Design Thinking, Design Making

Designing and thinking
Designing and thinking

Critics of design thinking suggest that it neglects the craft of products while advocates suggest that it extends itself beyond the traditional constraints of design’s focus on the brief. What separates the two are the implications associated with making something and the question: can we be good designer thinkers without being good design makers? Design Foundations explores this in a re-post from the Censemaking blog

A review of the literature and discussions on design thinking finds a great deal of debate on whether it is a fada source of innovation salvation, or whether it is a term that fails to take the practice of design seriously.  While prototyping — and particularly rapid prototyping — is emphasized there is little attention to the manner in which that object is crafted. There are no standards of practice for design thinking and the myriad settings in which it could be applied — everything from business to education to the military to healthcare — indicate that there is unlikely to be a single model that fits. But should there be some form of standards?

While design thinking encourages prototyping there is remarkably little in the literature on the elements of design that focus on the made product. Unlike design where there is at least some sense of what makes a product good or not, there are no standards for what ought to emerge from design thinking. Dieter Rams, among the most vocal critics of the term design thinking, has written 10 principles for good design that can be applied to a designed product. These principles include a focus on innovation, sustainability, aesthetics, and usability.

These principles can be debated, but they at least offer something others can comment on or use as foil for critique. Design thinking lacks the same correlate. Is that a good (or necessary) thing?

Designing for process and outcome

Unlike design itself, design thinking is not tied to a particular product profile; it can be used to create physical products as easily as policies and programs. Design thinking is a process that is centred largely on complex, ambiguous problems where success has no pre-defined outcome and the journey has no set pathway. It is for this reason that concepts like best practices are inappropriate for use in design thinking and complex problem solving. Design thinking offers a great deal of conceptual freedom without the pressure to produce a specific outcome that might be proscribed by a design brief.

Yet, design thinking is not design. Certainly many designers draw on design thinking in their work, but there is no requirement to create products using that way of approaching design problems. Likewise, there is little demand for design thinking to produce products that would fit what Dieter Rams suggests are hallmark features of good design. Indeed, we can use design thinking to create many possible futures without a requirement to actually manifest any of them.

Design requires an outcome and one that can be judged by a client (or customer or user or donor) as satisfactory, exemplary or otherwise. While what is considered ‘good design’ might be debated, there is little debate that if a client does not like what is produced that product it is a failure on some level*. Yet, if design thinking produces a product (a design?), what is the source of the excellence or failure? And does it matter if anything is produced at all?

Herein lies a fundamental dilemma of design and design thinking: how do we know when we are doing good or great work?

Can we have good design thinking and poor design making?

The case of the military

Roger Martin, writing in Design Observer, highlighted how design thinking was being applied to the US Army through the adaptation of its Field Operations Manual. This new version was based on principles of complexity science and systems thinking, which encourage adaptive, responsive unit actions rather than relying solely on top-down directives. It was an innovative step and design thinking helped contribute to the development of this new Field Manual.

On discussing the process of developing the new manual (FM-05) Martin writes:

In the end, FM5-0 defines design as “a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them” (Page 3.1), which is a pretty good definition of design. Ancker and Flynn go on to argue that design “underpins the exercise of battle command within the operations process, guiding the iterative and often cyclic application of understanding, visualizing, and describing” and that it should be “practiced continuously throughout the operations process.” (p. 15-16)

The manual’s development involved design thinking and the process in which it is enacted is based on applying design thinking to field operations. As unseemly as it may be to some, the US Army’s application of design thinking is notable and something that can be learned from. But what is the outcome?

Does a design thinking soldier become better at killing their enemy? Or does their empathy for the situation — their colleagues, opponents and neutral parties — increase their sensitivities to the multiplicities of combat and treat it as a wicked problem? What is the outcome in which design thinking is contributing to and how can that be evaluated in its myriad consequences intended or otherwise? In the case of the US Army it might not be so clear.


One of terms conspicuously absent from the dialogue on design thinking is craft. In a series of interviews with professionals doing design thinking it was noted that those trained as designers — makers — often referred to ‘craft’ and ‘materials’ in describing design thinking. Those who were not designers, did not**. No assessment can be made about the quality of the design thinking that each participant did (that was out of scope of the study), but it is interesting to note how concepts traditionally associated with making — craft and materials and studios — do not have much parallel discussion in design thinking.

