Thinking with Your Gut

I recently attended an AIGA Chicago Design Thinking lecture series held at Morningstar with Julia Hoffmann, design director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Being interested, I attended this lecture to understand how Julia would frame design thinking. The first thing she prefaced about design thinking is that she did not use the term or concept and had to quickly understand what it was. She stated that from what she understood, design thinking focused on three attributes : empathy, creativity and rationality.

She then showed a series of pie charts :

- thinking 10%, designing 90%
- thinking 90%, designing 10%
- thinking 50%, designing 50%

Julia is a good design leader and the cross section of MOMA projects she discussed were smart and well detailed. So from my perspective her group has excellent skills in concepting and manifesting graphic design responses. Some projects at MOMA require little thinking as they are already based on a visual system, and other projects require a lot of thinking. She then began to play with the two terms:- design thinking- thinking of design- thinking and design

I was disappointed with Julia’s thesis and the level of misunderstanding about what design thinking is and that thinking and designing is viewed as mutually exclusive activities. Her perspective is that design thinking seems to be missing the “gut” which is more important than thinking or designing. What Julia does not realize is that design thinking integrates the “gut” or intuition and the “head” or logic. In the end, everything starts with the brain and ends with the brain – your experiences, beliefs, feelings and skills.

While Julia did not have the language to discuss design thinking or how intellectual scaffolding was relevant to her group, from my perspective on her discussion she really was discussing the different between problem solving projects where the parameters are known and there is a specific design response with problem seeking projects where her group have to explore the parameters and then conceptualize a design response.

Visual communications, which is a term from the 1950s, has been a field that focused on communications theories and media. Unfortunately, visual communications never really understood the basics of cognition and the dynamics of media to go deeper into meaning. Graphic design in a contemporary sense has become co-opted by other design disciplines as well as other fields making a unique role for these designers even more challenging to be seen as needed.

This highlighted a continuing problem with design thinking movement. There is no clarity of definition, and more important no clear protocols one would use to do design thinking. “Design” is the modifier to “thinking” so there should be a series of clear frameworks and protocols. Unfortunately, there are too many strains of what design is (either as a plan or as a material manifestation) and that there is not enough understanding of “thinking” or what design is modifying in terms of thinking. It is analogous to having many jumbled pieces to many different puzzles that one cannot clearly see a composite picture of design thinking.

The result is no clearly documented and agreed upon body of knowledge based on empirical and quantitative results. How then can design show larger communities of collaborators and companies that investing the time, effort and resources in using design thinking has documented benefits? This is the major challenge that design thinking communities still have not addressed for common-sense legitimacy.

Victor Margolin once stated that design thinking is what designers already do. While this comment can be viewed as true, being conscious of the activity that one is doing is part of the knowing and honing the rigors over time to gain a greater meaning and understanding of effort to result is just as important. Design thinking’s credibility as both a type of practice and part of a designers toolbox is at stake.

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