Design researchers must think fast and slow

Sam Ladner
May 11, 2015 · 6 min read

Research into brain science offers some surprising insights for guiding research practice. These findings suggest that the scientific method constrains our natural creativity. Too often, researchers take their cue from the scientific method. While this method undoubtedly changed the world and our knowledge of it, it is antithetical to the creative needs of a well-rounded researcher. It is especially problematic for design research, which requires creative solutions to existing problems.

Design researchers should embrace less structure and more openness at the early stages of product design, and rigor and structure in the mature stages of product sales. As sales drop off and the product loses its natural match to the culture, design researchers should once again embrace openness in their research approaches.

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Generally, we think of research as the focused, systematic collection of data, over time, in keeping with a given framework or theory. In this view, research is intended to confirm or deny given hypotheses, and incrementally improve our knowledge about a given topic.

We know from the book Thinking Fast and Slow, however, that this research approach only serves one type of thinking. Thinking Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman tells us that “Type 2” or “slow thinking” is a disciplined, focused, kind of thought that roughly matches the deductive reasoning of the scientific method and other traditional forms of research. It is structured and deliberate, requiring the cerebral cortex.

But Type 1 or “fast thinking” is less structured, more instinctual, and involves the more reptilian parts of the brain. At first glance, fast thinking appears to be undisciplined or even lazy — the antithesis of the scientific method. But fast thinking produces creative and intuitive leaps that are impossible with the iterative, deductive, and controlled manner of slow thinking.

Design research is both thinking fast, and thinking slow. Thinking fast entails creating novel combinations, unusual interpretations, or unique syntheses. Thinking slow entails systematic evaluation and the structured contribution to a body of knowledge.

Gifted researchers engage in both thinking fast, and thinking slow. As sociologist C. Wright Mills describes, a researcher must have her “files,” which is a set of unstructured, messy, and without order:

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C. Wright Mills

“…You will notice that no one project ever dominates [the files], or sets the master categories in which it is arranged. In fact, the use of the file encourages expansion of the categories which you use in your thinking. And the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added — is an index of your intellectual progress and breadth. Eventually, the files will come to be arranged according to several large projects, having many sub-projects that change from year to year. [1, p. 3]”

Anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski echoes this messy disorder when he describes what will eventually become his masterwork The Argonauts of the South Pacific:

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Branislaw Malinowski

“I estimate that my future publication will be voluminous, roughly three volumes of 500 pages each at 500 words per page. It will take me about two years to get the [manuscript] ready and see it through the press. My material is now a chaotic mass of notes. To work it out and put it into the right theoretical frame is perhaps the most difficult, exacting, and important stage of research. To work it out efficiently I must give it all my time.” [2, p. 582]

Malinowski recognizes the “chaotic mass of notes” must be whipped into shape to become a manuscript, but he must first grapple with the disorder. This is precisely what psychotherapist Rollo May describes as the “creative encounter,” or the unstructured time an artist (or researcher) spends with her subject of study.

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Rollo May

“The first thing we notice in a creative act is that it is an encounter. Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint — they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in it…Or scientists confront their experiment, the laboratory task, in a similar situation of encounter.” [3, p. 39] P. 39

Consider also the “” or the kind of notebook great thinkers like John Locke and Charles Darwin used to organize their thoughts. As innovation author Stephen Johnson tells us, early modern readers did not read sequentially, but jumped around, setting the stage making creative connections.

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Steven Johnson

“The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association….Each re-reading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation.”[4, pp. 109–110]

In other words, researchers who allow themselves to read out of order, or to collect without regard for structure, are able to make creative, intuitive leaps. But researchers who fail to methodically manage their knowledge fail to close the loop of production. Researchers need to think fast and to think slow. They need to think broadly and think narrowly. Type 1 and Type 2 thinking translates into 3 kinds of research: exploratory (thinking fast), evaluative (thinking fast and thinking slow), and experimental (thinking slow).

Frequently, social scientists in particular focus on “rigor” as the solution to good research. But rigor without creativity adds little to our collective knowledge. As Heideggerian scholar Carol Steiner argues, this “” — or predetermined way of looking at the world — stops us from conducting innovative research and producing innovative things. Instead, innovative researchers, she found, are open to “Being,” or the ability to have experiences, people, and objects reveal themselves to them.

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Carol J. Steiner

“The innovators I studied seemed sometimes to be attuned to that old understanding of the relationship between Being and people…Losing faith in the scientific method has allowed them to understand themselves as other than knowledge-makers. Consequently, they often project an openness that allows them a different world to shine through for them, the public world.” [5, p. 594]

In other words, researchers in particular must struggle against the “fore-structure” or their extensive theoretical and methodological training which interferes with receptivity. As Rollo May argues, being receptive does not mean lacking in rigor.

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Rollo May

“The receptivity of the artist [or researcher] must never be confused with passivity. Receptivity is the artist holding him or herself alive and open to hear what being may speak. Such receptivity requires a nimbleness, a fine-honed sensitivity in order to let one’s self be the vehicle of whatever vision may emerge. [3, p. 80]”

Rigor must be introduced later in the process — after the researcher becomes open to a vision, after the researcher grapples with the complexities of the data and their incongruence. Rigor often comes after a period of unconscious processing of the data. Taking walks, playing, napping, and engaging in unstructured activity have all been shown to allow synthetic ideas to emerge.

Researchers should therefore use the scientific method with caution. Be aware of when you need rigor, and when you need creativity.

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[1] C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[2] M. W. Young, Malinowksi: Odyssey of an Anthropologist. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

[3] R. May, The Courage to Create. New York: WW Norton, 1994.

[4] S. Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2010.

[5] C. Steiner, “Constructive Science and Technology Studies: On the Path to Being?,” Soc. Stud. Sci., vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 583–616, 1999.


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