Should they?

One reason to consider craft is that it can be assessed with at least some independence. There is an ability to judge the quality of materials and the product integrity associated with a designed object according to some standards that can be applied somewhat consistently — if imperfectly — from reviewer to reviewer. For programs and policies, this could be done by looking at research evidence or through developmental evaluation of those products. Developmental design, an approach I’ve written about before, could be the means in which evaluation data, rapid prototyping, design excellence and evidence could come together to potentially create more robust design thinking products.

We have little correlates with design thinking assessment.

The danger with looking at evaluation and design thinking is falling into the trap of devising and applying rigid metrics, best practices and the like to domains of complexity (and where design thinking resides) where they tend to fail catastrophically. Yet, there is an equal danger that by not aspiring to vision what great design thinking looks like we produce results that not only fail (which is often a necessary and positive step in innovation if there is learning from it), but are true failures in the sense that they don’t produce excellent products. It is indeed possible to create highly collaborative, design thinking-inspired programs, policies and products that are dull, ineffective and uninspiring.

Where we go and how we get there is a problem for design and design thinking. Applying them both to each other might be a way to create the very products we seek.

* It is interesting to note that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1933 three-legged children’s stool has been considered both a design flop from a technical standpoint (it’s unstable given its three legs) and one of the biggest commercial successes for Artek, its manufacturer.

** The analysis of the findings of the project are still ongoing and will be posted here in a series. Stay tuned

Defining the New Designer

Who is the real designer?

It’s been suggested that anyone who shapes the world intentionally is a designer, however those who train and practice as professional designers question whether such definition obscures the skill, craft, and ethics that come from formal disciplinary affiliation. Further complicating things is the notion that design thinking can be taught and that the practice of design can be applied far beyond its original traditional bounds. Who is right and what does it mean to define the new designer? This post, reposted from Censemaking, looks at the challenges with defining what is a designer in the new age of design challenges. 

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. – Herbert Simon, Scientist and Nobel Laureate

By Herb Simon’s definition anyone who is intentionally directing their energy towards shaping their world is a designer. Renowned design scholar Don Norman (no relation) has said that we are all designers [1]. Defined this way, the term design becomes something more accessible and commonplace removing it from a sense elitism that it has often been associated with. That sounds attractive to most, but is something that has raised significant concerns from those who identify as professional designers and opens the question up about what defines the new designer as we move into an age of designing systems, not just products.

Designer qualities

Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end – Sir George Cox

Sir George Cox, the former head of the UK Design Council, wrote the above statement in the seminal Cox Review of Creativity in Business in the UK in 2005 sees design as a strategic deployment of creative energy to accomplish something. This can be done mindfully, skilfully and ethically with a sense of style and fit or it can be done haphazardly, unethically, incompetently and foolishly. It would seem that designers must put their practice of design thinking into use which includes holding multiple contradictory ideas at the same time in one’s head. Contractions of this sort are a key quality of complexity and abductive reasoning, a means of thinking through such contradictions, is considered a central feature of design thinking.

Indeed, this ‘thinking’ part of design is considered a seminal feature of what makes a designer what they are. Writing on Cox’s definition of design, Mat Hunter, the Design Council’s Chief Design Officer, argues that a designer embodies a particular way of thinking about the subject matter and weaving this through active practice:

Perhaps the most obvious attribute of design is that it makes ideas tangible, it takes abstract thoughts and inspirations and makes something concrete. In fact, it’s often said that designers don’t just think and then translate those thoughts into tangible form, they actually think through making things.

Hunter might be getting closer to distinguishing what makes a designer so. His perspective might assert that people are reflective, abductive and employ design thinking actively, which is an assumption that I’ve found to be often incorrect. Even with professionals, you can instill design thinking but you can’t make them apply it (why this is the case is something for another day).

This invites the question: how do we know people are doing this kind of thinking when they design? The answer isn’t trivial if certain thinking is what defines a designer. And if they are applying design thinking through making does that qualify them as a designer whether they have accreditation or formal training degree in design or not?

