What is design, but not Design Thinking?

Last week I wrote about Design Thinking being only one lens through which to view design — product design for a specific audience. The most common question after that is, what else is there?

One need only to look at the Wikipedia entry on design to start to see that this isn’t an easy question to answer. It lists more than twenty design disciplines, multiple process models, approaches, methods, and tries to differentiate between design as art, engineering, and production.

And on top is a big warning that says, “This article may contain inappropriate or misinterpreted citations that do not verify the text.”

The idea that design is many things, even both a noun and a verb should give us all pause that “teaching design” is any less complex.

So here’s a concrete example of one kind of design that isn’t “Design Thinking” — making a replacement part for a chainsaw using a 3D printer. The article is rich with detailed, useful tips about design, tools, and 3D printing. But no ideation in sight!

Sure — you could claim that it fits into a modified DT process. Simply declare that “you” are the audience, empathize with your lack of working chainsaw, understand that the need is “fix broken chainsaw,” consider that a point of view that you don’t want to buy a new one, or you just want to tinker around with 3D printing. Then have a nice brainstorm with yourself (don’t forget the post-it notes!), and present yourself with multiple alternatives to make, buy, or fix — or maybe you don’t really need a working chainsaw anyway — but really, does it need to be that convoluted?


Designing a replacement part may not be an invention that saves the world, but it is design, it is real world, and it’s useful. It uses an iterative design process based on working with real materials and tools. There will be obstacles to overcome and learning taking place. It meets all the criteria of why anyone would buy a 3D printer for education.

So why exactly isn’t this a good candidate for Design Thinking? It’s because while it’s a rich and complex project, it’s not an ill-defined, tricky, or “wicked” problem. It’s not a new product or invention, and it’s not a moral dilemma or a way to practice empathy. When you try to apply Design Thinking to straightforward problems, the process is too complicated and front-loaded. (That’s not to say that straightforward problems can’t be complex.) But the issue is that often in schools, educators pick simple, straightforward problems for students to tackle because of curriculum constraints, lack of time, and lack of access to materials and tools. The Design Thinking process becomes an anchor, rather than a buoy.

If you can’t see the embedded article, it’s on 3Dprintingforbeginners.com, and is an excerpt from a cool new book, The Zombie Apocalypse Guide to 3D Printing.

Originally published at Sylvia Libow Martinez.