Without doubt, the libraries of art schools, countless blogs on the internet, as well as many great talks on design conferences do an outstanding job on defining “Design”. Design as a mindset, a philosophy, a process, a craft, a toolbox, etc. So I will not attempt to provide yet another general definition or description of what design is to the world. Instead, I would like to discuss what design is to me and share my personal perspectives on the purpose and shape of design. Discuss how it guides me in everyday life and work, and explain what this all has to do with “divergent thinking”.
Creative Problem Solving
When hearing the word “design, many people think of beautiful objects and aesthetic visual artworks. The latest tech gadget, the new mobile app, an intriguingly beautiful fashion item, or the new building down the street. Unquestionably, all these things have been designed, but merely represent the “output” of design. The tangible deliverable or result. Very likely, these outputs have been crafted by talented and skilled professionals, following a process that led and guided them. But is design all about the output designers produce? Measured purely by its emotional appeal and aesthetic attractiveness?
No. Those are certainly important ingredients, the ones we look at and admire. But more importantly, great design is about outcomes and the impact that these outputs have when they hit the real world. Outcomes are related to existing challenges or problems and can be measured by the impact they have on those. Good design in my opinion, addresses real problems for actual people and can be quantified by tangible measurable outcomes. Design does not exist for its own sake. It’s contextual and measurable and it answers questions. Which sets it clearly apart from art, which purpose is primarily to ask questions. To me, design is a creative problem solving process that can be applied to any kind of problem or challenge, and it’s successful if it manages to achieve specific measurable outcomes.
Design can be applied to all sorts of problems following some basic principles. Problems can be personal such as the search for a new job. They can be professional such as improving the way how teams collaborate, or even matching relevant content to visitors on a web site. Problems can also be “wicked”, which are defined as humanitarian in nature and characterized as very difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.
An inspiring example of using the power of design to address such a wicked problem is project “Backpack Plus”, which was run by design firm FROG in collaboration with UNICEF. The challenge the team took on was finding new ways of reducing the spread of the HIV virus in Africa at community level. They were facing a huge challenge with seemingly insurmountable constraints of all kind, but were optimistic they could succeed by applying research and design methods they knew from other projects. Throughout their project the team applied a variety of different methods including immersive research, storytelling, multi-partner workshops and prototyping besides others. As a result developed a set of paper tools, games, educational materials to educate and empower community health workers in their local environments.
As long as the problem can be clearly described and defined, and related to current and expected outcomes, you can “design” a solution for anything.
So regardless what kind of problem to tackle, it’s good to internalize and apply some basics from the “design thinking” school of thought. First, clearly describe and define the problem itself including the outcomes you want to affect and change. Then look at it from as many different perspectives as possible. Best way to do this is through assembling a multi-disciplinary group of people with backgrounds as different and diverse as possible (in profession, personality, origin, culture, age, sex, etc.) and collectively discuss and agree on the problem to be addressed. Guide and stimulate the group to adopt a “divergent” mindset. Divergent thinking is a creative, non-linear, free-flowing, out-of-the-box way of thinking that explicitly ignores potential constraints and limitations in order to generate as many possible solutions to a problem as possible. All ideas are welcome, none will be questioned or dismissed.
The goal is to put as many options or “choices” on the table as you can. Ones the group gets comfortable with this free exploration it will start generating a huge amount of ideas and approaches that address the problem in one way or another. Most might be obvious, some inadequate, but some will be truly different, unique and unexpected. Those are the ones you are after with this approach.
Ones you concluded this first stage and collected a broad variety of different and unique choices, you shift gears and redirect the focus of the group. In the second phase your group goal will be choosing and selecting the best solution for your problem. Now you move over to convergent thinking.
Look at all the options on the table, one by one, and critically assess them. Validate them against the known context, constraints and obstacles, available resources, timelines, technical feasibility etc. Look for the ideas that are worth pursuing further. Collective grouping and clustering of ideas helps to compare them. Individual voting on ideas helps making full use of the group diversity and ensures unbiased selection of the best candidate for further exploration. Ones you selected an idea representing a potential solution you explore it as detailed as possible. After divergent thinking got you from one problem to many possible solutions, convergent thinking phase narrows those many options into a few or a single one.
Design as Facilitation
Solving complex or wicked problems with design thinking methods requires the expertise, creativity, and dedication of many people. People with different personalities, backgrounds, belief systems, individual problem solving strategies, and professional experience and skills. Enabling them to work together through such a design mindset or design thinking method is where I see the biggest value “Design” or designers can bring into this world. Facilitating groups, tapping into their creative potential, ensuring equal and balanced contribution and participation – this can be achieved through facilitation, the most important skills for a designer and design thinker.
Divergent Thinking .Design
I worked on a variety of different problems and challenges and this basic approach is the common denominator throughout those projects. It ensures that you define and understand the problem first, discuss it and look at it from different perspectives, and not blindly jump into building a solution. It forces you to ask “Are we really solving the right problem?” It lets you define the outcomes you want to affect before you even think about a solution. And after you have agreed on the outcomes, it looks at as many possible solutions first, before you pick one solution and start designing and building it.
It sounds simple and logical but it’s not how it usually works. Especially designers and engineers in technology companies have difficulties taking this mental step back. They design and build solutions, that’s what they love and what they are good at. But way too often they jumpstart into designing and building a solution for a problem poorly understood. The results might look pretty and function well, but are of no use or value as they are not solving any problems people really have. That’s why I am convinced that every company should make use of the power of design and design thinking to simply do “the right things”. This can be achieved in a variety of different ways, and there are many good books and websites discussing strategies, tactics and methods for different industries and type of companies.
But already one designer who facilitates design thinking exercises, hosts cross-silo workshops, runs design sprints and facilitates the creative power of many different brains will have a huge impact on a company and its internal culture. It’s where my personal focus has been in the last years and where my main passion is anchored. That’s why I called this place divergent thinking .design.