Didn’t we solve this one? The function of practice routines in design thinking.

Didn’t we solve this one? The function of practice routines in design thinking.


While design thinking has become a buzz word in industries far outside of the design space, it’s application inside the studio remains relatively unstudied (Kimbell, 2011). Current models of ‘design thinking’ make visible the applied process informed by the creative decision making practices of designers, but also work to render invisible the audit and logic structures in which designers labour. As a result, designers report that the process which bears their name holds little weight in their daily work. This paper examines findings from an ethnographic study of design practice, and proposes that ‘design thinking’ as applied in the studio setting includes not only the stages modeled by Simon, IDEO and d.school, but also recurrent routines of production such as ‘affinity sorting’ and ‘repertoire use’. The use of formulae and routine within the applied creative problem solving process of designers is identified using data from a study exercise conducted with 22 in early 2016. This paper discusses the surprising role of ‘affinity sorting’ and ‘repertoire use’ practices as creative problem solving techniques within client-focused design work within a framework of occupational formulae and institutional logics and proposes that expanding the current understanding of the processes of designers as inclusive of these routine or formulaic practices allows for a reconceptualization of ‘design thinking’ as a process of imposing limitations, rather than the commonly accepted ‘thinking outside the box’. It concludes with proposals for furthering and expanding our understanding of design thinking and the processes that inform design research.

With the realities of client requirements, institutional restrictions and the audit culture of billable work, the daily work of designers in studios often bears little resemblance to the mysterious and magical process promoted in studio and design industry rhetoric. In fact, designers often rail against the use of terms such as ‘design thinking’, suggesting that the use of the term itself is redundant – akin to air-breathing more so than to a new and unique process form (Monteiro, 2017). As Helfand has notably stated, design thinking can be understood as a formulaic approach that refutes and denies the power of process (2016). It has even been termed “trendy but ambiguous…a dubious term” (Lahey, 2017).  It has been argued by Laurel and Kimbell that exporting ‘design thinking’ as a practice, business and management literature has rendered the associated work of ‘design doing’ invisible. And yet, as a complicated interplay of mind-sets, applied techniques, and philosophical approaches, design thinking has become a reference point for a variety of powerful research based and iterative approaches to problem solving: a reference point that captures the optimistic and creative problem-solving ethos of the community of practice it has come to represent (Simonsen et al. 2014). With that in mind, can design thinking be re-imagined not as an act of expansive imagining but as an act of categorization and application of routines?

This paper explores the way in which designers are rethinking design thinking. Based on findings from an ethnographic study of design practice within an experience and digital studio, and specific data from a sorting exercise conducted with 22 designers, this paper proposes that designers themselves are expanding the definition of ‘design thinking’ to include not only the ever popular ‘thinking outside the box’, but also practices of formulae use and categorization – acts of ‘boxing’ the information back in.

Findings from this study reveal that designers from whose work the process gets its name often report that the stages identified in most popular models of ‘design thinking’ process are not reflective of their own professional practice, or the realities of daily studio work.  However, data from sorting exercises using three popular models of ‘design thinking’ processes generated by Simon (1969), IDEO (2014) and the Stanford d.school (2009) as reference points indicates the possibility of expanding an epistemological definition of ‘design thinking’ practices to include routines of production such as ‘affinity sorting’ and ‘repertoire use’. This paper seeks to explore the practices of designers and the ways in which they compensate for both the institutional logics of the studio organization and the audit requirements of client work in order to re-situate ‘design thinking’ as a solution based approach to solving problems back within the daily work of designers.

Literature review

Throughout the history of design studies, design thinking has been understood as a knowledge practice unique to design culture. However, the location and definition of design thinking as either a tacit form of knowing, or an explicit form of visual knowledge has remained a point of debate throughout the movements in the field. Of key importance to this paper is an understanding of the historical context of ‘design thinking’ as a term, and its origins in studies of decision making processes. Exactly how designers create innovative and surprising solutions to undefined and multifaceted material and social problems remains one of the major debates within the field of design studies. Over time, understandings of what it means to use ‘design thinking’ (Archer, 1965) have shifted to reflect the changing understandings of the designer’s role and function within society, while continually focusing on examinations of design as a social act (Papanek, 1971), explorations of the creative thinking practices of designers (Cross, 2011) and the material enactment of design as conception and planning of the artificial (Buchanan, 1992; Margolin, 2002).

