Tag Archives: innovation

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


A quasi-random sampling of interesting tidbits…

Seth Godin’s inspiring piece on blowing up constraints – Getting Unstuck: Solving the Perfect Problem [via Seth’s Blog]

The way to solve the perfect problem is to make it imperfect. Don’t just bend one of the constraints, eliminate it. Shut down the factory. Walk away from the job. Change your product completely. Ignore the board.

San Francisco architects blow up a constraint by mathematically rethinking the bay windowRandom Acts of Architecture [via Metropolis]

The San Francisco planning code encourages Victorian bay windows, but when you look at it closely, there’s nothing that actually states that you have to create a bay window…It just describes this little chamfered envelope. In the zeitgeist that architects live in, where we’re always constrained by planning codes, we found ourselves emboldened by the realization that it could be crazy! So we deliberately misread it as a mathematical description, which allowed for infinite possibilities.

The ever-increasing hegemony of the smartphoneBank of America & Visa test smartphone as credit card system [via Fast Company]

Amazing cylindrical dioramas from artist Anastassia EliasSee the world inside a toilet paper roll [via Likecool]

Continuum shares their creative processOpen for Branding: Design Museum Boston project [via Core77]

Shyness kills?Research study links shyness to heart problems [via BBC News]

And finally, my favorite of the week – All Ducks are Wearing Dog Masks! – Be forewarned: you’ll never look at a duck the same way after you look at this. Ducks’ Bills: You Never Even Noticed [via i am bored]

Sparks (formerly “Tidbits”)

Beautiful mistakesGlitch art [via REfeeded]

A preview of coming attractions – We hosted alexandluke.com in our Airstream this week via airbnb, and they were kind enough to sit down with me for an interview. Next week, I’ll be posting a more in-depth piece on their unique exploration of traveling, social media, and the borders between online and offline worlds.

A novel product solution for a basic needThe Keyport [via engadget]

Rapid development 72-hour urban action architecture contest [via pruned]

A really fun step programming musical instrument for the iPhone (you will instantly be making music with this!) – The Beatwave app [via Theresa]

An incredible graffiti animationBig Bang Boom

Come as you are

We have a fan in the back room that’s breaking. Sometimes when I turn it on, it makes a horrible squealing noise, then settles in and works, and sometimes it spins up slowly and quietly. I turn it off when no one’s going to be home, in case it bursts into flames.

Today, it was barely moving, and as I was watching that thing try to eke out a revolution, I could feel myself willing it to spin faster. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it, but I realized, as I caught myself trying to apply the mental voodoo, that I’d be much more likely to figure out what the problem was if I just watched closely what was actually happening.

So often we fail to take the mental deep breath necessary to suspend our ideas of what could/should be and let ourselves see what really is, but both perspectives are crucial. The dream – the vision of possibility (the fan works, organic food is ubiquitous, etc.) and the existing reality it will have to be built on.

That’s one of the things I love most about design & research – we work with both the dream and the reality.

Imaginary pleasures

Psychologist Paul Bloom considers the importance of perception and imagination to our experience of pleasure in his forthcoming book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.

What matters most is not the world as it [actually physiologically impacts] our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing.

This bias towards experiences of the mind over sensory perception points to branding as a crucial component of consumer experience.  Branding shapes the narrative behind product and service offerings. If Bloom is right about what drives us,  that’s as important an aspect of the experience as the thing itself. A successful offering provides an experience on the functional and sensory levels that supports and is enhanced by the brand narrative. When these elements are incongruent, it creates a broken experience, a sort of brand dissonance.

In a recent interview, Bloom also tackled the question of whether animals have imagination. He says that although their play might seem related to imagination, they lack the ability to construct alternate futures – something crucial to our ability to innovate solutions.

Which means that my dog, although she seems highly imaginative to me when she’s trying to do something sneaky, is not likely to dream up the next iPod.