Design thinking is not an algorithm; unlike in math and science problems, there is no single, right, absolute answer. Nor are there formulaic, simplistic approaches or templates available. These would severely limit creative possibilities to solving problems or even finding the right questions. Instead, design thinking is a problem-solving approach that produces multiple solutions, some perhaps more optimal than others.
The best process is inherently dynamic, changing in response to the nature of the situation and the individuals involved. Thorough analyses of the problem’s context and of the stakeholders themselves, therefore, are critical components of design thinking.
Architecture is one of the venerable design professions from which design thinking has evolved. How an architect designs a building illustrates components of the process in action and involves a certain foundational rigor and legitimacy. Great architects typically question and transcend the building program given to them by clients in order to create something more meaningful and special than just solving the functional problem at hand. That’s what design thinking can do for many types of problems.
In the design process, architects are routinely required to reconcile conflicts among various stakeholders who want more space, prefer certain aesthetic features or demand the highest quality construction but have low budgets. The best architects are able to juggle and integrate the many variables and use conflicts—or constraints—as the fuel that motivates great solutions. In other words, great architects are taught to focus and create order out of chaos and complexity.
Why shouldn’t professionals in other disciplines take advantage of this mind-set? Design thinking can be valuable to a large number of individuals, independent of any professional or personal affiliations. It is tempting to suggest that most challenges in life may be expressed as design problems and effectively managed as such. Solutions to even the most mundane problems can benefit from an infusion of purposeful creativity—derived from the seemingly magical perspective of design thinking.
One example of how such thinking helps in government is the way former New Hampshire Congressman Richard N. Swett (D) started work on the Congressional Accountability Act (1995), which he co-authored. The act requires members of Congress to abide by the same laws it passes for the rest of the country. Swett began the process with an open-ended brainstorming session by his committee members that later coalesced into the landmark legislation. While the approach at first seemed to invite chaos, it helped bring all the pieces sought together in a meaningful way.
Another example is the way Meredith Kauffman, a PhD involved in consumer products, led teams that devised improvements to denture adhesive dispensers. One solution for partial dentures, which use a very viscous experimental adhesive, was to rethink the original tube design and develop a novel applicator similar to a clicking pen, with each click providing a metered dose. It is easier on an arthritic hand and would not require a squeezing force.
Still another brainchild of design thinking came from James Barker, former president of Clemson University. Barker helped break a thought loop that the team was stuck in, related to partnering with the region’s automobile industry, by diagramming the university’s relationship to the industry as overlapping circles. Ultimately, the team saw that there was no existing overlap and that the connection needed to be made. The result: six new buildings on the campus, forming the International Center for Automotive Research and $220 million invested by South Carolina’s private corporations.
Some may see what I have written and argued here as reclaiming the design-thinking discourse for architecture or as demystifying thinking that comes out of a codified professional knowledge. It’s nice if that is true, but the bigger issue is to solve the problems that confront us every day in our lives and in society.
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