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What is Design Thinking Anyway?

16 Feb

Roger Martin from:

The Design of Business

Design thinking, as a concept, has been slowly evolving and coalescing over the past decade. One popular definition is that design thinking means thinking as a designer would, which is about as circular as a definition can be. More concretely, Tim Brown of IDEO has written that design thinking is “a discipline that uses 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.” [1] A person or organization instilled with that discipline is constantly seeking a fruitful balance between reliability and validity, between art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation. The design-thinking organization applies the designer’s most crucial tool to the problems of business. That tool is abductive reasoning.  

Don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with the term. Formal logic isn’t systematically taught in our North American educational system, except to students of philosophy or the history of science. The vast majority of students are exposed to formal logic only by inference and then only to the two dominant forms of logic — deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. Those two modes, grounded in the scientific tradition, allow the speaker to declare at the end of the reasoning process that a statement is true or false.

Deductive logic — the logic of what must be — reasons from the general to the specific. If the general rule is that all crows are black, and I see a brown bird, I can declare deductively that this bird is not a crow.

Inductive logic — the logic of what is operative — reasons from the specific to the general. If I study sales per square foot across a thousand stores and find a pattern that suggests stores in small towns generate significantly higher sales per square foot than stores in cities, I can inductively declare that small towns are my more valuable market.
Deduction and induction are reasoning tools of immense power. As knowledge has advanced, our civilization has accumulated more deductive rules from which to reason. In field after field, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us. And advances in statistical methods have furnished us with ever more powerful tools for reasoning inductively. Thirty years ago, few in a boardroom would have dared to cite the R2 of regression analysis, but now the statistical tools behind this form of induction are relatively common in business settings. So it is no wonder that deduction and induction hold privileged places in the classroom and, inevitably, the boardroom as the preeminent tools for making an argument and proving a case.
Yet a reasoning toolbox that holds only deduction and induction is incomplete. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey began to explore the limits of formal declarative logic — that is, inductive and deductive reasoning. They were less interested in how one declares a statement true or false than in the process by which we come to know and understand. To them, the acquisition of knowledge was not an abstract, purely conceptual exercise, but one involving interaction with and inquiry into the world around them. Understanding did not entail progress toward an absolute truth but rather an evolving interaction with a context or environment.  

James, Dewey, and their circle became known as the American pragmatist philosophers, so called because they argued that one could gain understanding only through one’s own experiences. Among these early pragmatists, perhaps the greatest of them and certainly the most intriguing was Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce (rhymes with “terse”) was fascinated by the origins of new ideas and came to believe that they did not emerge from the conventional forms of declarative logic. In fact, he argued that no new idea could be proved deductively or inductively using past data. Moreover, if new ideas were not the product of the two accepted forms of logic, he reasoned, there must be a third fundamental logical mode. New ideas came into being, Peirce posited, by way of “logical leaps of the mind.” New ideas arose when a thinker observed data (or even a single data point) that didn’t fit with the existing model or models. The thinker sought to make sense of the observation by making what Peirce called an “inference to the best explanation.” The true first step of reasoning, he concluded, was not observation but wondering. Peirce named his form of reasoning abductive logic. It is not declarative reasoning; its goal is not to declare a conclusion to be true or false. It is modal reasoning; its goal is to posit what could possibly be true. (For further information, see “Why You’ve Never Heard of Charles Sanders Peirce.”)

Whether they realize it or not, designers live in Peirce’s world of abduction; they actively look for new data points, challenge accepted explanations, and infer possible new worlds. By doing so, they scare the hell out of a lot of businesspeople. For a middle manager forced to deal with flighty, exuberant “creative types,” who seem to regard prevailing wisdom as a mere trifle and deadlines as an inconvenience, the admonition to “be like a designer” is tantamount to saying “be less productive, less efficient, more subversive, and more flaky” — not an attractive proposition. And it is a fair critique that abduction can lead to poor results; unproved inferences might lead to success in time, but then again, they might not.

Some abductive thinkers fail to heed Brown’s requirement that the design must be matched to what is technologically feasible, launching products that do not yet have supporting technology. Consider the software designers who inferred from the growth of the Internet that consumers would want to do all their shopping online, from pet supplies to toys to groceries. Online security and back-end infrastructure had not yet caught up to their ideas, dooming them to failure.

Other abductive thinkers fail to address Brown’s second requirement: that the innovation must make business sense. Looking back on the dot-com crash, Michael Dell, founder of Dell, argues that little has changed. “Still today in our industry, if you go to a trade show, you walk around and you will find a lot of technology for which there is no problem that exists,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, look at this, we’ve got a great solution and there is no problem to solve here.’ ” [2] Think of the Apple Newton, the world’s first portable data assistant. Launched in 1993, it utterly flopped. According RIM’s Lazaridis, it was a failure of abduction. “It had no future,” he argues. “What problem did it solve? What value did it create? It was a research project. What could you do with it that you couldn’t do with a laptop? Nothing. And everything you could do with it, you could do better with a laptop.” Apple Computer (as it was known then) wasn’t wrong when it inferred that customers would value a small, portable, digital assistant, but it didn’t ultimately deliver a solution that matched the insight.