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics. Discipline is a cultural code of identity. For the public or consumers of designed products it can also provide some sense of quality assurance to have credentialed designers working with them.

Yet, those who practice what Herb Simon speaks of also are designers of something. They are shaping their world, doing with intent, and many are doing it with a level of skill and attention that is parallel to that of professional designers. So what does it mean to be a designer and how do we define this in light of the new spaces where design is needed?

Designing a disciplinary identity

Writing in Design Issues, Bremner & Rodgers (2013) [2] argue that design’s disciplinary heritage has always been complicated and that its current situation is being affected by three crisis domains: 1) professionalism, 2) economic, and 3) technological. The first is partly a product of the latter two as the shaping and manufacture of objects becomes transformed. Materials, production methods, knowledge, social context and the means of transporting – whether physically or digitally — the objects of design have transformed the market for products, services and ideas in ways that have necessarily shaped the process (and profession) of design itself. They conclude that design is not disciplinary, interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary, but largely alterdisciplinary — boundless of time and space.

Legendary German designer Dieter Rams is among the most strident critics of the everyone-is-a-designer label and believes this wide use of the term designer takes away the seriousness of what design is all about. Certainly, if one believes John Thackara’s assertion that 80 per cent of the impact of any product is determined at the design stage the case for serious design is clear. Our ecological wellbeing, social services, healthcare, and industries are all designed and have enormous impact on our collective lives so it makes sense that we approach designing seriously. But is reserving the term design(er) for an elite group the answer?

Some have argued that elitism in design is not a bad idea and that this democratization of design has led to poorly crafted, unusable products. Andrew Heaton, writing about User Experience (UX) design, suggests that this elitist view is less about moral superiority and more about better products and greater skill:

I prefer this definition: elitism is the belief that some individuals who form an elite — a select group with a certain intrinsic quality, specialised training, experience and other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight. By that definition, Elitist UX is simply an insightful and skilled designer creating an experience for an elevated class of user.

Designing through and away from discipline

Designers recognize that their training and professional development confers specific advantages and requires skill, discipline, craft and a code of ethics, but there is little concrete evidence that it produced better designed outcomes. Design thinking has enabled journalists like Helen Walters, healthcare providers like those at the Mayo Clinic, and business leaders to take design and apply it to their fields and beyond. Indeed, it was business-journalist-cum-design-professor Bruce Nussbaum who is widely credited with contributing to the cross-disciplinary appeal of design thinking (and its critique) from his work at Newsweek.

Design thinking is now something that has traversed whatever discipline it was originally rooted in — which seems to be science, design, architecture, and marketing all at the same time. Perhaps unlocking it from discipline and the practices (and trappings) of such structure is a positive step.

Discipline is a cultural code of identity and for the public it can be a measure of quality. Quality is a matter of perspective and in complex situations we may not even know what quality means until products are developmentally evaluated after being used. For example, what should a 3-D printed t-shirt feel like? I don’t know whether it should be like silk, cotton, polyester, or nylon mesh or something else entirely because I have never worn one and if I was to compare such a shirt to my current wardrobe I might be using the wrong metric. We will soon be testing this theory with 3-D printed footwear already being developed.

Evaluating good design

The problem of metrics is the domain of evaluation. What is the appropriate measurement for good design? Much has been written on the concept of good design, but part of the issue is that what constitutes good design for a bike and chair might be quite different for a poverty reduction policy or perhaps a program to support mothers and their children escaping family violence. The idea of delight (a commonly used goal or marker of good design) as an outcome might be problematic in the latter context. Should mothers be delighted at such a program to support them in time of crisis? That’s a worthy goal, but I think if those involved feel safe, secure, cared for, and supported in dealing with their challenges that is still a worthwhile design. Focusing on delight as a criteria for good design in this case is using the wrong metric. And what about the designers who bring about such programs?

Or should such a program be based on designer’s ability to empathize with users and create adaptive, responsive programs that build on evidence and need simultaneously without delight being the sole goal? Just as healthy food is not always as delightful for children as ice cream or candy, there is still a responsibility to ensure that design outcomes are appropriate. The new designer needs to know when to delight, when and how to incorporate evidence, and how to bring all of the needs and constraints together to generate appropriate value.

