A New Model for the Design Thinking Process

(Note: This article’s intended audience is mid-to-seasoned design practitioners. I will make a simpler post for new learners soon.)

Why do we need models in the first place?

As a designer, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been practicing for days or decades, it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked to explain what you do and how you do it.

To curious friends and family, you can usually get away with an example and maybe a sprinkling of philosophy thrown in for good measure. But for times when you need to explain design at a deeper level -like teaching new practitioners, pitching to clients, or going that extra step with overly inquisitive family members- you’ll almost inevitably lean on a visual model of “The Design Process.”

Seasoned designers know that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all design approach, and are probably familiar with an excessive number of design models. When teaching, however, the model they’ll use can usually be attributed to the schools they’ve attended, the books they’ve read, or the companies they’ve worked for. That is to say, relatively few designers have thought critically about what makes any one of these models more effective than another, and even fewer have attempted to design a better one.

While designers may not agree on which design model to use, there are two things they will agree on:

  1. A strong visual model is invaluable to help learners quickly grasp the design process and the kinds of thinking involved.
  2. The better the model, the quicker, more effective, and more nuanced a learner’s understanding will be.

If we want to create and use better design models, we first have to determine what “better” means.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful”
—George Box

What do we need to teach?

Students1 benefit from mental models that serve as foundational structures for understanding. The best models act as foundational springboards that invite students to explore and expand their knowledge of a concept. Additionally, good models are sufficiently robust that students won’t quickly encounter any of the model’s innate gaps and limitations.

I propose that design is comprised of two key aspects that need to be taught:

  1. First, we need students to understand the “What” What the design process is, and the nuances of how it works.2 I call these “properties.
  2. Once they understand “what” we do, we can then dive into “How” we do it – This encompasses the ideologies, values, and mindsets that guide us throughout the process. I call these “principles.

One way to frame the relationship between these two is that design properties describe the foundational structures on which design principles are hung. Or to use an analogy, properties are the basic rules of chess (how the board is set up, how the pieces move, etc.), and principles are the various strategies, play styles, and schools of thought.

This rest of this post will focus on properties, but you can read about principles here: “11 Design Principles”

The design properties

Drawing from both my personal understanding of the design process and the strengths of models I’ve seen over the years (many of which we will be reviewing shortly), I’ve distilled a list down to six design properties.

Six properties of the design process:

1. Divergent and convergent

Divergent & Convergent

Designers are constantly opening up to new information and ideas, then refining these down to insights and experiments.


2. Real and abstract

Real & Abstract

A designer’s thinking is constantly rolling back and forth from substantial and practical to interpretive and imaginary.


3. Discrete mental phases

Discrete Mental Phases

Our brains work best when they’re not asked to juggle too many things at once. When tackling complex problems, designers delineate safe spaces for different thinking styles and focused attention.


4. Non-linearity*

Non-Linearity

New information, or the realization of an information gap, can send designers “back to the chalkboard.” Conversely, “Eureka!” moments (or their sneaky twin: “assumptions”3) can inspire designers to take leaps of faith and experiment forward.


5. Clarity over time

Clarity Over Time

Design projects and the problems they tackle are inherently complex, “hairy”, and occasionally even “wicked”, but through the process, things eventually become clear.


6. Continuous*

Continuous

No design is perfect forever. Once something has been released into the world, it becomes the “new normal” from which new opportunities arise.

*Note: While every designer I spoke with agreed that properties #4 and #6 are technically correct, a couple of them struggled with the idea of presenting design as a nonlinear or never ending process to clients. This concern is valid, but risk aversion shouldn’t dictate the design of improved educational tools.

When dealing with clients and delivery goals, it’s important to remember “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

In addition to incorporating these six design properties, I propose two more visual criteria for successful design models:

7. Easy to use — (aka. “napkinable”) The model should be easy to communicate, understand, and reproduce.

8. Noise-free — Every aspect of the model should be meaningful.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
—Albert Einstein

Examples of existing models

Over my years as a designer, the eight following design models are the ones I’ve seen or leaned on the most when teaching. Each of these models have innate strengths and weaknesses that will impact the depth, quality, and nuance of the audience’s grasp of design. In no particular order, I will provide some background on these models and mention aspects that stand out.

If you’re in a rush: Click here to skip down to the summary of design models.


“Double diamond” from Design Council — Created in 2005, the double diamond is one of the most popular design models today. I also appreciate this redesign of the double diamond that Dan Nessler created a couple years ago.4

Likes: Easy to draw and highly memorable. Highlights phase’s divergence and convergence over time. This was my go-to for many years.
Dislikes: Too linear and overly simplified.


