An exciting new direction.

After 8 wonderful years at the University of Calgary, I’ve recently made a change to a new academic home. I’ve joined Mount Royal University as an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Department of Entrepreneurship, Marketing and Social Innovation at the Bissett School of Business and I can’t wait to get started.

With that said, I’ve learned so much from my colleagues at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, and at the College of Discovery, Creativity and Innovation, so it is hard to say goodbye! Most difficult though is saying goodbye to the incredible Global Challenges students from our UNIV 201, 203 and 401 courses. I’m looking forward to continuing to collaborate with all of you on the design thinking research we’ve begun from my new home at MRU.

On that note, take a look at how incredible these students really are! The following video was made to promote the Global Challenges courses and aside from the awkwardness of seeing myself in there at the begining I could watch it a million times over. Well done UNIV students!

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Doing Design Thinking: An Ethnography of the Digital Graphic Design Studio

I’ve finished my dissertation on the creative problem solving practices of designers (lovingly named Wanda so that I have someone to scream at when needed) and submitted it to the University of Calgary – I’m ALL DONE! Yay!

I’m sharing it here with you…prepare yourselves accordingly for a longish visit to theory town. But once you get into the ethnographic description of just how designers actually do what they do when they do what they do, I think you might find it interesting. Let me know! I’d love feedback, as I’m hoping to turn this into a design thinking textbook for undergraduate student learners in the future.

Untangling Design Thinking from Designing, Thinking, and Designing our Thinking.

In an effort to wrangle the term design thinking into submission, I’m trying to untangle design thinking from all the words…design, designing, thinking, and designing our thinking. As a model for change in the world of post secondary education, design thinking serves an important purpose: it is both a tool that can enhance learning for students, and it is a disruptive force in an arena that is ready for some change.

As a tool, design thinking can open the doors to how our students tackle wicked problems using empathy, collaboration, and a bias towards action. It can foster and support a comfort with the messiness of ambiguity within inquiry based learning, and it can nurture an increased fluency and flexibility in creating ideas geared towards innovation. It can build a practice of process in creative thinking, which is a pretty incredible thing.

And it is a disruptive force for the academy as an organization too. When an academic institution (especially one as large as a University) is ready to innovate with new ways of doing, sharing and celebrating research, new ways of teaching and new ways of learning – well using design thinking to develop and support the disruptions required to make those changes seems like a fabulous fit.

But using design thinking in post secondary education requires we move beyond the tip of the iceberg, and that we leave the sticky tabs and wacky ideation games behind to embrace the way we are designing our thinking. Because using design thinking as a tool for teaching and learning, OR as a tool for organizational disruption means more than just acting like we think a designer might act (and what is that ‘way’ anyways? Just lots of wearing black and complaining about fonts? General coolness?). It means using the ways that they actively design their thinking to approach the social and critical problems we tackle in the classroom and in the academic culture. It means designing our thinking deliberately to embrace ideation, ambiguity and prototyping in how we define our problem in the first place, and it means getting over the idea there even being a correct solution, and celebrating the thinking process itself.

When designers use design thinking, they aren’t replacing their practice with a model. Often (based on the conversations I’ve had as part of my research) they don’t even believe that the models that take their name represent their work at all. (Side note: this video is phenomenal…once Pentagram declares that they are ‘over’ design thinking, it is time to take a hard look at the models we rely on!) But what they are doing is deliberately approaching a problem by thinking about it in a way that they themselves have deliberately and strategically designed. And we can all learn from that.

I tackled a brief lit review of the world of design thinking from the perspective of the field of design studies last year – for what it is worth, here is what this oh-so-popular approach looks like from that perspective.

Saying the Unsayable: Intersections of Tacit Knowing and Explicit Knowledge
Within an Expanded Definition of Design Thinking.

Interest in design thinking as a tool for innovation, and as a mysteriously-applied art practiced by designers, has recently reached new heights within the field of design studies. But for all the attention paid to design thinking – from events such as the Design Thinkers 2016 conference in Toronto (Association of Registered Graphic Designers, 2016) to a list of over 1,500 publications since 2010 alone (Amazon, 2016), the practice of how designers come to know how, and what, to design remains hotly-contested. 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.

Design Thinking: Method, Process, Mindset and Practice Movements

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. The designer’s process of imagining, proposing and creating change in our world is inspiring to many, but mysterious to most ­– including design practitioners and researchers. Over time, understandings of what it means to use ‘design thinking’ 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).[1]

To better understand their field, designers and design theorists alike rely on Simon’s distinction between design and the social sciences. In his oft-quoted passage from The Sciences of the Artificial (1969) Simon proposes design as a practice of action and change, undertaken by a wide variety of professionals:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. … Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design (p. 55).

At the crossroads of design practice and creativity lays a field of research focused on design thinking as a form of knowledge and a way of knowing. 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. This proposal, as Kimbell explains, prompts examinations into “describing how designers do design, how they think, and what they know”, asking us “to examine our assumptions about what constitutes design; it forces us to define design itself” (2011, p. 299). As the dominant epistemological position within both contemporary and historical design studies, design thinking has long been understood to be the basis for all innovative, creative and cultural production conducted by designers (Cross, 2001).