Perhaps that ability is the criteria for which we should judge the new designer, encouraging our training programs, our clients (and their asks and expectations), our funders and our professional associations to consider what good design means in this age of complexity and then figure out who fits that criteria. Rather than build from discipline, consider creating the quality from the outcomes and processes used in design itself.

[1] Norman, D. (2004) Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[2] Bremner, C. & Rodgers, P. (2013). Design without discipline. Design Issues, 29 (3), 4-13.

A Crash Course in Design Thinking

Design thinking is about doing and thinking, but also seeing. We all have eyes, but not all of us see. Data visualizer, statistician and artist Edward Tufte has produced a video that looks at this very issue in this short film.

Want to be a good designer? Here are ways to see better.

Inge Druckrey: Teaching to See from Edward Tufte on Vimeo.

Design Cafe

CoffeeGlass It’s summertime here in the Northern hemisphere, a time when people start leaving for their cottages, go camping, enjoy the wilderness or beach, maybe spend some time with a good book or touring an art gallery.

Here at the Design Foundations Project we are hitting the cafes pondering our next move. After some pause to reflect, the caffeine has started to hit the bloodstream and the next phase of the project is underway. Watch this space as we highlight many more stories of design from interviews of leading designers and design thinkers along with the reports from the field as part of the 2013 site visits around the world.

So pour a cup of your favourite beverage and sit down for a visit sometime soon. There is much to share as we look at the foundations of design and design thinking in the months to come.

The Giant of Design: Bill Moggridge

The exuberant Bill Moggridge

Bill Moggridge was a giant of a man in personality, accomplishment and stature. He is one of the first professionals to use ‘design thinking’ beyond the usual places and spaces. He was a founder of IDEO, arguably the organization most responsible for seeing design thinking move beyond the industrial laboratory and into public consciousness. He co-developed the first laptop. His influence on our everyday conceptualization of design and its possibility was everywhere. It was with a heavy heart that we learned of Bill Moggridge’s passing this weekend.

In the years before his untimely passing from cancer he sought to bring the passion and love he had for design to the world as the Director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Through the museum, Bill sought to enhance the profile of design beyond its traditional borders and instill his passion for design into those young and old. He wanted to raise the profile of design and its power to shape our lives.

My DTF colleague Andrea Yip and I had the priviliedge of spending a lovely afternoon with Bill in March of this year as part of the research for the Design Thinking Foundations project. Bill was as warm and welcoming in person as his reputation had suggested as we sat down to meet in his office overlooking Central Park. Over cookies and cappuccinos we discussed the importance of design, the concept of design thinking, and how his role as a designer has evolved to bring both ideas together over his illustrious career.

During our interview Bill spoke of his work developing the first laptop, the importance of prototyping and how time and timing both play into the design process:

Well to expand a little bit on the story of my career development I mentioned that originally I was expecting to practise as a designer of everyday objects and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on the first laptop which came from GRiD computers and the interesting thing for me was you know having moved to California to put our second office and being in Silicon Valley that was an opportunity that fell into my lap and it was very exciting to have that opportunity to create this precedent, you know the first production laptop.

The thing that happened to me though was that I put a year and a half personally of very hard work into perfecting the physical design, working with a colleague engineer that I hired and together we made everything work for the case work. But we didn’t understand the technology inside, we didn’t understand the chips and the software and so we didn’t attribute to what happened on the screen and when I actually brought that laptop home, the first working prototype that I had and started trying to use it myself you know for the first five minutes I was really proud of my work because I was thinking oh great the hinge opens and you know I can put it up and it looks good etc. Well five minutes later I forgot all about it because I was so interested in what was happening with the interactive software and I found myself kind of being sucked down into the screen, into this digital virtual world and the next eight hours I was there and I only came back to thinking about my own design for the five minutes at the end of the day.

