A short history of the field of design theory and methods courtesy of Beckman and Barry (2007)

Beckman and Barry’s (2007) Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking (2007is a great resource for understanding the history and current direction of design theory. 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.

This first phase of design theories and methods was focused on optimization and systematic problem solving. Beckman and Barry describe this approach as rooted in “machine thinking” and focused on rigid methods for breaking down complex tasks or operations into discrete problems and solving each one in a logical and linear order. In these practices, designers were often laboratory scientists, studying problems from afar, deconstructing and then reconstructing them for greater perceived effectiveness. Designers believed that their own aesthetic and practical understandings could effectively determine both utility and significance in design processes and methods. This early phase of design practice was premised on the modernist belief in the unifying progress of humanity towards a more ideal society. Designers were seen as heroic figures of the modern world, raising society to a more ideal state (Buchanan, 1998) and designers themselves generally believed that part of their role was providing a unifying vision of progress that would drive society along the path of human improvement (Beckman & Barry, 2007).

This initial understanding of design theory as a process by which a few experts solve the problems of society was strongly repudiated in its second wave. Buchanan (1998), a design theorist and historian, asserts that the modernist “unifying” vision is oppressive as it imposes one definition of utility and significance for all people regardless of culture or context (Beckman & Barry, 2007). Buchanan (1998) writes:

No one possesses all of the knowledge and wisdom required to understand and act responsibly in this world. We need diversity and alternative perspectives to keep alive the ongoing inquiry into ordering, disordering, and reordering that is the central enterprise of human culture. We need the diversity of many personal visions to avoid entrapment in narrow thinking. (p. 16)

The second wave instead emphasized inclusion and diversity, which democratized and pluralized design practices. Expertise was seen as more diffuse and the focus of the design process shifted from scientifically solving discrete challenges within a larger system to working collaboratively with a range of constituencies to co-formulate problems. In much of this work, Beckman and Barry (2007) contend, the design methods were largely used as a tool for shifting public agendas. The authors describe this as a process “in which getting to a collectively acceptable starting point (so that appropriate resources could be committed to solving the problem) was the core of the effort” (p. 26). This pluralistic approach to problem-formulation ultimately led to the designers of the third wave, who see the community and the users of the design as instrumental to the design process itself.

The third wave of design further rejects the linear, procedural, and practical, improvement-oriented practices of the first wave and extends the vision of the pluralists. Third wave design theory no longer sees design as a way to arrive at a static solution to a problem. Instead, it argues that design is a mindset or way of thinking. Out of this understanding, the field of design thinking has grown to prominence. In defining design thinking, Brown (2009), the CEO of the international design firm IDEO, writes, “I now use it as a way of describing a set of principles that can be applied by diverse people to a wide range of problems… a thought process” (p. 7).

IDEO (2012) produced a Design Toolkit for Educators in which the authors further explain the inclusive, collaborative, and optimistic nature of design-thinking. They describe four requirements of design—that it should be “human-centered,” “collaborative,” “optimistic,” and “experimental.” Underlying this theory is “the fundamental belief that we all can create change” (IDEO, 2012, p. 11).  The authors write, “Design thinking is about believing we can make a difference, and having an intentional process in order to get to new, relevant solutions that create positive impact” (P. 11). Relevance and positive impact are functions of being human-centered, collaborative, and optimistic, and they are equivalent to the language of utility and significance.[1] The fourth requirement, that design is experimental, also serves to empower the local community to drive the design process because it implies that effective design is not a function of the expertise of outsiders, but a process of experimental improvement driven by insiders who make meaning of the design through the process of designing.

The fourth requirement, which acknowledges the basic truth that there will be some missteps in any design process, is a primary challenge in school design where the idea that mistakes will be made may be politically unpopular to say the least. The truth is, we must accept some degree of failure in our educational practices. We will get some amount of failure under all designs, but the safety of our traditional model and its particular failures has left our school designs inert and impracticable for the age in which we live. We live in a rapidly changing world.

Our schools, now buried under a century of changing demands and protective policies and procedures should instead be lean and flexible (see the Lean Startup Work done by the Leanstartup.com). Schools should be experimenting with new methods and ideas, quickly learning from them, and rapidly adapting and changing as need demands. Inert has failed for over 100 years, let’s give dynamic a try.

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