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 as a Method

Design thinking’s roots are planted at the beginning of design studies – an era marked by the “methods movement” (Margolin, 2002) that focused on developing a scientific approach to the practice of design. Beginning in the early 1960s, scholars such as Archer (1965), Simon (1969), De Bono (1968) and Osborn (1957) focused on systems, scientific analysis and use of pattern in creative thinking, outlining the concern at the time with the designer’s knowledge about methods and how to employ them in a scientific manner. Design thinking was understood at the time to encompass a unique knowledge of design methods, and though the term is often attributed to Rowe (1987), Archer’s Systematic Method for Designers (1965) serves as the true birthplace of “design thinking” as a unique description for a designer’s process. In his examination of industrial design, Archer defined a series of phases within design methods, proposing that:

“… there has been a world wide shift in emphasis from the sculptural to the technological. Ways had to be found to incorporate the knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking” (p. 57).

The methods movement in design studies was further defined by Simon’s development of design thinking as a unique, methods based approach to a commonly defined and understood problem (Simon, 1969) and by Papanek’s (1971) call for sustainable design practice.[2] It was at the intersection between Simon’s scientific notion of design thinking as an attempt to shift the possible to the preferable, Archer’s identification and definition of design thinking as unique aspect of design practice and Papanek’s identification of the social role of designers that the modern approach to design thinking was initiated.

Design Thinking as a Mindset

The subsequent turn toward creative practice and ability as a mindset marked the second movement in design thinking. Initiated in the early 1980s, the process-movement within design studies developed out of examinations into what Cross termed “process-creativity” (1997, p. 427), and 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.

As Buchanan suggested, this positioned design thinking as a “neoteric art” – a new systemic discipline of practical reasoning and argumentation (1992, p. 22). Suggesting that design thinking was indeed ‘designerly’ shaped understandings of the methodology as both an explicit process in which creative practice could be vocalized and shared (Bucciarelli, 1984; Schön, 1983) and as an intuitive and tacit way of knowing based on an extension of visual thinking (McKim, 1972), ambidextrous thinking (Faste, 1994) and creative practices of leaping and bridge building (Cross, 1997). As Kimbell suggests, this era of design thinking focused on “what designers do, think and know, implying that this is different to what non-designers do” (2011, p. 298). The mindset movement also introduced a new understanding of design problems – 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.

Design Thinking as Process

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). Suggesting that a design thinker is one who knows there is never a right answer to a problem, researchers such as Tim Brown proposed that by following a proprietary, non-linear and iterative process that he called “inspiration, ideation and implementation”, the design process itself can convert problems into opportunities (T. Brown, 2009). 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). The positioning of design thinking 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 – resulted in a call for the death of the term itself with Nussbaum’s declaration of design thinking as a failed experiment (2011).

Design Thinking as Practice

In what can be seen as a rejection of design thinking’s movement towards applied innovation,[3] new 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

“the embodied nature of professional design work, how designers and stakeholders involved in design processes move, what they think, what they do and how it feels” (Kimbell, 2009, p. 12)

This opened the door to considerations of the role of organizations and social context in design thinking practice, and redefined design thinking as a service-oriented, human-centered, user-focused and participatory approach within the work of designers (Rodgers & Yee, 2015). As Julier has noted, this turn from design as problem-solving activity to design as problem-processing activity mirrors the shifts in design practice from multi-disciplinary approaches to interdisciplinary approaches (2000). A contemporary definition of design thinking encompasses the practices through which designers examine and understand what people do in their daily life, as well as the social implications of the designer’s impact on material culture and the people with which they are engaged (Murphy, 2015; Yaneva, 2013). In this way, design thinking has been reframed 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.

[1] Valuable contributions to design studies are also found in examinations of the material world. Design theorists have variously found it helpful to reduce design to its product of “things with attitude” (Attfield, 1989) in order to position the output of design practice as the link between the economic and the cultural (Bourdieu, 1984), as a demonstration of a specific logic or language practiced in the design community (Chaney, 1996), or as cultural reconstruction for the meaning of what is consumed (Fine & Leopold, 1993).

[2] The design methods movement of the decades following 1960, and its focus on design as a unique, nearly scientific practice is reflected the human-centered, user-focused and sustainable design movements that define the field today.

[3] In fact, design theorists such as Shove challenge the association of design thinking with “thinking” at all (Shove, Watson, Hand, & Ingram, 2007).

Design Thinking’s moment in the University classroom.

So it would seem that design thinking is having a moment. I know, I know. This is not news. After all, once something has hit the twittersphere with the force that design thinking seems to have (#designthinking), the moment may actually be almost over. But this is exciting for me, because it means that the methods of problem solving that I am seeing designers engage in the studio space as a part of the Doing Design Thinking study are starting to break through into the ‘real world’ in more than just a business-book-of-the-day way. So maybe design thinking is having a moment.

