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‘Design thinking’ is changing the way we approach problems

Why researchers in various disciplines are using the principles of design to solve problems big and small.


Much of our modern life, it seems, has been designed in the heart of Silicon Valley, so it made perfect sense that the concept of “design thinking” finds its greatest expression here. At least that’s what I learned over lunch with Doug Wightman, one of design thinking’s foremost proponents.

Dr. Wightman earned a PhD from the school of computing at Queen’s University in 2013 and continues to teach an executive MBA seminar there on design thinking. But on this day he meets me at his other place of employment, Google X, the design arm of the Internet giant, located in Mountain View, California. It’s a semi-secret facility where researchers are working on innovations such as self-driving cars, jetpacks and high-tech hot-air balloons (the latter designed with the intention of serving as satellites, beaming down the Internet from the stratosphere to parts of the world where it’s yet unavailable).

Dr. Wightman greets me at the front doors of a glassy, low-slung facility that would look at home in any suburban office park – a place hidden in plain sight, it would seem. He wears the unofficial uniform of designers and programmers everywhere: jeans and a T-shirt. Sitting down to lunch at an open-air table out back, Dr. Wightman fills me in on the driverless cars, the balloons – and design thinking. “If you can take a minute to step back and consider blue-sky scenarios, you can often find ways to improve things by 10 times, instead of incrementally – that’s where design thinking comes into play.”

A product of the same trends and philosophies that gave us smartphones, laptop computers and internet search engines, design thinking is changing the way some academics approach teaching and research, the way architects design classrooms and how leaders seek to solve the world’s most persistent problems.

Cameron Norman is a long-time supporter of design thinking (or DT) and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He notes that designers, especially product designers, are typically experts in conceptualizing problems and solving them– ideal skills for tackling a wide range of issues, from building a better kitchen table to mapping out the plans on a large building. “The field of design is the discipline of innovation,” he says. “[Design thinking] is about taking these methods, tools and ideas, and applying them in other areas.”

Design thinking centres on the free flow of ideas – far-out concepts aren’t summarily dismissed – and an unusually enthusiastic embrace of failure. “Design thinkers try to figure out what the key problem is – they look around and try to understand what’s going on, and come up with some wild ideas, thinking big and bold, on how to solve it,” Dr. Norman says. “They assume they’re not going to get it right the first time.”

If you were looking to build a better mousetrap, you’d prototype a model, test it for weaknesses, then either trash it and start again, or identify the problems and seek to correct them. DT does the same thing, but in an increasingly broad array of areas, from social policy to healthcare to business.

Deborah Shackleton, dean of design and dynamic media at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, was an early adopter of DT. “Design thinking is a mindset. You can use it as a tool or a technique. It’s very adaptable,” she says.

In 2005, ECUAD revamped much of its curriculum in design and dynamic media, looking to shift the focus from more traditional methods of research, like literature reviews, to something called “generative research.” “It’s the idea that you would invite the participants – for whom the design is intended – to be part of the creation process,” Dr. Shackleton says. She adds that various tools, like “co-creation kits” (which include a range of activities to engage people on a variety of cognitive and emotional levels) and ethnographic and cultural probes (activities which help participants demonstrate details about their private lives to their design partners), prove very useful in this area.

Collaboration among various fields is an important part of the design thinking process. At the University of Alberta, Aidan Rowe, an associate professor in design studies, is using design thinking to help the City of Edmonton improve services for people who are homeless. “Design is a truly interdisciplinary discipline,” says Mr. Rowe. “We always need someone to design with and for. We don’t design for ourselves.”

Since 1999, Edmonton and non-profit organizations have carried out a physical count of the city’s homeless population over a 24-hour period every two years. It’s important to get the count right, as it informs government funding and strategic planning on homelessness. Mr. Rowe and his research team were asked to improve the current system, a project spearheaded by graduate student Devaki Joshi. She is currently interviewing dozens of frontline workers, from volunteers to staff coordinators to supervisors, people who deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis. While it’s still in the early stages, Mr. Rowe says that once all the research and interviews are done the prototyping will begin.

“Design is an iterative process – we make, and evaluate, and even by making we change our understanding [of the process]. Even a perfect design changes when it’s put into practice,” he says. This process of designing, making, evaluating and then changing can happen dozens, even hundreds, of times on a single project. The same will happen here, with the homeless count. “It’s a crazy process, designing something like this. It’ll be: ‘Let’s try something, let’s iterate with it, let’s get some feedback and let’s adjust again.’”

Design thinkers often speak of “human-centered design” and “social innovation,” concepts that flow from DT’s assertion that no single person has the answer to a complex problem. Instead, it focuses on collective goals and places a premium on sustainability, community, culture and the empowerment of people, says Greg Van Alstyne, director of research and co-founder of the Strategic Innovation Lab, or sLab, at OCAD University. “It means you go about your problem-solving in a more holistic way. We can say ‘human-centered,’ but it’s actually ‘life-centered,’” Mr. Van Alstyne explains. “Our brand of design thinking is amenable to working within social systems and improving the lot of communities.”

