Answer the questions no one asked: Heuristic vs. Divergent Thinking

In the past few decades, design has been reliant on well established processes to arrive at answers. Their mostly linear progression has transformed designers into problem solvers who try to respond to human behavior. However, is compelling design as simple as problem solving? How can design’s linear process create compelling brand stories that resonate with people? My struggle with these questions is best summed up by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley in “Are We Human?” with this thought:

“Design has never been about giving someone what they ask for, but what they wish they had asked for and retroactively pretend they did ask for.”

This struggle to find these kinds of solutions stretches through all disciplines. We find it in Architecture, Branding, Product, Digital, etc., and it goes: The rationality of design is colliding with the organic nature of work. We are always trying to create something autonomous that stands for individuality while insisting it be shaped by the context of life and the common sense of society. Both are equally of ‘human’ nature. If only the context defines the story, we will end up with a general solution. If only the brand or product defines the story, this will result in an isolated solution. As we are creating a story that is meant to truly reflect the nature of the brand as well as our lives, we need to balance both the autonomy and the heteronomy of all experiences. We need to create Autonomous Heteronomy.

This means we need to train our brains to hold on to a singular idea or purpose, while simultaneously knowing that ideas will be informed and considered by an organic network of social experiences and inputs.

For the last 60 years, we have ideated through what is known as ‘divergent thinking’ — we approach a brainstorm through a brief that communicates the central story and then we look at possible solutions in a free and random way. Through this process, we find things that work and things that don’t. Hopefully some are brilliant, hopefully none are too banal. It’s an arbitrary starting point that we hope will lead us to specific results and is all comparatively measured against a separate story or essence that we aim to clarify through design.

I believe the more effective way to ideate today is based on heuristics. This starts by constructing a story informed by information, experience and intuition, while simultaneously exploring it through all available design channels to give practical feedback. A loop where we keep re-examining and resharpening ideas and so on. What this does in terms of balancing autonomy and context is this: We are building design into the creation of the story and the story into the creation of design. We are designing with ideas rather than merely finding ideas through design. By doing this, we are using what I like to call the new palette of design (story and experience) to go way beyond the obvious.

Ideating by way of heuristic thinking means responding to the organic nature of our work. It will require us to answer the questions no one is asking.

– Marc Hohmann, Managing Director, Design at Sterling Brands