(d)esign (t)hinking is real & important

Dave Malouf
Jan 25 · 4 min read

Design thinking is real, and it has little to do with empathy, ideation, prototyping, etc. Design thinking is what is done to take advantage of those methods & processes, not the methods and processes themselves. By no means do the people who call themselves designers have an exclusive ability to do this. It is just a mindset shift that anyone can try to open themselves to and make a part of their own thinking/working process.

No matter how much data collecting, empathizing, synthesizing, ideating, and prototyping you do, if you aren’t doing real design thinking you are missing the greatest piece of the puzzle as to why a team with a strong design practice will be more successful in the end, than on that doesn’t.

So what is design thinking? You’ll never hear a designer call it this. It isn’t pre-packaged into marketing material, and you can’t get certified in it. To be honest, it is really simple.

Design thinking has three pieces.

  • Association
  • Abduction
  • Deconstruction

Associative processing is the core of creativity that almost everyone uses without even knowing it. But if I told you “Think of the first word that comes to mind, and say it out loud.” If I say, “frog” and you say “fly” and I say “car” and you say “airplane,” that is associative thinking and it is not accidental that the first one has “fly” and the second one has “airplane”.

In a timely post just yesterday John Maeda posted this tweet from yesteryear (2016):

That idea of “juxtaposition of unrelated [things]” is indeed design. In fact, so much of design methods and practice and culture is set up to optimize this from happening. I have called this “Serendipity by Design” and truly believe that this is the primary ingredient of design’s secret sauce that makes it special.

For its part abduction is a little more complex to understand. Wikipedia calls it

a form of logical inference which starts with an observation or set of observations then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation for the observations.

In design this plays out in two ways. The first is in what I would call a simplistic use of observational research. However, instead of just suggesting the probable, they imagine it multiple times, comparing them to each other and use associative processes (noted above) to synthesize a new possible observation.

The last bit is deconstruction. So if I am constructing something, I usually have a complete plan that guides me in a linear process of building from the inside, out. Why? because once something is covered, I can’t build inside it any longer. Simple, right?

Because of the fungible nature of ideas and imagination, our minds don’t need to be nearly as linear as the physical world. In this way we can imagine something as complete, as whole, as possibly working even. With this holistic perspective, or even more than one holistic perspective, we can then go through a thinking process of breaking up that whole into its parts. Actually, since we’ve done multiple versions of a new whole, we can break all versions down into their parts and then we can compare them.

In the great Nightline episode where IDEO was asked to completely redesign a ubiquitous object like a shopping cart in just 5 days, the team highlights this thinking process at several points.

One way they use this technique is after discovering 4 or 5 key qualities that people care about in a shopping cart at a supermarket, they split up into teams to create 1 whole prototype for each quality. Then after presenting those models, they critique them, and deconstruct each one into their best ideas, and then start prototyping again but taking all the ideas they discovered from the previous iterations.

In this example you can see all 3 thinking types at play. There is sketching and externalized brainstorming. There is the understanding of the whole to understand the problem space(s), and finally there is deconstruction of prototypes, and then circling back to associating with those pieces to create something wholly new.

I believe a lot of the issues in cross-functional teams is because these are thinking processes that are made manifest in activities, where it is not clear why we are doing the activities at all. If you aren’t open to the emergent properties of these methods & mindsets, it is really hard to engage with them. But once you engage, it becomes a really powerful tool for conceiving, for creating, for synthesizing, for so much of what we need to be creative in tactical and applied ways.

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Dave Malouf

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Dave Malouf is a design leader who helps teams provide the greatest value to their customers and host organizations.

Amplify Design

Amplifying your design team’s value through design operations (DesOps)