Design Thinking

First proposed by Archer in 1965, and popularized by Rowe in 1987, design thinking is understood to be a mode of inquiry: both a way of knowing and a form of knowledge. A review of the relatively short history of design studies reveals four key movements or eras of focus in the discipline, each of which locates and defines design thinking in a different manner, repositioning the term through an expanding cycle culminating in our contemporary understanding of design thinking as a collaborative, socially-informed, creative process.

Design thinking can thus be framed as method (Rowe, 1987): a framework based on Simon’s development of design thinking as a unique, methods based approach to a commonly defined and understood problem (1969). Design thinking can also be framed as a mindset (Buchanan, 1982; Bucciarelli, 1984; Schön, 1983), a focus developed out of examinations into what Cross termed “process-creativity” (1997, p. 427), which presented design thinking as a way of knowing: a general resource for design characterized by the cognitive aspects of design practice and creative process (Cross, 1982). Of particular note in this movement was Lawson’s study of design cognition in the context of architecture and urban planning (1979) which provided the vocabulary used by Cross in his proposal of “designerly ways of knowing” (1982). This idea that “there are things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them that are specific to the design area” (Cross, 1982, p. 22) situated design thinking as a cognitive practice firmly based in instinct and forms of intuition that are unique to designers. The mindset movement also introduced a new understanding of what could constitute a design problem – positioning them as “swampy lowlands” (Schön, 1983, p. 42), or the widely-used “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992, originally proposed in Rittell & Webber, 1973). With the redefinition of design thinking as a mindset, and a methodological response to the wicked problems presented in practice, conceptions of design thinking as a way of knowing specific to designers began to evolve into a ‘process’ approach to innovative problem-solving that focused more clearly on the teachable and transferable aspects of the practice.

The third movement of design studies presented design thinking as a process, defined by researchers who grounded logic and criteria in studies of innovation from inside and outside the design studio. This shift of perspectives, marked in the early 2000s by the adoption of design thinking as a marketable skill set by innovation and management studies (T. Brown, 2009; T. Kelley, 2005; Martin, 2009; Pink, 2006) positioned design thinking as a “way of looking” (D. Kelley, 2013) rather than an ability or “designerly way of knowing” (Cross, 1982). Design thinking was increasingly held ransom by theorists focused on its application outside of the studio, despite desperate calls for its return from theorists focused on the epistemic modes within design process (Bauer & Eagan, 2008). Design thinking was thus positioned as a resource for organizations – an inherently empathetic and innovative act, distanced from the culture, education or community context of design practice and useful for anyone willing to adopt the theoretical approach.

Of late, understandings of design thinking have re-positioned the term as a form of embodied, socially and materially informed practice (Kimbell, 2012; Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007). This latest movement within studies of design thinking studies has sensitized theorists to include not only the methods, mindset and process of creative practice, but also the co-production of knowledge and material experience through participation and collaboration (Kimbell, 2009). This more recent practice-based movement proposes design thinking to be a methodology focused on the development of empathy, the use of creativity, and the application of rationality and feedback as analytical tools – moving the practice form both closer to the ideals held by this creative community of practice, and at times further from the realities of their professional work.

Institutional Logics Perspective

Contextualizing the origins of ‘design thinking’ allows us to better understand how commodifying ‘design thinking’ as an applied process serves to dislocate the abductive and associative decision making processes of designers from their daily work– work which is of necessity conducted within the boundaries of the logics and audit practices of the studio setting. As Thornton and Ocasio suggest, macro institutional logics are refined and enabled by the use of rules and tools and are manifested as structures and practices (2009). From this perspective, we can understand how the embedding of institutional logics (such as the social and cultural role of the designer) within an organizational culture focuses the attention of members on specific forms of practice (such as the identified practices of design thinking) – thus manifesting, through series of decision premises, logics in the form of organizational decisions (Thornton, Ocasio & Lounsbury, 2012). By understanding institutions (and their attendant organizations) as patterns of activity and symbolic systems we are able to conceptualize the design studio as the site of a series of logics – each of which is constructed socially, historically and through acts of material practice. Using an institutional logics perspective to focus on how broader belief systems shape the cognition and behaviour of actors (Crumley & Loundsbury, 2007) also enables the reintegration of design doing back into processes of design thinking – providing a response to common issues identified by designers as a community of practice.