So the prescription is not to embrace abduction to the exclusion of deduction and induction, nor is it to bet the farm on loose abductive inferences. Rather, it is to strive for balance. Proponents of design thinking in business recognize that abduction is almost entirely marginalized in the modern corporation and take it upon themselves to make their companies hospitable to it. They choose to embrace a form of logic that doesn’t generate proof and operates in the realm of what might be — a realm beyond the reach of data from the past.

That’s a risk many leaders won’t take. Making Peirce’s logical leaps is not consistent or reliable; nor does it faithfully adhere to predetermined budgets. But the far greater risk is to maintain an environment hostile to abductive reasoning, the proverbial lifeblood of design thinkers and the design of business. Without the logic of what might be, a corporation can only refine its current heuristic or algorithm, leaving it at the mercy of competitors that look upstream to find a more powerful route out of the mystery or a clever new way to drive the prevailing heuristic to algorithm. Embracing abduction as the coequal of deduction and induction is in the interest of every corporation that wants to prosper from design thinking, and every person who wants to be a design thinker.

“What is Design Thinking” is an excerpt from Roger Martin’s new book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

1 Tim Brown, “Design Thinking. ” Harvard Business Review, June 2008. p. 86.

2 Michael Dell, in conversation with the author as part of the Rotman School of Management’s Integrative Thinking Experts Speaker Series, September 21, 2004.

I Heart Design

26 Jan

Cover of I Heart Design, edited by Steven Heller and published by Rockport (2011)


Certificate of Approval

My father acquired this print (and several more like it) in a collection he bought from the estate of a friend in France: a certificate of approval for a pharmaceutical product, combining official stamps, labels, and signatures — a visual testament to the due diligence of a battalion of government bureaucrats who were, one can only assume, its intended audience.

It is, of course, so much more than this — a composition of stunning modernity, especially given that it was produced at the end of the nineteenth century. The print is dated 1889 — the same year that marked the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower and the opening of the Moulin Rouge. (Van Gogh painted Starry Night in 1889, too.) A good quarter-century before Saul Steinberg would begin making his mixed media collages, this stunning piece of graphic design gestures at once to the formality of the past and the uncertainty of its future: centered and serious, yet marginally askew and surprisingly dynamic, it’s both classical and modern. It may just be my favorite thing, ever.

The above text is an excerpt from the book I Heart Design (Rockport 2011), the book features eighty different designers, writing about their favorite piece of design. This excerpt appears here with the publishers permission.

Just in Time

19 Jan

Just in Time, or A Short History of Production


A book printed through a printing chain made of four desktop printers using four different colors and technologies dated from 1880 to 1976. A production process that brings together small scale and large scale production, two sides of the same history.

  • MAGENTA (Stencil duplicator, 1880)
  • CYAN (Spirit duplicator, 1923)
  • BLACK (Laser printer, 1969)
  • YELLOW (Inkjet printer, 1976)
  • 210 x 297 mm
  • 42 pages
  • 100 copies
  • english


*New Hand in Date*

29 Nov

All your work for Art and Design in Context will now be handed in on or before Tuesday January 11 2011 by 4pm.

You have to submit The Website of the work you have done this term in Art and Design in Context, with your Political Cartoons, Wish You Were Here, Time Travel Projects.  Name clearly on the front page of  the  Website and 3 pages to be printed off and submitted with the header sheet to Lauren at the Architecture and Construction Reception desk.

Your Time Travel Presentation will now be on Monday 13 December.

175322 Time Travel and Wish You Were Here DESI 1115 Art & Design in Context 1 MB Ingham 11/01/2011
175323 Time Travel and Wish You Were Here DESI 1109 Art & Design in Context (30 credits) MB Ingham

Research in Action

15 Nov

Maps and legends.

29 Oct

Got to: for more pictures

Charting the working processes of early 21st century designers

Published on Monday, 25 October, 2010 | 12:08 pm

As a lasting souvenir of the first AGI Open conference, which took place in Porto last week, organizers Lizá Ramalho and Artur Rebelo edited and designed a book titled — like the conference itself — ‘Process is the project’, writes Jan Middendorp. The book is a catalogue of the exhibition ‘Mapping the Process’ (co-curated by architect André Tavares), which is being held at Porto’s charming Palacete Pinto Leite, a former music school, until 10 November.

Top: Peter Biľak’s contribution to the AGI Open conference. See our Reputations interview with Biľak from Eye 75.

