She may have a background of Hindu, Buddhist or Zen which offers views of reality that are vastly different to the Aristotelian model that has formed the basis of modern design which has its roots in Europe and their dominant view of reality.

The end user from cultures dissimilar to the designer can render a design solution meaningless, this is immediately apparent to communication designers who make products that, by their very nature, need the user's interpretation to achieve completion.

I have long grappled with the problem of developing a 'design process' that is not teleological and does not presuppose the end result. This means being comfortable with open-endedness and uncertainty, with probable outcomes as opposed to certainty and finished products.

Communication products can never be finished when they leave the designer's office, they achieve fullness when they are interpreted by the user. When the user shares the same 'view of reality' as the designer, the chances of success are maximised. This has worked well when both the designer and user have belonged to the same tradition (the values of simplicity and minimalism inherent in modernism) either due to sharing of cultures or education.

Today the information/communication realities have transformed this certainty and end users are no longer from the hitherto dominant world view. Post modern interpretations embrace multiplicity like never before, global markets mean exactly that and communication products depend on 'variable' interpretations to achieve completion.

Non designers have embraced 'design thinking' as practiced in the industrial age, it is undoubtedly a huge step forward for managers and fragmented thinkers and will aid in problem solving that are human centric and have clear outcomes as goals.

Designers, however, need to rethink their positions and embrace a humanity that does not share world views and are insistent on being a part of both the design process and the definition of objectives.

Design has always had many meanings and interpretations, 'design thinking' as understood by traditional designers and now, managers, is no longer enough.
What shall we call the process we are developing now? Is it actually closer to the concept of 'universal thinking' (primary thinking) as articulated so many years ago at Bauhaus before design embraced the industrial ethos in its totality?

We deal with open-endedness, the end user is integral to the design process, s/he completes the communication product that we initiate and s/he does it from standpoints that we can never anticipate, our solutions deal with probabilities more than they do with certainties.

It is an interactive world and as the communication age attains maturity, design processes are hitting the new frontier. The transition from the tangible and physical to the virtual and interactive is no longer confined to communications and will become increasingly important to other designers too, as the end user becomes an integral part of and active in the process of problem solving.

Humans are at the heart of design, have always been and in this time where communication dominates the way we live our lives, the end user has never been more important or more active in determining solutions and articulating choices, needs and desires.

We will increasingly need to find ways to solve for multiplicity and interactivity. Design Thinking in this scenario will lead to problem solving process that is fluid, dynamic and receptive to surprises. It will have to be nimble and be prepared to find meaning and integrity in vastly different world-views.

The design process is never ending, not even when the 'solution' has been articulated and completed by the user.

We must accept that there are no absolutes and the world is whatever we perceive it to be, a reflection of our mind states, an articulation of our subjective and outside selves entwined in a never ending dance. Our solutions must be ever evolving and have the depth and maturity to enhance the experience of the end user even if they participate in apparently contradictory meaning making.

Designers are once again at the edge of a new world and we can taste the excitement our gurus and pioneers must have felt in the 20th century, at the dawn of modern design. My pulse quickens as I see the effects of this kind of design thinking, which lead to the end user's mind-set and world view
creating self sufficient experiences and meaning, yet enhancing the communication objectives I apply this process to.

Design as an activity that keeps the human in the central role has never had it so challenging, the human for whom we design has taken charge of what s/he wants and how s/he wants it. S/he is, at last, an equal if unpredictable partner in our 'design way'.


  1. If design delinks itself from the industrial and commercial ecosystem, does it become art? I recall at NID, we were severely indoctrinated against being "artists" - self-indulgent chaotic individuals whose actions were within a very narrow context - whereas we designers, with our influence in industry and thereby mainstream culture, would change the world. I think the time has come to blur these boundaries once and for all. I'd say designers are artists with a different method, perhaps more conservative. And design, like art, needs to re-establish its original connect with fundamental human values, impulses and concerns - matters of the spirit, of conviviality, of freedom and so on. And the way ahead may certainly involve looking backwards as well.

  2. Just a link to my blog where I just posted a list of good design thinking readings. A source of great thoughts on what design is.



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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.