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…