A giant of design

During our time together we spoke about the way design, thinking and design thinking has evolved, particularly in the context of efforts to educate people in what it means to be a ‘design thinker’.  Bill was skeptical that design thinking could be something your could learn through reason alone and spoke to the imperative to practice design, not just preach its virtues, if one is to learn it:

I mean if you look at the way design and the arts have always been taught they’re always learning by doing process. I mean that’s what the whole concept of a studio is and every art department has a studio so you teach people by putting them through the process. You don’t say “do this and this in sequence, well listen to me describe a methodology”. You say “you do this, go and paint” or “make a drawing of that, write me a poem, make me a design”. I mean it’s all the studio idea, that harnesses all these intuitive and subjective skills that we have.

It was through his experiences in designing technologies and their applications that he began to see the power of design to shape things beyond tools and gadgets and impact the wider world. We also need to be mindful of how different disciplines contribute to the design and development of products and services beyond the traditional ones typically seen as part of “design”:

You know designing services, designing systems, designing holistic experiences all of those things emerged from that combination of physical then plus digital then plus connectivity. And I think that then means that the nature of design has had to change with it. That in order to do good interaction design we had to learn about cognitive psychology and all those things that are about the way your mind works. And then in order to learn how to do the connected stuff we had to learn more about sociology and anthropology, how people relate to each other in terms of human connections.

And so the context of design has really expanded because of those big changes in technology. And so you know instead of now feeling that the only thing I could do was a piece of plastic I now feel that design and Design Thinking can be applied to really difficult problems, how to design government, how to design a service, how to design for social impact in the third world or whatever it may be. So all those things are enabled by this context of expansion of the design operations, the place where we’re designing really.


The design educator

As we spoke about the future of design thinking and design in general, Bill was optimistic. He believed that the students of today are better positioned for taking on the collaborative challenges that design requires and that the push to get education out of traditional silos is helping. For established professionals, it might take a while to get there.

So they (students) are absolutely interested in collaboration and they instantaneously collaborate and that’s amazing I mean young people are so good at that. They can just walk in, meet somebody the first time and a couple of weeks later they’re really working together in a way that they couldn’t imagine doing it before. If you try and do the same thing with people in mid career which is a lot what people like (University of Toronto’s Dean of Management at Rotman School of Business) Roger Martin are trying to do then of course the barriers are much greater because they’ve been siloed throughout their education, they’ve been siloed throughout their experience so far and then you say sit in this conference room and collaborate across disciplines, that’s a very hard thing to do when you’re in your mid career. So I’m doing it from the student level and making it advance from that forward and I have great hope that it’ll change the way that people use design to be much more broad, applied across disciplines, applied across problems, you know helping people to solve problems that are really challenging. I mean in future … although I think it’ll take a generation really to happen.

It’s hard to imagine that our discussions with Bill, which first started back when we met him at the DMI conference in New York last October, will not continue. He was a generous person and someone that we all owe a debt of gratitude for his contributions to design and  the way we engage the world through tools and our minds.

Thanks for everything, Bill.  The cookies, the coffee, and the conversation will forever sit warmly in our memory.

You will be missed.

Cookies, coffee and conversation

Bill talked with another of Design Foundation’s friends and fellow participant, Debbie Millman, on her Design Matters show in 2010 and can be heard here.

Details about Bill and his life’s work is available from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

A video tribute to Bill is on YouTube and well worth a watch.


The Shape of Design

The Shape of Design

This is the first in a series of reviews of books that discuss design, design thinking, innovation and applied creativity. We begin this series by looking at The Shape of Design, by Frank Chimero (2012).

Frank Chimero’s book The Shape of Design, provides its readers with insight into the minds of one of the more creative, flexible and prolific designers operating in public discourse on design. The book is unique in that its genesis was funded through Kickstarter, the crowd funding site on the Web. There was clearly enough passionate readers out there to see this self-published book come to light and reading through the text I suspect that those early investors are not disappointed with the results.

Chimero describes the book like this: “The Shape of Design is a book about design as a method to plan and create change. It documents the hidden steps, methods, and thoughts of the creative process to produce a field guide for the emerging skillset: improvising, creating frameworks, storytelling, and delighting audiences. It’s a handbook that explores the qualities that make for great design so we may dream big, apply the lessons to our processes, then go get our hands dirty to shape this world.”

