Pendulum Thinking: How Reimagining Design Roles Can Transform the Product Development Process

As we shift from analog products driving the global economy to digital experiences, product development requires a new breed of design thinker

Yosuke Ushigome
May 25, 2020 · 6 min read

This article was originally published as part of a series for Core77.

To put it simply: Pendulum Thinking overcomes the tension between design and engineering, speculative thinking and tangible concepts, future vision and real-world applications to result in robust, efficient, transformative product development.

Over the years, we’ve transitioned through five different ‘generations’ of product design — Hardware, Electronics, Software, Network, and Service — each resulting in effective and efficient development processes that become the benchmark or norm. But as we shift from analog products driving the global economy to digital experiences leveraging data as currency, product development requires a new breed of design thinker to overcome the inertia that can plague more established development processes.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

— Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.

A solutions-based approach that follows a relatively linear trajectory via product and feature iterations to market-ready (market viable) solutions, design thinking stems from software, network and service design. While a solid platform for needs-based iterations, and increasingly embraced by the business world to unlock competitive advantage, transformative innovation requires the ability to simultaneously manage and consider all elements of product and experience design, including hardware, electronics, software, network, and service innovation to realize the full value of a project or initiative.

The merging of design thinking, and business strategy is typified by the convergence of management consultancies and design agencies. Paradoxically, acquisitions by the likes of Accenture and the launching of IBM “iX” and Deloitte Digital to leverage ‘design’ is matched by some of the largest and most well-regarded design consultancies, such as IDEO and Ogilvy, stepping back from the actual ‘doing’ of design to focus more on their consultancy work.

So, what does this mean for clients? Are they engaging a management consultancy or a design agency? Are these ‘hybrid’ agencies solving problems or communicating solutions? Meaning is becoming more important than function, so it might make sense to bring consultancy and communications together, but where does this leave the actual ‘doing’ of design?

Today, the creative process requires the organic integration of multiple specialties and expertise, calling for us to cross the boundaries of various disciplines. Instead of handling the elements separately, we must consider them as an integrated whole, and connect and weave them together to tackle complexity without simplification.

— Kinya Tagawa, Founder of Takram

The issue with convergence is the more complicated the problems hybrid agencies are tasked with solving, the more departments, stakeholders, and egos typically become involved, which is not so much ‘a problem shared’ but more justifying an agency or department fee. As projects have become more abstract or complex and stakeholder priorities diverge the further downstream the development journey, projects can become mired in office politics, resulting in inertia and a potentially compromised final product.

We’re no longer living in an age where success can be achieved merely by fulfilling tangible needs and solving obvious problems. We frequently find ourselves confronting ‘insoluble problems’… We must recognize the inherent risks in presuming that the once-established problems and projects are irreversible, and to blindly advance the project through a ‘waterfall’ sequence”

— Kinya Tagawa, Founder of Takram

Modern innovation requires a different mindset to meet the challenges of today. While the internet has allowed for digital services to remain in a perpetual beta state, products are no longer measured purely by look or specifications, as would befit a ‘waterfall’ approach, but by user-experience that relies upon an integrated and holistic approach to design and engineering and experience that a cascading sequence of activities cannot effectively manage.

SELFORG, a speculative project in which we dreamed of a ‘softer world’ where fiber material technology has developed to become a society’s main material. We often produce futuristic visions and prototypes, not just to discuss the future, but as a way to navigate our current self by swinging between future vision and back to today.

And therein lies the rub of applying more traditional development processes, even that of traditional ‘design thinking’, to transformative innovation; when the journey isn’t solutions-based, linear or one-dimensional, product development necessitates a different mindset to navigate the interconnected and divergent requirements of design and engineering, abstract and concrete, speculative and grounded, thinking and making. Such compound problems require a unique expertise to oscillate comfortably between the different requirements of a project while deftly navigating the complexities of an organisation.

We call this ability, Pendulum Thinking, which is an empathetic mindset enabling Takram members to engage multiple different perspectives, departments and disciplines in the course of a project, constantly switching between the role of designer, engineer, and user to facilitate and streamline the development journey.

Effective business leaders will have a similar ability, able to view the panorama of an organisation (from the top down) while navigating the micro-challenges of a department or division (from the bottom up). By approaching a problem from multiple different angles and benefitting from the input of different perspectives, they generate a compound understanding of the wider issues without losing sight of the day-to-day realities.

POWER LOUNGE for Haneda Airport is a great example of Takram members pushing themselves — a UX/UI designer was the lead on this project. The unique layout came from rigorous user testing and interviewing, similar to how apps are tested.

In a similar fashion, by engaging multiple specialists in the course of our work, each bringing a deep and nuanced understanding and expertise, the exposure to challenges and disciplines beyond our own personal experience gives Takram members the opportunity to continually advance, grow and evolve as design practitioners and, by actively sharing, teaching and dispersing knowledge across the studios, the collective benefits in subsequent projects, which enhances Takram’s capabilities as an agency of transformation.

This is the very essence of Takram and Pendulum Thinking. Able to navigate complex product development challenges, Pendulum Thinking imbues the unique ability to rapidly analyse and deconstruct a problem, considering hardware, electronics, software, network and service implications to generate a multi-faceted understanding and, by extension, possible solutions or workarounds. A hybrid mindset, oscillating between that of vision-maker and problem solver; designer and technical engineer; hypothesising and prototyping rapidly generates a sense of direction in a project when problems (and solutions) are unknown.

Every project is different, and our approach bespoke, but rather than haphazard or random, Pendulum Thinking is the ability to constantly change and re-evaluate, remaining free from any preconceived or fixed notions to deliver a carefully constructed investigation that relies not only on the ebb and flow of personal discourse within the individual, but also on a set of methodologies that facilitate the convoluted journey from problem to solution.

The methodologies that facilitate this journey, “Prototyping”, “Storyweaving” and “Problem-reframing” follow the same mental oscillation between think and make, concrete and abstract, problem and solution.

In the next edition in our series, we will introduce Prototyping and the valuable intelligence we gain from being able to rapidly develop, test and validate ideas, concepts and use-cases in parallel with design and experience to streamline product development.

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