Are You Design Thinking, What I’m Design Thinking?


The Internet seems to move much faster than reality. This can been looked at as a negative because it means that we often miss important things in an effort to keep up with the pace of online life. However it can also be seen as a positive when we are able to overcome the speed of things and slow down. I bring this up because I was recently struck by a great example of it. Although I had already passed by A Brief Message once before (through a link regarding website design), I quickly moved on. Upon returning, I added it to my feed reader. There is something oddly satisfying about coming back to a site you visited before. It is familiar enough, yet still foreign and for some reason more rewarding. Go take a look, at least two if it doesn’t grab you the first time.

I bring this up because I wanted to respond to a recent article by Dan Saffer entitled Making Stuff vs. Making Stuff Up. As a recent Industrial Design graduate I am obviously trying to discover where I fit in to the ever-evolving design landscape. One of the key debates that I continue to struggle with is “design thinking vs. design doing”. You have many people such as Bruce Nussbaum and David Armano championing various forms of design thinking and at the same time there is continual backlash and debate on what the core competency of a designer should be. It is enough to make my head spin.

The Saffer article makes some great points, concluding that the core strength of a designer is in the details, not just the concept. Contrary to previous statements by myself, I would have to agree. Before reading this article I don’t think I would have. The reason I have come around is because I have come to realize that what I thought about when people described “design doing” isn’t what they are talking about. Most critics of design thinking point out the importance of realizing ideas by creating a product. However maybe it is just me, but I always read this as a physical product (ie iPod, vacuum or a toaster) and I think this is their intention. However this is where I disagree.

I agree that designers are best at conceptualizing and working out the details, we are problem solvers after all. However I think my new understanding of design thinking is that it is the application of “conceptualizing and working out the details” to create a “product”. However I question why this product must be a physical object? Design thinking is about applying our skills to a variety of problems, not limiting it to objects, posters, websites or buildings. Design thinking boils down to an agnostic process, it should produce the “product” that is most appropriate for the problem. I think we tend to think in our silos too much and forget that not every problem can be solved through our specific expertise.

I may be arguing semantics, but I can’t be the only one.

photo: MJM

2 Responses to “Are You Design Thinking, What I’m Design Thinking?”

  1. The myth about design thinking, is that it doesn’t include doing stuff. Oh, we do plenty of stuff. Like Dan, I’m not as hands on as I used to be—but I’ve got plenty of examples of “stuff”. It’s not one over the other (design vs. design thinking)—but it’s nice to see designers able to function in roles that were previously reserved for strategists and planners only.

    Here’s some of my “stuff”

    needs updating. Working on that…

    Don’t get confused by all of this “debate”. Find out what you are good at and do it. Do lots of it.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement David! I agree there is much “stuff” to do. I think the overlap between strategy/planning and design is a very suitable niche for designers today. However I think there is a lack of understanding of our ability to do this, but hopefully this will change (it is beginning to start)

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