This book was a wonderful read, but this description sells something different than what is written. The Shape of Design is much less a handbook and more of a meditation on the creative process that designers undertake. This is part reflective practice and part memoir, but fully instructive to those interested in learning more about what design is, but also what it can be and how to think about it.

Good Design

Chimero begins the book with a question and answer: “What is the marker of good design? It moves…Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.” (p.XIII).

It is the designers task to organize and arrange movement in a manner that points it in a direction that aspires to a desirable future. Design is about envisioning this future and building upon the past work of others to shape the direction forward while the present is moving.

From this introduction Chimero takes us through discussion of the shape of this movement like an opera, staged in three parts: 1) The Song, 2) The In-Between Spaces, and 3) The Opening.

The first chapter focuses the reader on the development of point-of-view with Chimero advocating that designers must be intentional about their perspectives and that this comes from an ongoing dialogue between the designer and their work. This dialogue results less from a question of How design is done, but Why it is done. The question of Why “unlocks a new form of beauty by making choices observable so they can be discussed and considered” (p.25).

Asking Why questions brings the intention of design into full view for others to scrutinize and observe. From this I derive that we are makers at heart and sharing those creations is part of what makes us human, thus design is a vehicle to connecting us to that humanity and asking Why is one of the vehicles towards bringing us closer to it.

Working With Limits

In Chapter 3, Chimero builds on this theme and looks at the role of improvisation and creation. One of the case studies he highlights is the legendary recording of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which was completed in two takes with only loose notes guiding the role of each musician. The result was one of the most unique and celebrated jazz albums of all time.

In contrary to many writers, Chimero speaks to the benefits of limitations and how they serve the design process and help the designer to create better products. Limitations “narrow a big process into smaller, more understandable places to explore” (p. 45), something that is useful when tackling novel or wicked problems. Limitations not only shape the design, but also provide the impetus for creativity to begin flowing by suggesting the first few steps towards what a final product could look like.

Connection with Systems Thinking

In Chapter 4, Chimero speaks to three common traits of design: the message, the tone of the message, and the form. A successful design is seen has having “all three elements working in co-dependence to achieve a whole greater than the sum of its parts” (p. 49), thus making systems thinking manifest. This understanding of the systems that designers find themselves is critical. Skilled designers draw from their experience a knowledge of the domains that define the systems they work in. Although ‘systems thinking’ is not named specifically, the language that Chimero uses including the previous quote point to an understanding of the concept in practice, even if not in name. He emplores designers to learn about the full system in which they operate.

To illustrate how this thinking fits with craft, the example of the Catalonian restaurant elBulli and its former executive chef Ferran Adria is presented. It is here that the question of Why in design in brought forth again, unconsciously evoking the design method of the 5-Why’s as a means of tapping into the root of motivation for design. In the case of elBulli, that Why was to create sensory delights that the world had never seen before.

Designful Intent

In the second section of the book, Chimero focuses his gaze upon the designer’s intent and the potential outcomes from that. To that end, design is seen as a bridge between things, made visible by illuminating the white space around it. This space however, is dynamic and changes constantly provoking a need for designers to be comfortable with change and exchange. For example, design bridges between art and commerce, connecting creative expression to functional objects that add social value. Design is therefore defined by the quality of the connections it facilitates.

These connections can have widespread impact on the society around it and Chimero is quick to point out that design creates the cultures that define the very expectations that we have of design in the first place. Following his earlier argument that could read as designers ought to be systems thinkers, the notion that these systems are often complex and that what is designed must acknolwedge this complexity is also paid.

On page 77 Chimero writes: “the best design acts as a form of loosely composed, responsive movement, and seeks to have all of the adjacent elements sway together“. One can read into this that designing for emergence and creating those adjacent possibles that complexity scientists claim is the seat of much innovation is what Chimero is subtlely suggesting. Design is not a passive artifact, rather it is a tool to understanding, but also revealing them and shaping them.

From there, the book shifts towards more specific, classical design critique and explanation looking at such things as wording, interaction design object placement, and examples of good and bad design from the world of digital technologies. From this section the most important lesson is that any layout, iconongraphy, or typeface must consider empathy as its truest anchor in order to generate designs that delight.

