Looking for design thinkers
Looking for design thinkers

Since R. Martin and others hijacked the term ‘designthinking’, there is an ongoing dispute. Two thought worlds exist and possibly these can be united by laying bare the essential characteristics of a ‘design thinker’.

Thought worlds

Design thinking frames the verb ‘design’ as a specific cognitive activity in order to solve problems and is discerned from other ways of thinking such as decision making. The dispute on what design thinking is started when people understood that ‘design thinking’ is not strictly a designers thing, but also can be applied to e.g., management. According to me, a watershed can be discerned in literature.  First, there are publications which concern the expectations of organizations that collaborating with designers will result in new and exciting solutions, such as Brown’s Change by Design.  Brown defined ‘design thinking’ as using “the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” (p.86). Second, there is a larger body of literature which concern managers thinking-as-designer. It originated in Boland & Collopy landmark publication Managing-as-Designing. This school of thought is rooted in management studies, and defines ‘design thinking’ more or less as  “approaching managerial problems as designers approach design problems” as Dunne & Martin wrote in 2006.

Learning from interacting design-practioners

Intriguingly, both groups derived their main insights from interactions with design-practioners. For example, the managing-as-designing book is entirely inspired by the collaboration of the Weatherhead School of Management with star-architect Frank Gehry. Likewise, many devotees of Brown became so because of the insight that collaborating with IDEO resulted into unexpected and exciting new ideas. So, in order to recognize a ‘design thinker’, a good starting point is to study designers interacting with others. Of course, a design thinker not necessarily needs to be a designer, yet understanding what discerns designers in teams and what they contribute provides a good foothold. The insights presented here are based on a long term research of designers inside large new product development teams with many specialists. The research includes observations, interviews and analysis of filmed meetings and can be downloaded (thesis).

Talking ‘products and users’

User related arguments in a team meeting

A first characteristic which discerns designers from other roles is that designers frame any topic from the perspective of the user: they ‘talk users’. For example, in a filmed meeting that is analyzed in depth, around 40% of all arguments that designers in the meeting put forward are related to a user. Others also discussed users, but far less. Designers tend to filter the collective activities of the team for the implications for the eventual product. They consider which technological choices possibly have an impact for the user and the user experience.

A second characteristic is the way how they solve problems. Quite in line with design literature, it was found that designers tend to approach problems in a holistic way, above all compared to engineers. They incorporate several problems in their thinking simultaneously, rather than analyzing in depth a singular problem. In a way they seem to embrace ambiguity. They are not the only ones. However, what distinguishes designers from others is that they frame and solve problems holistically and from a user perspective. They zoom out, from local problems and solutions, to the level of the product and a user interacting with it.

Imagining the eventual product

A third characteristic of designers is somewhat unexpected. All team members notice cues in the world around them, such as malfunctioning prototypes, PowerPoint presentations, excel sheets and so on. It is found is that designers, (much) more than others, are imagining the consequences of what someone else is saying.In order to infer the implications of technical choices of others for the product or the user, designers need to rely on their imagination skills. By doing proposals and asking questions they reveal what is concealed. They seem to ‘see’ what is said. This ability to imagine the consequences of choices for the eventual product has a particular contribution on team cognition, resulting in many decisive shifts in discussions and subsequent team activities.

Talking ‘visual’

Somewhat related is that designers are well capable to express what is on their mind, in a way that others can easily understand it. Each specialist has its own jargon, models, prototypes and so on that are extremely meaningful for him. Problem is: others cannot easily comprehend his words and or models. Only peers will truly understand his considerations. Knowledge boundaries exist between specialists that often are hard to overcome. Designers talk products and users, but not in abstract terms full of jargon that only can be grasped by fellow- designers. Rather they translate anything into a world that is easily understood by many as we all are humans and live in a world of products. On top of that their language is vivid, and they easily resort to sketches and visualizations. The example below shows a hand drawn sketch and a savvy animation that resulted from it, that was an attempt to make sense of a complex technological innovation.

Talk visual

The characteristics have a profound impact on teams. The designerly skill to imagine the consequences of what others say for the eventual product/user, and to ‘translate’ it swiftly into a language that is understood by all moderates teamcognition. It provides a platform that enables cross-disciplinary reflections.  By means of what designers say and visualize, others can imagine what the consequences their own work for others; or the consequences of the work of others for them. Consequently, by means of the practice of design, it is possible to built bridges between people who have a hard time understanding each other, because of knowledge boundaries. A particular boundary that was found that designers easily bridge is that between the world of software and hardware.

Recognizing Design Thinkers?

Extending the findings and combining it with other studies, it can be argued that a Design Thinker is (1) someone who is capable to translate and transform the worlds of e.g. technology and/or market insights. Or the world of social planning and the world of people affected by those plans.  And thereby he does not as much translate it from one world into another, but rather transforms and expresses it into another world, namely the world of users, products and services. This provides a ‘common world’ for all involved, enhancing team effectiveness considerably. How can a team know what it is creating, until it sees what it will lead to?


And (2), a Design Thinker, due to his holistic approach, can synthesize new solutions that overcome inherent contradictions between other worlds. I name this ‘developing the third option’. The aims of stakeholders are often contradictory if not mutually exclusive. It is either A or B. Often power struggles and politics come into play. Sometimes a third option is possible, that transcends the original problem and whereby old conflicts seem to dissolve. I’ve seen examples whereby deeply ingrained conflicts and boundaries simply dissolved by means of one elegant new idea. Boundaries sometimes as deep as the Grand Canyon. People capable to develop creative third options are invaluable for organizations.

  1. Cameron D. Norman

    Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
    How do you recognize what a design thinker is? One way is to not just look at what they think, but what they produce. This post from the Team Cognition blog offers some sober thoughts on the concept of design thinking and some fresh ideas on how to recognize someone who is engaged in such an activity.


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  5. Bart Doorneweert

    Great post!

    I recently wrote something that would suite this same domain. What you describe as “the third way” is what I would consider as an attempt at decision making under conditions of ambiguity; ie. condition where vested objective decision making structures don’t/can’t apply. Such conditions call for immersion, and discovery of new patterns which will be the basis for taking decisions on new designs. This is practiced in some form by designers, but I also strongly by entrepreneurs.

    Like you mention, a translation has to be made to turn the subjective recognition of patterns into information that is usable by organization. This translation, in my opinion, is made by looking for recurrence and replication of patterns in other conditions. This compounds subjective judgment to a more objective frame of reference. If organization in the midst of changes and ambiguity , wants to stay in touch with its surroundings, then it will need to structurally apply immersion to support decision making.

    Have a look at my post, and tell me what you think! http://valuechaingeneration.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/embracing-ambiguity/




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  7. Pingback: How to recognize Design Thinkers | fred zimny's serve4impact

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