The DT approach played an essential role in one of sLab’s largest projects, Economic Futures for Ontario 2032. Working with the provincial government, the lab sought to envision the future of the provincial economy from a number of different perspectives while factoring in the impact of diverse variables, such as the environment, technology and supra-national forces. The community was put “in the driver’s seat” of the project, says Mr. Van Alstyne. The sLab researchers consulted with groups of up to 100 people from the Ontario Public Service, engaging them in co-creation, giving them a voice and allowing them to contribute to the outcome. Co-creation refers to “designers and people not trained in design working together in the design development process,” Mr. Van Alstyne explains.

Organizers at sLab gathered insights and ideas through “a series of tightly structured and highly creative foresight workshops for which we recruited ministry officials, policy professionals, senior leaders and ‘leaders of tomorrow,’” says Mr. Van Alstyne. Participants, working in groups of 10 to 14 people, authored a “kernel” story depicting how Ontarians may be living and working two decades from now. These stories were then “textured” and built upon through additional workshops. “So, co-creation in this case indicates participatory data gathering, joint authorship and iterative, joint editorship,” he says.

The resulting 200-page report detailed four vivid and detailed stories on a 20-year timeline. “It’s a bottom-up view of what lived life might be like,” says Mr. Van Alstyne. While the report is important, he maintains that the process itself was actually the key to the whole exercise. By inviting members of the public service to participate in the exercise and share their perspectives on the future, Mr. Van Alstyne suggests the results had much more impact. “It builds a shared vision, which then can, demonstrably, lead to co-ownership of the outcomes,” he says, noting that emphasis was placed on marginalized cultures and economic opportunities for those who haven’t traditionally had them.

Design thinking is also transforming university campuses in a tangible way. One example is at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, which is undergoing a $40-million renovation. “The whole space is designed to help students connect, communicate, collaborate and create knowledge,” says Lynn Taylor, vice-provost, teaching and learning. “Traditional learning was focused on the facts and concepts and procedures of a discipline, and we’re moving toward the goal of having students think far more deeply about their learning.”

To create this new space within a two-floor, 4,000-square-metre building that formerly served as an art museum, the university turned to Diamond Schmitt Architects, who have designed similar spaces at a number of other Canadian campuses. The new space, scheduled to open in February, prioritizes flexibility, with movable walls and collapsible furniture, and the seamless integration of technology.

Lead architect Don Schmitt observes that in a traditional campus building, which usually contains a long corridor and individual classrooms, conversation tends to gravitate to the only true public space: the hallway. “There’s a sense that more learning probably happens outside the classroom or between the classrooms, than happens inside the classroom,” he says.

Gone is the old-model lecture hall, with fixed podium and chairs. They’ve been replaced by a much more malleable space, which in a single day can act as a dance studio, movie theatre, lecture space, or just a big area for students to get together. “It’s about individual learning happening informally, quiet study, gregarious social activity, group study, group projects, flexible studio environments, changeable, ‘hack-able’ spaces and lots of flexibility to use different places in different ways,” Mr. Schmitt explains.

Dr. Taylor says she hopes the design will be emulated in other buildings. “We understand learning so much differently than we used to. And if we really lead from learning in our design processes, our spaces will look different,” she says. “Design thinking is a team sport.”

Proponents of DT posit that, with its emphasis on teamwork and its problem-based approach, design thinking is particularly well-suited to solving “wicked problems” – those big, ill-defined, complex, multi-faceted issues that don’t have a clear solution. U of T’s Dr. Norman points to climate change as an example. “There’s no climate change discipline,” he says. “We need everyone from scientists to citizens to politicians. And within universities, you have geography and sociology and biology – you name it – there’s somebody who can play a role.”

Business, too, has a role to play in addressing these large-scale problems. Back at Google X, Dr. Wightman and his colleagues seek to solve some of the most pressing needs on Earth – it’s not just jetpacks and hover boards for fun or prosperity. Project Loon, the attempt to send Internet-enabling hot-air balloons into the stratosphere, for one, is being developed with the intention of increasing the quality of life around the globe, says Dr. Wightman, the project’s lead engineer. He cites evidence that higher rates of Internet connectivity are directly linked to a rise in GDP.

It’s this human-centred, problem-based approach to business that Dr. Wightman seeks to bring to his executive MBA seminar at Queen’s. “It’s incredibly empowering for people who are looking to lead change [to] tell them: ‘Try this and blame me if it doesn’t work.’ When you remove the blockers that prevent experimentation, it’s incredible what people can do.”  

Tim Johnson
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  1. Salena Kitteringham / January 13, 2016 at 12:58

    Hello! Great article about Design Thinking. There are a few inaccuracies in the section covering commentary from Aidan Rowe of the University of Alberta. Aidan Rowe is not a Dr. The City of Edmonton did not approach the UAlberta Art & Design Department “research team” to conduct this project, it came out of the master of design candidate Devaki Joshi’s initiative and hard work.

    • Léo Charbonneau / January 14, 2016 at 08:38

      Thank you for the clarifications. We will change the honorific for Mr. Rowe in the article. And the contribution of Devaki Joshi is duly noted.

      Léo Charbonneau
      Editor, University Affairs

  2. Jim Kells / January 13, 2016 at 13:57

    Excellent article! I am just now coordinating a course in design for budding engineers. So much of this article will very nicely reinforce the message that we have given our students.

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