Community of Practice

Designers themselves belong to a community of practice, a social activity system dependent on the presence of forms of heedful interrelating and an organization structured on a single memory system in which each member has responsibility for a key part (Wenger, 1998). Though there is little consensus on the presence of the collective mind, with the alternative of an objective mind of a practice at work (Schatzki, 2005), there is general agreement that participation in a community of practice is an act of becoming, a social engagement and a social acquisition of identity, and that participation in a community of practice cannot be limited to the application of cognitive practices (Wenger, 1998). Of key importance in understanding designers as members of a community of practice is their application of situated perspectives of learning and their engagement, imagination of, and alignment with the community of designers as a whole, and to which they subordinate themselves (Brown & Duguid, 2001; Weick & Roberts, 1993). In this way, we can understand design practice as a form of situated knowledge (Chaiklin & Lave, 1993) or organizational knowledge (Nicolini, 2012) deeply informed by the social structure and institutional logics of the design studio. In opposition to this is definitions of design thinking as simply a cognitive practice, extractable from and applicable outside of the social structures of the community of practice from where it is generated (Chaiklin & Lave, 1993).

Occupational Formulae and Routines of Production

By examining design thinking as a series of practice forms informed by the situated knowledge of members of a community of practice, we can better understand how graphic designers engage in complex and often invisible or unacknowledged practices of production in order to create design solutions.  By analyzing these practices of production within a system of “product image(s)” (Ryan & Peterson, 1982), “occupational formulae” (Negus, 2002), and “routines of production” (Ettema, 1982) we are able to better understand how it is that designers work using their institutional context to generate creative work. The literature on the “occupational formulae” provides, for us, a way of understanding creative practice as a series of repeated and formulaic steps within work.  In his examination of the working practices of music producers (2002), Negus draws attention to “the habitual, un-reflexive and uncritical adherence to well-established production and occupational formulae” (p. 510) as a way that cultural intermediaries are able to make creative work while staying on budget and schedule. In addition, an understanding of design practice as inclusive of ‘routines of production’ habits that “energize the producer’s creative abilities” (Ettema & Whitney, 1982, p.47) rather than limit them allows us to examine the ways in which the romanticized and commodified understanding of design thinking shared outside of the studio can be better understood as the result of a production routine. These routines of production, according to Ettema, can serve to create a perspective in the creative workplace that is conducive to doing the specific tasks at hand, to create organizational vocabulary and to socialize new recruits to the workplace.

Research methods

The foundation for the analysis presented in this paper is an ongoing qualitative research study which compares data from individual interviews with practicing graphic, service and digital designers with six months of ethnographic field work comprised of immersive participant observation conducted in an international experience and digital design agency based in Canada. With the intent of developing a fuller understanding of the social and cognitive processes that come together to form the abstract category of ‘design thinking’, this study aims to provide a description of the sense making processes engaged by designers in their work, and the way in which these practice forms could be exported to other organizational contexts. Ethnographic data for this larger study was collected with design teams over the course of six months in a large Canadian design organization with more than 50 designers and design workers whose work is supported by 100 strategic, operational and accounts focused staff members. By gathering empirical data from designers in both the organizational context of the studio, and through interviews about their own habitual, regulated and creative practice (itself defined by their membership in the organization), a clear understanding of how designers themselves define the parameters of design thinking is being achieved.

