Defining Design and Design Thinking

My academic research (and Claire’s as well – @ClaireYates3) over the last few years has focused on the interaction between the literature of design thinking and the literature from the field of education that supports the design and creation of new schools.

Today I am going to start by taking a quick look at the field of what is called Design Thinking. In upcoming posts I am going review a bunch of literature and also do some sorting and aggregating of the field in general.

First, my long and inclusive definition of design thinking:

Design thinking is a way of approaching planning using a non-linear process of learning and experimentation that engages community members and their needs in formulating problems and creating purposeful solutions that are rooted in utility and significance and adapt over time.

The design thinking approach is an iterative process of knowledge building and knowledge using. It is frequently described in four non-linear stages—discovery, creation, modeling, implementation/production (Ackoff, Magidson, & Addison, 2006; Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007). In addition, many authors identify a fifth state focused on organizational learning and evolutionary change although some see this as simply a continuation of the iterative process of learning, creating, learning more, and recreating (Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007; Owen, 2007).

The language of design and design-thinking have become increasingly popular over the past ten years (Beckman & Barry, 2007; Brown, 2010; Norman, 2002; Pink, 2006). Both our human desires and our physical, social, and emotional needs drive design. Designers imagine that if one starts by thinking about the change that is desired and the purposes of that change, one can work through iterative and creative processes to find the best way(s) to accomplish these desired goals. Designers constantly ask why the things around them do not work or look or act as well as they should and they challenge themselves and all of us to find better means to our ends (Beckman & Barry, 2007; Heskett, 2002).

Design can be defined, at its most basic, as structure adapted to purpose” (Perkins, 1986). By structure, I refer to the basic elements of whatever is to be designed. When a building is designed, its structures—exterior, façade, entrance, hallways, elevators, etc.—are shaped to its purposes. The elements of a shopping mall are usually quite different from those of an office building. Purpose, in this context, is essentially about human need for making meaning of our lived environment so that we can better survive and thrive. Heskett (2002) explains, “Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human, and an essential determinant of the quality of human life. It affects everyone in every detail of every aspect of what they do throughout each day” (p. 2). Pink (2007), expands on Heskett’s (2002) explanation, “Design, stripped to its essence, can be defined as the human nature to shape and make our environment…to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives” (p. 70). Pink continues, “[Design] is, to borrow Heskett’s terms, a combination of utility and significance” (p. 70). This conception of design is particularly useful to applying design principles to the structure and leadership of organizations such as schools which explicitly engage in planning for both utility and significance—usability and meaning-making—as the core aspect of their daily activity.

My definition of design, therefore, is structure adapted to purpose rooted in both utility and significance. 

Finally, this definition of design results from significant changes in the relatively new field of design theory and practice, a field that has grown much since the middle of the 20th century. Beckman and Barry (2007) offer a short history of the field of design which I recommend and will write more about in the future. The authors describe three broad stages of development that represent a move from design as a top-down process of cause and effect analysis and linear improvement to design as an organic, iterative, and fundamentally democratic process by which communities organize to make meaning together.



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