Resisting the tendency to see Design Thinking through “generations”

I have argued earlier for this (after Polanyi and others) as a model of design thinking.

I was fascinated then to read the following:

“2.1 Design as cognition

For the past fifty years, a group of mostly Anglo-American design researchers have largely defined design as a form of human cognition. Debates over how to describe the kind of reasoning designers — from architects to industrial engineers — exhibit have come to dominate the field. The result of this half-century of scholarship is a “canon of design thinking” (Coyne, 2005, p. 5). This section situates my argument for practice in the historical context of design scholarship by reviewing the four models of human thought that comprise the canon: romantic vision, rational rule-following, situated reflection, and designerly knowing. To summarize recent calls for practice, the problem is that the canon’s focus on the individual mind obscures important professional concerns: aesthetics and the nuances of trained taste; the governance of relationships between designers and the clients who pay them; and the practical ethics of making decisions in the name of prospective consumers. And when cognition-centered models do not take important aspects of everyday work into account, they may not provide usable prescriptions for improving it.” (1)

Exactly like the Blind men of Hindustani seizing their elephant (, each school has in turn seized on a part of the whole and attempted to name the whole.

These are then never seen as a parts of a synchronous whole, but a series of diachronic displacements, as Goodman points out from Bousbaci’s work:

“Thus “first generation” methods (1960s) give way to “second generation” methods (1970s) and finally “third generation” methods (1970s–1980s). In this story, the game ends with the public repudiation of design methods by their greatest champions and the triumphant establishment of a new, better paradigm in the 1980s (the nature of that paradigm is still debated).” (2)

This reminded me of a recent parallel in political writing. Australia’s former PM specifically challenged Labour to NOT fall into the generations game, but to see their stance as a whole for which they stood despite the moods of the times:

“Last time Labor moved from government to opposition and was called on to decide what of the past to own and what to discard, Labor made a hash of it. Labor in opposition, after the devastating defeat of 1996, threw overboard all of the work of the Keating government in a desperate attempt to distance itself from high interest rates, high unemployment, budget “black holes” and perceptions of arrogance. The net result was that Labor was remembered for all these negatives but lost the high ground of being associated with the positives of modernising the economy, turning our nation towards Asia and appropriately and fairly responding to the native title decisions of Mabo and Wik.

Labor must not make this error again. First and foremost it must claim and explain those legacy policies that have so profoundly shaped modern Australia, and that Tony Abbott, despite healthy and continuing poll leads, was too afraid to contest: fair work, education reform, disability care, health and aged care reform, the demands of the Asian century. These policies speak of our values and of our role as a social democratic party in the modern world. They show how we believe in sharing opportunity and sharing risk, how we are prepared to actively shape our future. They show we are a political party of purpose.

But secondly, and in a political task that will require bravery, Labor must continue to stand behind the significant policies which are right but are currently outside the national political consensus. Clearly, carbon pricing is the political giant of this class.” (3)

Designers could do well to heed such a call, to embrace the complex conversational unity that underlies their work, and to insist on its distinctive heuristic attributes(4) without fleeing to mystery.(5)

(1) Elizabeth Sarah Goodman 2013 Delivering Design: Performance and Materiality in Professional Interaction Design p23

(2) Ibid


(4) Unlike many of the moves in this kind of thread

(5) There are still those who want to clump design with butterflies and birdsong in order to protect their profession from the barbarians

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.

Reprise: What kind of thinking is Design thinking?

I was delighted to receive the following email a few days ago from John Webb, a friend and former colleague who is a senior counsellor (check his bio here It confirmed to me that I was not too wide of the mark in characterising the key cognitive moves in “design thinking”. Although I had written the paper based on my characterisation of this “trajectory of thought” in more explicit arenas of design disciplines, I was allowing myself to be shaped by a long history of self-reflective practitioners of creative thought, including Blaise Pascall, Albert Einstein and Arthur Koestler. So it is great to see the resulting description resonate so deeply with the experience of a professional counsellor.

Hello David,

I’ve just found and read your paper "What kind of thinking is design thinking?"

Actually, I printed the paper and took it to bed the other night at the end of a day’s counselling with a couple, and I couldn’t turn off the light until I finished. Mate! When I got to the sentence about the persistent practitioner becoming "uncommonly sure-footed" on the slippery mountain side of indeterminacy, I decided to drop you a line of appreciation. The paper describes exactly what I do every time I sit with anyone.

DT-I is a great description of conversation about life, and the ‘making’ is most often a relational space (intra- as well as inter-personal), which reveals pretty-well all the elements you describe so well. I love the way you describe what is required of the ‘designer’, especially on dealing in hope and being present in hope.

Thanks John.

Innovation and scarcity

There is no shortage of ink being spilt on the connection between creativity and constraint, or innovation and scarcity. If sheer volume of consensus were the proof, then the case is closed – if you want to be cleverer, work with less, not more. (Of course, volume of practice or plaudits is not the same as proof of effectiveness – brainstorming has stayed popular despite being empirically discredited since 1959…)

Some of the connections are quite delightful, such as the story of the origin of The Cat in the Hat:

But there is no theory for constraints (not to be confused with the Theory OF Constraints by one Elliot Goldratt) revealed in most of the items, which restrict themselves to assuming its virtues…





And even with an extended essay on the empirical evidence for constraints, no theory comes from here:

The most useful insight came here:

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, religious paintings (DAJ: and I would add sonnets) — are fraught with constraints. They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.”

And Kathy Sierra offered this theory of what goes on – although without some further evidence it sounds rather too much like the rules around brainstorming which have been soundly discredited:

“From the brain’s perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we’re forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called "right brain") and EQ down conscious thought ("left brain").”