Of specific note in the context of this paper was a series of exercises conducted with individual designers during field work. The methodology applied for this exercise included asking designers, as part of semi structured interviews, to describe their decision making processes using a sample creative brief and a fictional client relationship and to write each aspect of their process (conceptualized as a practice node) on a separate card. Participants were then tasked with comparing their outlined practice against the methodological prescriptions found in three commonly accepted models of ‘design thinking’ generated by design firms and business publications: Simon’s original five part model of design thinking process found in the seminal Sciences of the Artificial (1969), the original IDEO design thinking cycle model popularized by Tim Brown (2014) and the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school), five design thinking modes model (2009).

Designers were asked to assign each of their identified practice nodes to the ‘design thinking’ structures outlined. Unassigned practice nodes were identified for further examination and discussion. This specific exercise was conducted with 22 designers in early 2016 as part of semi structured interviews in the design studio space. After data collection was finalized from this phase of the larger study, qualitative content analysis was used to derive coding categories directly from the collected and transcribed data (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005), using a descriptive approach to examine the larger narrative presented in specific exercises, field notes and interview text (Sparker, 2005). These initial coding categories from the exercise work were then collated into potential themes, which were subsequently tested in relation to the larger data set and against interview data as well (Braun & Clarke 2006).



Overall, designers tasked with assigning self-identified practice nodes to the three models of design thinking identified many strengths of the models themselves. The overall focus on the unique practices of empathy generation, ideation, iterative practice, trial and error, testing and rendering complex information simple were valued by designers and easily accommodated within their own practice outlines. However, of the 22 participant designers in this exercise, 19 were unable to find space to accommodate a key aspect of their practice – that of compartmentalizing and categorizing the types of projects presented in the brief in order to work out the class of solution most appropriate to the client. More than half of the designers identified practice nodes related to sorting, or categorizing types of work in order to accommodate for the use of pre-formed or habitual solutions implemented to save time, billable hours and effort in an already stretched and busy working day. Of the 22 participants, 17 discussed their use of a “mental library” of concepts, or formulaic responses to what was considered a typical design problem and were unable to assign these practice node cards within the ‘design thinking’ models provided. All the designers participating in this exercise discussed the difference between ‘real’ life and ‘dream’ process and 20 participants of the 22 total sample size attributed this difference to the unspoken and unacknowledged role of routines and habits in creative concept generation. Most designer participants, when asked to select from the provided structures or models, assigned these practice nodes to the stages of Ideation (in all three provided models) but 15 of the 17 who discussed the use of routines and habits in the ideation phase clarified that this was not a practice form that would ‘count’ as part of design thinking.

Key comments from designers participating in this exercise included:

“…sure but it is a mental library, like a pantry, and you can reach in and get ingredients, you know? Once you have decided what kind of project it is, what you can pull that you already have, then you can work faster – you don’t have any time to start with” (Designer A, personal communication, 2016).

“ I use some habitual stuff I guess, once I’ve decided what I’m…once it’s clear what kind of thing we are doing, then most of it is just plug and play” (Designer B, personal communication, 2016).

“You can’t really call this design thinking. It’s just what you do…you are a designer. You just have this set of stuff, you remember what you’ve done, you use what you know. Like type choices. Or layout. Or just you know. You remember what you did before. You do that, because hopefully it worked!” (Designer C, personal communication, 2016).

“Everyone thinks we are always reinventing. Changing things. Reinventing…but most of the time we already know what the end is going to be, just once you know you give me the brief. We can tell the weather from looking at that, then we know what works” (Designer D, personal communication, 2016).

“You know what works. You’ve done this before. I just think about what I’ve dealt with before, and see what this might be similar to. You know. Find it’s similarities…work from before gets you going” (Designer E, personal communication, 2016).


An analysis of the data generated by this small exercise highlights two key areas of practice that common to design work within an institutional structure such as a design studio.  Coding the findings thematically revealed that designers identified two key practice nodes that are rendered invisible within the literature on design thinking at this time: ‘affinity sorting’ and ‘repertoire use’. If, as the literature would suggest, design thinking is just the cognitive process of designers in action, then how can we accommodate for these extra or unassigned practice forms described by designers in the studio setting?