Design and the Art of Giving

The book concludes by paying homage to the role of giving, creating, receiving and the interplay between the three. It is a commentary on how great design gives to its audience and takes from it as well. Milton Glaser’s iconic I [heart] NY logo became something owned by New Yorkers and promptly forgot the designer. To this end, that ‘forgetting’ of the designer is in part what made it great. With all due respect to Milton Glaser, he is not want for attention or recognition. It is telling that perhaps his most widely recognized logo is something seen as invisibly attributed to him but branded solidly on to its client, New York City.

It is the legacy of design and how it creates the worlds we inhabit that is its gift to those worlds and something Frank Chimero seeks to give to us through this book. He ends this gracious, well-written, and insightful volume as it began with the title: “The world shapes us, and we get to shape the world” (p. 122).

It is in contemplating this shape and striving to craft it in ways that serve our society that design shapes us as much as we shape it.

A Backstage Interview with Michael Bierut

Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram and a leading voice in the world of design.

Michael studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, worked at Vignelli Associates for ten years and, as I learned from watching him host Command X: Season 3 at the AIGA Pivot Conference, has a charming stage presence and warm sense of humor.

He’s also an absolute delight to sit down and speak with.

We met with Michael at Pivot and, working under some tight time constraints, scrambled to find a quiet place to interview him in between his hosting duties. Luckily, we found a cozy dressing room backstage at the conference venue, set up our video equipment, and sat down and asked him to share with us his thoughts on design thinking.

Michael’s take on design thinking was thoughtfully laid out. He responded by highlighting two trends he was seeing in design.


there’s something that is of interest to designers that really compels them, that I’m not sure is actually what’s being rolled up as design thinking.  And I think in a way it might be excluded by a lot of descriptions of designing processes


And, TWO:

And then there’s also I think…the danger with a phrase like design thinking, as it gets greater traction in the world, is that it kind of just becomes this empty sort of signifier of progressive and interesting thought, just like a lot of words like innovation or Six Sigma or all this bullsh*t


Michael described the role of designers in making artifacts, and the personal joy of the designer in indulging in her/his own craft…Or, as he puts it: making something new from nothing. This individualized craft and creation process, it seems, is what is underappreciated and perhaps even neglected in today’s notions of design thinking. Rather, design thinking tends to privilege a group-based approach to design (or co-design) in order to pursue some pretty ambitious goals like ‘changing the world’. Michael approaches the concept of design thinking with some caution as, according to him, it has the effect of reducing the design experience into a process that can be collaborative, managed, generalized, scaled, and made to dampen the ‘dangers’ and uncertainties of design.

In his own words, he explains these concepts further, beginning with the former trend:


Michael also spoke about his personal interest and motivation in design, and what he feels he contributes to projects in his role as the “designer”. To him, meeting different people and being put into new, diverse, and unfamiliar situations is incredibly stimulating. As he points out, designers are brought into situations to create beauty, surprise and imagination:


As we wrapped up our backstage interview, Michael made one final comment about how a deep and genuine passion for design is what ultimately leads to meaningful solutions. That is, with good intentions and care comes good design:


With that, our time with Michael came to a close. And before he stepped out, he left us with some kind and encouraging words:

The questions are really great, they’re really –When I first heard the subject [of the project] I thought oh, I don’t have much to say about that.  But I think you guys got something useful.

Thank you!

Posters, Spaceships + the Greater Good: A Conversation with Eddie Opara

399 days.

That’s how long Eddie Opara has been working at Pentagram since joining the New York office as partner #17 in October 2010…At least that’s how long he had been working there when we met with him back on November 3, 2011 at RGD Ontario‘s Design Thinkers conference in Toronto.

