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”.


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