Design thinking has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion over the past decade. It was featured in the September, 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review with several articles on the subject. Design is no longer just for physical objects, e.g. cars, bridges, shoes, jewelry, smartphones. Design thinking is now being applied to abstract entities, - e.g. systems, services, information and organizations, - as well as to devise strategies, manage change and solve complex problems.
The application of design thinking beyond products isn’t new. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon discussed the concept in his 1969 classic The Sciences of the Artificial. IDEO, a firm best known for pioneering this expanded view of design, traces its roots back to 1978. The School of Design in London’s Royal College of Art has long been expanding the boundaries of industrial design. Stanford’s Institute of Design, - better known as the d.school, - was launched in 2004 as a graduate program that integrates business, the social sciences, the humanities and other disciplines into more traditional engineering and product design.
The d.school’s website nicely explains its design-thinking point of view: “Students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities, sciences, and education find their way here to take on the world’s messy problems together. Human values are at the heart of our collaborative approach… Along the way, our students develop a process for producing creative solutions to even the most complex challenges they tackle… Our deliberate mash-up of industry, academia and the big world beyond campus is a key to our continuing evolution.”
Its curriculum emphasizes three key areas: a rigorous engineering education; entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking; and the arts, which broadly encompasses creativity, innovation and design. “It is hoped that design will move toward the center of the Olin College curriculum. One cannot design what one cannot imagine; therefore, enhancing creativity is an important precursor to effective design.”
A few years later, I learned about the application of design thinking to business from a 2010 NY Times article about Roger Martin , who at the time was the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin had long been advocating “that students needed to learn how to think critically and creatively every bit as much as they needed to learn finance or accounting. More specifically, they needed to learn how to approach problems from many perspectives and to combine various approaches to find innovative solutions.”
“Learning how to think critically - how to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives - has historically been associated with a liberal arts education, not a business school curriculum, so this change represents something of a tectonic shift for business school leaders.” Achieving this goal would require business schools to move into territory “more traditionally associated with the liberal arts: multidisciplinary approaches, an understanding of global and historical context and perspectives, a greater focus on leadership and social responsibility and, yes, learning how to think critically.”
It’s not surprising that a number of engineering and business schools have embraced design thinking over the past decade. Recent studies have shown that, given our complex business world, companies are increasingly searching for talented individuals that are strong in quantitative, analytical, technical and similar hard skills, as well as in strategic thinking, teamwork, communications and related soft competencies. Business and engineering schools do a pretty good job when it comes to teaching hard skills. But they have generally not done so well with the softer competencies companies are also looking for.
By now, it’s been a generally accepted that design thinking can be applied to just about all disciplines and professions. But a number of recent articles have been asking an intriguing question. Given its broad applicability, has design thinking now become the new liberal arts? After pondering the question, I believe the answer is: No - the same answer I would give if asked whether engineering is now the new science. Let me explain.
Is Design Thinking the New Liberal Arts in Education?, is the title of a 2015 article by Olin College President Richard Miller and Professor of Design Benjamin Linder. “Design Thinking is frequently identified as an engaging process and methodical framework for approaching complex, multidisciplinary problems in ways that consistently result in solutions that are successful and often creative in unpredictable way,…” they write in their opening sentence. It’s “a framework for thinking about complex, multidisciplinary problems that applies to just about anything. It is not confined to an art medium or to any technology.”
Successful design solutions are generally found at the intersection of three independent dimensions. The first is feasibility, because “nothing exists in the real world that isn’t consistent with what we know about the laws of nature.” Next comes viability, - a solution “must have a cost of production and maintenance that is competitive with alternatives.” The final dimension is desirability, that is, “the quality of being desired, embraced and accepted by the people who must use and implement the solution,” as well as the ability “to understand the context and the culture of the people who will be most affected by the solution.” Desirability is central to Design Thinking.
“The types of solutions that emerge from engineering thinking usually involve a new technology (e.g., the internet, electric car, software, etc.) while the types of solutions that emerge from business thinking usually involve a new financial model (e.g., the credit card, iTunes, etc.). But the types of solutions that emerge from Design Thinking (or desirability) involve more human motivation and psychology… where the driver is the fundamental need to tell your personal story to a group of friends you care about.”
Is Design Thinking the New Liberal Arts?, is another very interesting and influential article, published last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Peter Miller, - Dean and Professor in the Bard Graduate Center. Miller became interested in design thinking after co-teaching a humanities course with Michael Shanks, Stanford classics professor and a member of the d.school. “What is design thinking?,” they ask in the writeup of their course - The Antiquarian Foundations of Contemporary Design Thinking. “Where does design thinking come from? How is design thinking human-centered, and how might we make it even more so? This seminar answers these questions with a dramatic assertion: that knowledge of the past, and specifically, past scholarship, as modeled in the work of antiquarians from the seventeenth century onwards, is essential for understanding and developing the most innovative of contemporary design thinking and practice.”
“By the end of the semester I was fascinated enough to head to Palo Alto to immerse myself in the ways of the d.school,” said Miller in his Chronicle article. “What I discovered got me thinking about more than design thinking. A very important experiment in humanities education is going on… what’s happening in Palo Alto right now is really about the future of the liberal arts… Do disciplines, in order to evolve and advance, need some place in which to play and from which to be provoked?… Research-as-questioning is a much freer and more playful approach to discovery. It keeps us in closer contact with our natural disposition to curiosity and wonder.”
While he found much to like about the d.school’s methods, Miller eventually concluded that their action-oriented approach to problem solving did not pay proper attention to past knowledge. “A truly human-centered design, if it takes culture at all seriously, would have to take pastness seriously… If we think about what the liberal arts teach, we find that the study of the past achievements of humans, whether history, literature, philosophy, music, or art, provides us with a richly nuanced appreciation for the complexity of human existence… What the liberal arts, - or humanities, - give us are the experiences of those who have come before us to add to our own. These surrogate experiences help us to live well in the world.”
“So, is design thinking the new liberal arts,” asked Miller. “Not yet,” he answered. “We in the university, at many different organizational levels, may all need our own d.schools. But for them to really shape the future of university learning, they will have to do a better job of engaging with precisely what the university was designed to promote, and what design thinking, with its emphasis on innovation, has thus far completely ignored: the past.”
To help me appreciate Miller’s argument, I asked myself a related question, - can engineering be viewed as a kind of new science?, and looked for guidance at the relationship between engineering and science, as explained in the aforementioned Olin College article.
“Engineering is, by nature, about solving problems and designing new things. The difference between science and engineering is often described by the nature of the questions that are asked: scientists ask why as they attempt to understand the world, while engineers ask why not as they attempt to change it and create what has never been. The process of creating what has never been is the essence of the process of design in engineering.”
“Of course, this differentiation between science and engineering is rather over simplified. In order to solve problems and create new things, it is also necessary to understand the world, so science and engineering are symbiotic twins.” Engineering applies scientific knowledge to come up with practical solutions to real world problems.
The Liberal Arts and Design Thinking have an equally symbiotic relationship. Design Thinking is not a kind of New Liberal Arts. In the end, Design Thinking is all about leveraging the foundational knowledge of the Liberal Arts to come up with creative, multidisciplinary solutions to highly complex, real world problems.