Eddie is a traditionally-trained graphic designer who began his career in print pursuing his love for poster making. He is also a self-taught software developer with a socially minded approach to design. Eddie speaks to the need for design to be open, shared, public and contributing to the greater good. And to him, design serves as a bridge between the creative and artistic, and the political, cultural and social contexts in which we live. He told us about his design ‘philosophy’ and the reason why he believes that “you’re never finished as a designer“:

Eddie explained his client work as a process of gaining a deeper understanding of his client’s needs.  To do so, he described himself as playing the role of a psychologist: Actively listening to a client and weaving together an intimate understanding of their issues by learning how the client relates to their work…Their family…To everything. In this sense, design becomes a dialogue around the making of things so that the client can better pursue their goals and ideals. It is this very cerebral process that Eddie describes as being extracted from design and connected to other disciplines as “design thinking”:

After asking Eddie what was unique about “design thinking” as compared to other ways of thinking, he told us a story from his childhood about him and his brother competing with each other to see who could draw the ‘greatest spaceship ever’ — a true design challenge in itself. Eddie would show his drawing to his brother. His brother would take a look and draw a spaceship in response. But in his response, Eddie’s brother thoroughly explained what his spaceship could do, all the features it had, and why it was so amazing. “He totally won”, according to Eddie.

Through this story, Eddie highlighted the powerful connection between mental and verbal thought in making a structure, explaining it, and enabling other people to understand it. This back and forth process of visualization, discussion, reflection and storytelling was what he described as being a unique aspect of design. It is this ability to dialogue and make that fuels Eddie’s passion for design.

As we wrapped up the interview, we also spoke with Eddie about his identity as a designer.  As Western design is a male-dominated discipline with few high profile designers of colour, we took the opportunity to ask Eddie about Stealth, his installation from the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007 exploring the notion of identity and invisibility in race in order to understand how he expressed his own identity through his design work:

According to Eddie, design is an opportunity to bring one’s own culture to the mix as “culture adjusts the way we think and the way we feel about ourselves and how we deal with our families and our work and everything” and not doing so may do a serious diservice to the field. Finding projects that enable him to indulge in his overly creative and personal side while balancing commercial issues and objectives bring together the best of both worlds.

We look forward to seeing how Eddie’s sense of identity and style of design thinking continue to unfold through his future projects.

The Academic Interaction Designer: Jon Kolko

Jon Kolko’s career in design started with a secret desire to create CD covers. Jon went to school for industrial design where he learned about computer interaction, psychology, and computer science and developed a deep interest in interaction design. His career has since evolved working in a software enterprise, several start ups in Austin, TX, teaching and developing design curriculum at Savannah College of Art and Design, and working alongside Fortune 20 companies at Frog Design (Austin). It was these latter two roles that amplified Jon’s interests in academia, design education and the business of design.

Cameron and I first met Jon in April 2011 in Austin, Texas at the Design for Impact Bootcamp. As two curious Canadians with a deep interest in designing for social good and social impact, we signed up for the day-long deep dive. The Bootcamp was just a taste of the programming offered to students at the Austin Centre for Design (AC4D), an educational institution Jon founded in 2010 that brings together design education and business. AC4D uses interaction design and social entrepreneurship as a way to apply business practices to problems with a social or humanitarian bent to them. Throughout the bootcamp, we put this approach to design into action by interviewing people on the streets of Austin, understanding local design problems within the community, creating opportunities for addressing these problems, and finding ways to develop and produce solutions through sustainable business practices. Jon is currently the director of AC4D.

In October 2011, we caught up with Jon once again, this time to interview him for the Project. As an academic and active designer, he shared with us a unique perspective of his learnings from the field. We began by asking Jon to share with us his take on the term, “design thinking”:

Through Jon’s stool analogy, we understand design thinking as being held together by three major principles or ‘legs’: empathy (understanding what its is like to be another person), public prototyping (making things in front of and with other people), and abductive reasoning (moving forward with an incomplete world view but enough to make an informed guess to take action). It is these principles that are taught to AC4D students who are both designers and non-designers alike. As Jon explains, design thinking can perhaps be taught, but may only be relevant to one’s own craft:

Designing with social awareness and responsibility was an important area of discussion with Jon, particularly given the social aims of AC4D. He spoke to this and the lack of dialogue around designing with consequence rather than designing for artefacts:

Jon’s very honest and compelling perspectives on design thinking leave much to consider as one explores not only what design thinking is, but what impact it can have beyond the product that is designed.

For more information about Jon Kolko, please visit: |