37signals buys that hypothesis, but my caution stays strong. Sooooo many successes have been attributed to brainstorming – clearly there is a Hawthorne effect possible with these kinds of phenomena – ie we attribute the success to an available hypothesis, but not necessarily a valid one.

Some don’t extol constraints – they just say you better live with them –, or that you do better if you do live with them

As my mind cast around for larger social systems and the effects of constraints, I came to the function of the laws of Moses – the foundations of western law making. Perversely, I asked myself, were the 10 Commandments intended as constraints to fuel more creativity in disobedience? Or more creativity in living well because of accepting certain boundaries? Certainly the constraints of Orthodox Judaism – deuteronomic law on steroids – have resulted in some amazing innovations, such as the creation of the Eruv (

There are some insights from BIG architecture here if you want more convincing. Some of Bjarke Ingels constraint inversions are “beliefs in the opposite”, such as “sustainability increases the quality of life, it is not about settling for less…”. I really like this, and feel like it has some philosophical keys hidden in it: “saying yes to everyone results in bigger more interesting problems than saying no, no, no and pushing on”.

This issue of constraints seems philosophically expansive – the paradoxes in it seem to push out to our worldview. I invite you to see them that way – not to rush to small answers. Meditate about the great heroes of literature (Frodo Baggins) and religion (Christ). By saying “yes” to challenges, they took into themselves suffering, and in turn provided deliverance. Perhaps there are some keys there….

Design thinking in 1997

My partner found a set of promotional materials from Golsby-Smith Associates (the organisational precursor to Second Road) when recycling a folder. They were a set of visual heuristics and “Key thinking tools” that we gave to clients, produced in 1997.

This one was interesting for its mention of “design thinking” 25 years ago…

Design thinking in 1997

My partner found a set of promotional materials from Golsby-Smith Associates (the organisational precursor to Second Road) when recycling a folder. They were a set of visual heuristics and “Key thinking tools” that we gave to clients, produced in 1997.

This one was interesting for its mention of “design thinking” 25 years ago…

The roots of design thinking – asking Why? in pursuit of purpose

In a recent conversation with Bryce Cassin one topic we covered was his Ph.D. work – a fascinating nexus between Dewey, perception, design thinking and clinical safety. Bryce worked for some years as a safety investigator in the hospital systems of Australia. During that time he wrote up somewhere around 150 cases with no forethought that one day he might use those as a research resource. In recent years he has turned back to those cases, applied some strict filtering principles, and used them as the raw materials for the grounded ethnography that underlies his doctorate. The key point of this little biography is the significance of how Bryce proceeded before he turned back to give technical names to what he was doing.

The parallel in the history of Second Road lay in the work of it’s prior incarnation as Golsby-Smith Associates (1989 to 1997) which began largely as a group of technical writers – at least that was the identity of the marketplace attached to us and which we fought strenuously to be distanced from. What was it that that group was doing before Richard Buchanan looked at it and said that we were the essential third and fourth order designers? I thought that would be an interesting question to ask in a discussion about design thinking.

The answer is very simple – we were “reader-based” writers. We simply but tenaciously asked our clients in every context “why do you want to do this?” “what do you want to accomplish?” “what do you want the reader to do when they read this?” “what are the outcomes you want?” We applied this process originally to insurance leaflets and years later we were still applying it to annual reports for Australian companies. But in the meantime we also began to build most of our business around applying the same process to the writing of manuals – manuals for cardiac specialists, manuals describing the research process of defibrillator makers and mining process engineers, manuals describing large corporate functions such as maintenance or capital processes, manuals for public service capabilities. And eventually one of our wiser sponsors named what we were doing, by saying: “Thanks for the manual – and thanks for re-shaping our core work processes for us.”

In being “reader-based” and precociously asking “Why?” at the highest levels of the company, we actually re-shaped work itself into customer back aligned systems.

So of course now we would talk about such work as “user-based design”, and the processes of “work design”, and ourselves as “design thinkers”. But what was it actually, naively, at the core before we turned back to name it and imported the signifier “design”? A clue lies in the pursuit of purpose as an integrative force in the production of innovative, integrative artefacts for customers. Phenomenologically, the answer to that question lies at the heart of “design thinking”.

Design Thinking – determined to be a mystery?

With respect, it seems to me that if those who write to design thinking groups were to have been given the problem of understanding that greatest mystery of all – our capacity for language – we would still be insisting that the only thing that could be said was that it was so profound that it is almost religious. Hey, it’s so mystical, it IS religious. And don’t debase it by getting concrete and asking more granular questions, like how SPECIFICALLY is it different from one culture to another, or how can you teach it, or….

Because it turns out that while I think the act of speech is a high and holy mystery (as does at least one of he worlds ancient religious traditions – see Genesis 1, where all creation is done through speech acts, or John 1:1 where God is called "the Word"), I’m also really pleased about the existence of grammar. Not that it just “is” – that it is the invisible coherence of our conversations, and that I am slave to it if I want to be comprehended routinely – but that some people have nutted it out and made it accessible to me. That at the same time as I have mystery about being human (agreeing with Maturana that language is the defining difference of humans), I also have the useful granular categories of nouns and verbs, of sentences and clauses, of adjectives and full stops….

I’d love more conversations where the DT guys can come down out of mystery into heuristic. I’m not asking for algorithm or code (Roger Martin). Just heuristic would be fine. I’d suggest it’s even a little bit congruent with design-thinking, if they stop and design-think about it….

Perhaps insisting that DT is a religious mystery is their way of protecting the boundaries of heir discipline -somewhat like science has tenaciously protected its high priesthood via the peer reviewed journal?