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.


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