Design Thinking, Fractals, and the Eightfold Path

Design Thinking trajectory_square

About four years ago, I worked on a project for a client whose key stakeholders included some folks who were very strongly entrenched in the skeptic’s camp when it came to Design Thinking. These were people who had enough curiosity about design as an approach to creating innovation to have come to IDEO with a project, but who were definitely in an “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode. (Skepticism and a questioning nature, by the way, are a key piece of why these people are good at what they do–and are entirely appropriate qualities of character, given the domain they work in.)

Anyway, we did the project, and it was–no exaggeration–a home run with bases loaded. We were having celebratory drinks after the final night of a big participatory workshop event, and I ended up at a table with the two strongest skeptics. We toasted the success of what we had done together, and then one of them said to me:

“So, this ‘design thinking’ worked–no argument
there. Now tell us why it worked.”

Two whiskeys into the evening’s celebration, and not having expected the question, I think I did a pretty good job talking about how design thinking is a process where we externalize and concisely express (often visually and with low-resolution prototyping) our implicit thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc.; how doing this enables us to build something new together; how doing design research to inform and inspire our work, and purposefully bringing together a cross section of stakeholders in the process of generating and building make sure that what we create together reflects fundamental truths about the context we’re designing for and the people in it, etc.

But in the four years since the story I’ve just shared took place, I’ve landed on a couple of things that I think are uniquely true and powerful about Design Thinking (aka Human-Centered Design, aka HCD). As a designer and design researcher, I enjoy being observant about not just what we do and how we do it, but why it seems to be so effective, and I wanted to share these thoughts with you.

First, fractals. Design Thinking not only acknowledges but embraces the fractal nature of the universe.
A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger Sponge. Fractals can also be nearly the same at different levels. This latter pattern is illustrated in the magnifications of the Mandelbrot set. Fractals also include the idea of a detailed pattern that repeats itself.

You can go all the way back to Charles and Ray Eames “Powers of Ten” to see that this is true–design has always embraced phenomena of scale and the integral nature of how the universe is constructed, and good design has always functioned in accordance with these fundamental principles.

Second, Zen. Design is all about exploring combinations and connections, and Zen Buddhism not only acknowledges but embraces the juxtaposition and often equally true nature of opposites.

I have a long history with Zen Buddhism. I think it’s fair to say Zen practice and philosophy have saved my life more than once. When Zen was first introduced to me, what immediately resonated was the fact that Zen, unlike any other thought system I’d been exposed to previously, not only acknowledged but embraced the contradictory nature of the world and human experience.

You’ll notice I keep using the phrase “not only acknowledges but embraces.”

I think this quality of embracing is key. Design thinking is joyous and energetic. It is based on an embracing of the truths of the world as it is and the possibility that the world can be made better. And in this way, and because we build our design work on an understanding of reality gained through the direct contact of design research, and because our process is inclusive and collaborative, I believe Design Thinking is actually a living instantiation of the fundamental Buddhist tenets expressed in the Eightfold Path:

Right View        Right Thought        Right Speech        Right Action     
Right Livelihood     Right Effort     Right Mindfulness     Right Concentration


There’s so much more to say, but I wanted to begin the conversation. Please, leave a comment–I would love to hear what you think about this…

Giant Steps

I’m working in New York this week, and was lucky enough to catch Jeff Han and Bill Buxton in conversation at the Cooper Hewitt. I know–right? What a pairing!

Bill Buxton and Jeff Han

Some pieces of the conversation I wanted to share…

“I believe that, in design, you really have to understand what’s been done before…to understand not just the point you’re at, but the vector you’re on.”
– Jeff Han

“Our job is not just to make a digital analogue of a physical device. It’s to see what can really be done.”
– Jeff Han

“You can easily impedance mismatch to the customer. You have to scaffold not only up to the customer, but up to the industry.”
– Jeff Han

“I wouldn’t hire anybody that I wouldn’t work for myself.”
– Jeff Han

“The only way you can manage is if people feel that you’re not a manager but a collaborator.”
– Jeff Han

“We’re not technologists. The thing that binds (Jeff and I) is that the technology we know the most about is people.”
– Bill Buxton

“When people talk about mobility–it’s not the mobility of the device–it’s the mobility of the human.”
– Bill Buxton

“Don’t develop technologies; develop solutions.”
– Bill Buxton

“Your expertise has to be on the human side of things.”
– Bill Buxton

“Now that we can do anything, what should we do?”
– Bill Buxton


If you play music and you love playing live, this will resonate…Anthony Kiedis, recounting his first time performing with Flea, Hillel, and Jack…

“I instinctively knew that the miracle of manipulating energy and tapping into an amazing infinite source of power and harnessing it in a small space with your friends was what I had been put here on this earth to do.”

– Anthony Kiedis, Scar Tissue

Red Hot Chili Peppers_Bernie Sanders benefit_2016

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bernie Sanders campaign benefit. Ace Hotel Theater, Downtown LA,
Feb 5, 2016. Feel the Bern!


Collective Consciousness

Some weeks, you really feel like you’re in the flow of something collective, and this week was one of them.  A lot of us played the lottery. And David Bowie passed away.
Colby, my waiter at the Ace, certainly hoped I had the winning ticket as I checked my numbers over breakfast. That would have been a good day for both of us.
Dan and Colby
But…it was not to be.
Not this time
Still, between the 2-cent lottery pool I joined at work with 136 of my colleagues and the many conversations I had during the week with both friends and strangers about “…how we would handle it..,” I had a lot of fun, and re-affirmed that I’m pretty happy with my life the way it is, anyway.
Moving from the material plane to the spiritual, David Bowie’s death has been an interesting collective experience.
Remembering Bowie
I love Bowie’s music and his ethos as a creative artist. I didn’t follow him super-closely while he was alive; yet, his death, for me, leaves existence on this planet feeling a little different. It’s a different place without him here–I feel that.
The whole week has been punctuated with Bowie moments–from hugging my colleague Katie who really felt sad about it, to hearing a cool remix of Let’s Dance in a coffee shop, to the moment last night, at the end of a long and beautiful week of doing work I love (designing for social impact), where the band on the rooftop of the Ace played Life On Mars, and everyone went quiet for just a few seconds.
Life on Mars

And then, the earth resumed its spin, and we’re back again, in the flow of time.

Ecosystem anchor

Tree of life, La Ceiba, Playa Chiquita, Costa Rica.

Tree of life

Primate Friends

Funny combo of experiences–we watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Monday, then had an amazing visit today to the Jaguar Rescue Center in Playa Chiquita Costa Rica.

Howler Monkey_Costa Rica


Raining in Pittsburgh…