The first key practice, or routinized type of behaviour (Reckwitz, 2002) revealed through this assignment exercise can be understood as affinity sorting. As previously noted, designers described the stages of assigning a design problem to a category of solution before engaging with the process of ideation outlined in the three sample models – in essence employing what Ryan & Peterson (1982) call a product image to side step extra or unnecessary work in the “empathize” (d.school, 2009), “define” (Simon, 1969) or “inspiration” (IDEO, 2014) phases of their work. Much like the “product images” uncovered in Ryan and Peterson’s study of song-writers, designers faced with an assembly line of concurrent projects described the use of categories or sorting practices to better understand what kind of problem they faced and to create a short circuit within the initial phases of their process. This would appear to run counter to Baeck & Gremett’s proposal that design thinking is a more creative and user-centered approach to problem solving than traditional design methods, an method which “ defies the obvious and instead embraces a more experimental approach.” (2011, p. 17)

The second key practice node identified by designers in this exercise focused on the use of formulae: notably the application of repertoir use as a practice form. Designers described having a library or stock of ideas ‘in the back pocket’ from which they drew tested and approved solutions appropriate to the design problem at hand. At first glance, this appears to run counter to the emphasis within design thinking literature on prototyping, ideation and testing but designers described this use of formulae as a second short circuit: a way of refining the ideation phase from the possible to the adjacent possible (Johnson, 2010). With that in mind, designers were still unable to agree upon a formal place for this practice node – this may indicate a discomfort with the use of formulae or routine in a professional practice that faces difficulties with the validation of creative work and of designer skill sets in the first place.

With both of the identified practice nodes, designers drew attention to the way in which design thinking is a process not only of looking ‘outside the box’ (Kelley, 2014) but also of looking to what be inside the box as well. By describing their difficulty with the categorization of practice nodes such as affinity sorting and repertoire use, designers draw our attention to the role of institutional logics and situated knowledges that shape, and are shaped by, a community of practice.


Findings from this exercise within the larger ethnographic study suggest that by returning the creative practices of affinity sorting and repertoire use to our understanding of what design thinking includes when placed in action, we may be able to create a more fulsome and informed model for use both inside and outside the studio. In addition, by accommodating for the shaping role of both situated knowledges and institutional logics present in the design studio, and among designers as a community of practice, we may be able to reinstitute design practice within design thinking – restoring the social and institutional ways of knowing or nexuses of doings and sayings that have been rendered invisible in current popular models of the process.

All of the designer participants in this study agreed that design thinking is a methodology that provides a solution based approach to solving problems. And with that in mind, a full understanding of the approach that expands the current definition of design thinking as an outward facing process, and which redefines it to include critical and creative routines of practice or occupational formulae of inward facing actions of affinity sorting and repertoire use can better represent the reality of the creative work after which it is named.


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AnneMarie Dorland

AnneMarie Dorland is an Assistant Professor in the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University, an innovation focused university that offers a different kind of business education to students who want to make a change in our world. Named a Joseph Armand Bombardier Scholar by SSHRC and a member of the University of Calgary’s Teaching Academy, Dorland has been committed to bringing together her background as a graphic designer, brand strategist and qualitative researcher to develop innovative, creative and design-oriented undergraduate learning experiences for the past decade. Through her work as a mentor and facilitator, she has supported undergraduate research and inquiry-based learning for hundreds of students in the classroom and in work integrated learning projects. She maintains a research focus on creativity and creative problem solving practices such as design thinking and her current program of research focuses on design-based problem solving practices and their use in undergraduate student learning outside of the studio space. Dorland has played an integral role in the design and leadership of the inquiry-based and experientially focused UCalgary Global Challenges curriculum, the first of its kind in Canada, and in the development and implementation of undergraduate research support for a U15 Canadian University. A creative practice researcher and contributor to several international publications on the use of design-based problem solving, she is passionate about using the practices of the studio to help students create new and innovative ideas in their marketing, branding and design work. Dorland is a professional member of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC), the Service Design Network (SDN), the Canadian Communication Association (ACC-CCA), the Canadian Sociological Association (CSA), the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA), Registered Graphic Designers (RGD), Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) and the Design Management Institute (DMI).

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