To a certain extent, the book is the exhibition, as it reproduces the complete series of almost a hundred works by AGI members that were specially made for the show. As AGI President Paula Scher explains in her introduction to the book, it is customary for each annual AGI conference to host a graphic project to which members contribute; however, this year’s exhibition is extraordinary. Ramalho and Rebelo challenged their colleagues to go beyond the usual tribute to the location of the conference. They asked the membership to create ‘a map of their working process’. Which is like, as Scher notes (and the three curators admit), asking for ‘the impossible’.

Above: Palm reading Seymour Chwast’s creative process. See ‘Divine noir’ on the Eye blog for a look at Chwast’s surreal take on Dante.

While poster projects on a given theme often have a perfunctory feel about them, many of the works in this collection emanate the kind of fun, passion, confusion and craziness which the organisers doubtlessly hoped for. The impossible has seldom been dealt with in a more lucid and witty way. What makes the exhibition and companion book special is, of course, the amazing quality and range of the people involved.

While the AGI was once a gathering of modernistically inclined white European men, its membership now includes people from six continents and encompasses virtually all the current views on graphic design, typography and illustration; ages range from, roughly, late twenties to nineties. All of this is reflected in this collection of mental maps (and schemes, collages, cartoons) which is astonishing and at times puzzling in its variety of answers to the question: how do you do it?

That designers, many of whom are highly respected and even ‘famous’, agree to draw a map of their process in the first place, is quite amazing. For some it may be like giving away manufacturing secrets; for others, baring their professional (and personal) souls. Some have synthesized the painful aspects of compromise in a single strong and witty image, like Alain Le Quernec’s ‘Double Target’ (showing a clumsy drawing of a target that is but a shadow of the powerful graphic image it tries to approximate, above).

David Gentleman represented the tortuous creation process by a sensitive hand-painted path; Uwe Loesch sampled Minard’s famous graph of the decimation of Napoleon’s army in Russia as a sarcastic comment on the lost battle with the client. Several designers, including Stefan Sagmeister, made no attempt to synthesize the steps from start to finish but displayed each hurdle in its mind-bending, heart-breaking complexity (below). Tony Brook summarized the whole thing in three words, set sideways: ‘Think, Make, Next’, while Seymour Chwast mused: ‘Process? What Process? The working method of a designer does not look like a monopoly board. It looks more like a salad.’

An introspective project like this will always have an element of narcissism and complacency. But ‘Mapping the Process’ and its catalogue contain enough wit, insight and sheer virtuosity to complement that and reach beyond the strictly personal. Without wanting to sound pompous, I think that in a few years’ or decades’ time, the catalogue will offer invaluable insight into what made four generations of designers tick in the early 21st century.

Eye magazine is available from all good design bookshops and at the online Eye shop, where you can order subscriptions, single issues and back issues. The Autumn issue, Eye 77, which includes a Reputations interview with Paula Scher, is on its way to subscribers right now. For regular updates, please sign up for the editor’s newsletter.

Groups for Time Travel

25 Oct

Groups for Time Travel Brief Art and Design in Context 1 PDF


21 Oct

Now you need to evaluate the processes you went through to create your ideas and cartoons. Write 300 words on your cartoons. This is how to do it…. Then put it onto your website and look at what other people have written on their websites.


What is Evaluation? Evaluation is the skill of being able to look at a piece of work and know what is right or wrong with it. It is an instinctive skill but one that you can develop by increasing your knowledge and understanding of art and design through studying the work of other artists and designers.

Why do you evaluate your work? You evaluate your work to find out what works and what doesn’t. It is also important to understand what you have learned from doing the work. What are the new skills, techniques, and concepts that have you grasped through your involvement with the creative process? Each piece of work that you undertake should build upon your knowledge and understanding of art and design leaving you better equipped for your next challenge.

How do you evaluate your work?

When you are evaluating your designs you should consider the following:

Your Images: Consider their suitability for the subject, their style, proportion, arrangement and colour. Could any of these be improved upon by making any adjustments.

Your Fonts: Consider their suitability for the subject, their legibility, style, proportion, arrangement and colour. Could these be improved upon by making any adjustments.

Your Layout: (the combination of images and fonts) Consider the proportions, arrangement, alignment, and colour relationships of the various elements in your design.

Your Target Audience: (your client, buyers, users, readers, listeners) Does your design speak in a language, colour and style that appeals to your target audience?

Your Technique: does your use of media, quality of finish and presentation need to be improved upon?



20 Oct

What is Anti Design? [animation]



Growing Knowledge: The evolution of research

18 Oct

Growing Knowledge: The evolution of research

An exhibition at the British Library showcasing innovative research tools

12 October 2010 – 16 July 2011

Growing Knowledge will inform and inspire today’s researchers, and spark a debate on the future of research.

Please register to help us evaluate Growing Knowledge. You can also complete a short survey on the BBC website on social media. Twitter users: hashtag #blgk | feed (Atom)

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