07/31/2015 09:42 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Think Design Think

Fields from science to politics to business are looking to design for inspiration, alternative processes, and new solutions. Design negotiates between technology, policy, systems and users. A structured design approach can heighten the hit-rate in the fuzzy front end of innovation processes in public and private sectors. As a result, design has become incredibly multifaceted in recent years, encompassing subfields such as interaction design, critical design, environmental design, social design, bio-design, to name just a few of the new comers to the traditional disciplines of product-, graphic- and service design. UX design, for instance, has become a major driver in Silicon Valley's economy, arguably commoditizing tech and has become a focus area for European social states promoting sharing economy. Design has become a universal medium for expressing ideas, raising fundamental questions and addressing social challenges.

'Design Thinking' is thought to prescribe the fundamental methodology driving the entire field and above-mentioned subfields. The term 'Design Thinking' was originally coined by Herbert A. Simon and described as "a problem-solving method inspired by designers way to solve problems". I agree that the type of thinking (abductive, synthetic, divergent...) involved in design thinking is similar to the thinking in all other types of design, but the method not necessarily. For instance, the anthropological research involved in design thinking is not broadly applied in graphic or industrial design. In that sense, I believe it is false that it prescribes a methodology to the entire field. Paradoxically the term 'Design Thinking' does not really describe a way of thinking, but a methodology and design thinking does not involve more thinking than any other field of design. It is just a name.

Design is used in new contexts and scenarios every day, but why bother with the thinking bit? Design holds a great potential in contributing to positive changes in the world, if used strategically at the right level. Design is a powerful factor in communication between disciplines and stakeholders and can transform knowledge into creative human-oriented solutions that can promote companies' and countries' competitive ability, and foster innovation and growth. Finding way of describing the actual thinking in design could help us rethink our future. Yet compared to its potential as a global change maker, this way of thinking is treated with relatively little academic curiosity. We need to start thinking about the thinking in design, not just analyzing the method of 'Design Thinking'. For that purpose, Philosophy, the Queen of all sciences, is the instrument: The thinking on thinking. In other words, we need explore the Philosophy of Design as it refers to thinking and not merely methodology.

Philosophy keeps on successfully forming new schools of thought. For example, some decades ago, while teaching at MIT, Hubert Dreyfus attacked the work of Allen Newell and aforementioned Herbert A. Simon, two of the leading researchers in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Dreyfus criticized their assumption that intelligence consists of the cognitive manipulation of physical symbols according to formal rules, and argued that the AI research program was doomed to failure. Today AI research has in part abandoned this early path to AI and recons with Philosophy's phenomenological and hermeneutical traditions. This year in Copenhagen philosopher Vincent F. Hendricks initiated the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) to study the mechanisms of (financial) bubbles and other destabilizing phenomena associated with boom-thinking, group-thinking and lemming effects.

Some will counter that Design Philosophy already exist. Maybe, but today the term is mainly used to describe a designer's personal approach to her or his design. Philippe Starck's design philosophy for instance could be summed up in his statement: "...I always speak about our life: our fight, our pain, our difficulties, our dreams, our vision, our utopia." These type of statements, regardless how valid they may be, have little to do with what academia understands as philosophy.

Off course, there are academic attempts too, but I have not seen any comprehensive research into all what a Philosophy of Design really should cover and what is already covered. For instance, there is an entry on Philosophy of Design on Wikipedia, but for the past years, this the entry has been arbitrary at best, listing the Philosophy of Design as relating to graphic design specifically and as being a subset of aesthetics.

A Design Philosophy should cover all fields of design, not just one and be related to all relevant areas within philosophy. Design is always about at least these three things: Some commercial intentionality; some function or construct - it somehow needs to work; and an aesthetic aspect. Clearly, the Philosophy of Design cannot be summed up by any single discipline of philosophy alone. It should at least cover how design relates to perception, function, intentionality, recognition, game theory, narration, path dependency, innovation and economy. Interestingly philosophers have covered all of these fields extensively over the millennia, so the groundwork is there already.

Design has big opportunities in store for us and we need to understand it better to leverage its effects.
So what is holding us back?
A big chunk of what would be the Philosophy of Design is covered by the Philosophy of Technology a du jour field of philosophy. This field was recognized very late because in philosophy practical knowledge has traditionally been subordinated to theoretical knowledge. As this is changing and we can start, exploring fields of knowledge previously overseen or deemed substandard like Design Philosophy.

Young philosopher Kristoffer Milling, who has a proposed a phenomenological methodology in design, lists these commonalities between designers and philosophers that ultimately can guide our thoughts for the inception of Design Philosophy:
  1. Question assumptions and push the limits for what core beliefs might be up for review
  2. Understand people - find what makes something meaningful to humans
  3. Navigate complexity and ambiguity - work with knowledge gaps and fuzzy problems in coming up with new insights
  4. Transcend actuality to explore possibility - to go beyond what is already there to bring about what has hitherto only existed in "another possible world"

Let's start thinking about design thinking and bring a true Design Philosophy about.