But what is more interesting to me than the buzz word of design thinking, which has been tasked with fixing itself, and destroying itself, and replacing itself too (the poor term has a lot on it’s shoulders!) is how we can use it as a tool set to develop innovation, and how we can share it in a post-secondary setting to help students and researchers meet the challenges of the future.

Innovation is at the heart of all of what we do, especially at the Mount Royal University: it is our key to improving our competitiveness, to evolving how we look at existing problems and how we spot opportunities for change in our world. You can learn more about that part here, in a new essay series by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. We can think of innovation as the successful exploitation of new ideas, and as the vehicle for carrying those new ideas through to new products, new services, new solutions for challenges. Sustained success, especially in a research and teaching driven space like MRU – increasingly depends on our ability to innovate: to nurture, grow and share new ideas and new opportunities. I’m just so excited that the opportunities for our students to learn together with this approach is here, and that undergraduate students from across disciplines are coming together as a cohort to connect with these exciting ideas. Maybe design thinking innovation is having a moment after all.


What does it mean to connect innovation and creativity through design thinking?

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 9.22.31 AM.pngI’m so thrilled and honoured to be a part of the SSHRC Storytellers Top 25 Competition this year – I really believe that developing a better understanding of the ways that designers solve complex and critical problems will help us connect creativity and innovation in Canada’s future, and I’m so excited to share the research work I’ve been doing with all of Congress 2017 as part of this event.

My research explores what designers can tell us about problem solving and innovation, and what we can learn from them about applying their creative process to some of the challenges that lie ahead for Canada.

As a country, we’re known for our exciting cultural industries, and our spirit of innovation, but we face challenges in connecting the two. Creativity and innovation are becoming critical terms in how we understand Canada’s future – how we understand our competitiveness, how we look at existing problems and how we spot opportunities for change in our world. Sustained success, regardless of sector – increasingly depends on our ability to innovate: to exploit new ideas and new opportunities. But to do that, we have to somehow connect with creativity and with our creative community.
I believe that it is design that connects these two, and that Canada’s entrepreneurial and innovative future depends on how we integrate design thinking into the boardrooms and offices of our high tech industries, our resource community, our policy development, our scientific base and our educational facilities.
We can think of creativity as the generation of new ideas – either new ways of looking at existing problems, or of seeing new opportunities, new ways of thinking. But how do we harness it, how can we connect it with change in our industries or our policy or our markets?
And we can think of innovation as the successful exploitation of new ideas. Innovation is what carries those new ideas through to new products, new services, new solutions for challenges. But how do we move forward into an adjacent possible – how do we make sure we aren’t reinventing the success of the present?
What connects these two is design: research from many different fields really design thinking and the unique ways that designers work as the link between creativity and innovation. Design is the shaping of ideas –it is the force and power of creativity deployed to a specific end. By integrating design thinking as a way of problem solving, we can mobilize the force of creativity toward true innovation.
But here is the thing: we don’t have a very good picture of just what design thinking is – or even how designers do what they do. We have an idea…it’s all white boards and brain storms and magic and “creativity”! Designers have something unique to offer: the way that they work opens doors and introduces new ways of changing the world. And we need to know more about their unique practices: According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020, one-third of all jobs will require complex problem solving skills of this type. But the challenge that we are facing is that we don’t have a full picture of just what the practices of designers are. The terms ‘design thinking’ and ‘creativity’ get thrown around a lot: we know that designers of all kinds have a unique way of solving some of the most difficult and tangled problems out there, but there is a gap in our understanding of just what designers do on an every-day basis.
This is the question I am trying to answer in my research work: What steps do designers take in problem solving activities that allow them to bridge creativity and innovation in such a powerful way? How are they making decisions, how are they solving problems – how are they acting as agents of change? What can we learn from designers about how they work, what they do, and what they know about problem solving that they could teach the rest of us?
To understand how designers solve problems we need to keep asking questions about what it means to design, to be a designer, to do design thinking. We need to ask designers how they learn to do what they do, how they see their creative process, and how they learn to work in new ways.
I think that the people who are best equipped to tell us how to make this crucial connection are the designers themselves. I’ve been interviewing designers from around the world to hear more about how they see the world and what their creative process is in designing products, services and communications. And to get a better understanding of the Canadian context, I’ve been observing designers at work in an international design studio with offices here in Calgary. And here is the part that I think is really important: the designers that I am interviewing are sharing stories about how they no longer make things – now they make experiences, services, they are not designing ‘things’ for today, they are forecasting the future. They are working with a whole new way of thinking. This is what we need to understand if we are going to forge that connection between entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in Canada’s future – because once we have a clear understanding of how designers work, how they bring creativity and ‘design thinking’ to problem solving, and how they use new and creative practices to forecast that future, I know that we’ll be able to harness the power of creativity and the unique practices of designers to build a more innovative Canada.
#SSHRCStorytellers Top 25, here I come! Can’t wait to hear more about the exciting and important research being done by other finalists from across Canada! #PHDChat #cdnpse #creativecanada #cdninnovation