“The Design Thinking Process” from Stanford’s d.school — Co-founded by IDEO founder David Kelley in 2005, Stanford’s d.school has been a thought leader in the design world since its inception.

Likes: Clear phases with coloration to imply flow.
Dislikes: I have no idea why the phases are hexagons, or what the y-axis is meant to represent. Wildly overly simplified.


“HCD Design Kit Model” by IDEO.org — I first saw this model around 2013 while sitting in on a wonderful free design class provided by IDEO and Acumen, and it’s become increasingly popular since. (Sadly, IDEO.org includes a much better version of this model in their “Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” – but very few people have seen it.)

Likes: Because this model is often used with self-guided teaching, I really enjoy and appreciate the phase descriptions and nudging questions.
Dislikes: I don’t know if I agree that the “Ideation” phase starts with convergence and ends with divergence. Also, once again, I’m not sure what the y-axis means, so I don’t know why the second “hump” is smaller than the first.


“The Design Thinking Process” from IDEO — IDEO has been one of the biggest names and thought leaders5 in the design world since their founding in the early 90’s. That being said, I’m disappointed that their current model isn’t a clear winner.6

Likes: I appreciate how they’ve broken their three major discrete phases into more concrete steps, and how the curving lines strongly highlight the design process’s non-linearity.
Dislikes: It’s a lot of text to remember, and the (albeit visually pleasing) curved lines are so complex as to be rendered meaningless.


“Designing for Growth” from Peer Insight — Peer Insight has been a small-but-powerful thought leader in the design world since it was founded in 2004. Tim Ogilvie, one of the founders, and Jeanne Liedtka, a professor of management at UVA, published a book based on this model in 2011.

Likes: I love that, whereas most design models are focused on the actions and experiences of the designer, this business-opportunity-minded design model shows the process from the perspective of the idea or offering itself.
Dislikes: The strength is also the weakness: While this might be good for pitching clients, it’s not great for teaching design properties.


“101 Design Methods” from Vijay Kumar — While this book was published in 2012, the model only made its way onto my radar a couple years ago.7

Likes: Prior to this model, I had never seen the dichotomy of “real” and “abstract” explicitly called out before – and I was immediately hooked. While parts of the model are numbered, the cyclical format implies continuous and non-linear traits.
Dislikes: A minor (and possibly subjective) issue – this model feels noisy and unintuitive. For instance, does it really take more understanding to “Know People” than to “Know Context”?8


“Infinity model” by Ashish Goel and “The Loop” from IBM (respectively) — While a teaching fellow at the d.school (circa 2014), Ashish quietly created his re-interpretation of their five-step process. IBM’s simpler “Loop” was released about four years later – but coming from a large company, received much more attention.

Likes: It’s hard to be any more “continuous” than an infinity symbol. Visually clean and easy to remember.
Dislikes: Both models leave out most of the design properties, and the “intersection” of the is either confusing or superfluous. Why not just make it a circle? What does the transition from “Define” to “Ideate” have anything to do with “Testing”? Or, if the pinch is meant to signify divergence and convergence, it’s too subtle.


“Design Squiggle” from Damien Newman — The only design model I’ve seen that has a sense of humor. Sketched out in less than 30 seconds back in 2002, the little design squiggle has grown to develop a cult-like following.

Likes: It’s memorable, it’s fun to draw, and it’s straight to the point.
Dislikes: While perfectly capturing the experience of the design process, it leaves out almost everything else.


Summary: Relation of models to proposed design properties and criteria

Scoring existing models

(click the table to zoom)

It’s an unweighted and entirely un-scientific method, but if we award one point for every “✓” and a half a point for every “?”, we find that the majority of these design models are tied for first with a score of only four out of a possible eight points. As design practitioners and teachers, we can do better. It’s time to stand on the shoulders of giants.

“The best time to plant a tree9 was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
— Chinese proverb

A new model: The “Reflection Bridge”

(To share with people who are in a self-teaching setting, I’m in the process of developing a second version that is more of a “stand-alone” design model.)

Suggested build and narration

Over the last couple months, I’ve discovered first-hand that the “Reflection Bridge” model lends itself quite nicely to being verbally explained in real time as it’s being drawn. Here I provide a video and written examples:

(based on some feedback, an updated video will be coming shortly)

  1. Start by drawing the 2×2 square and labelling the axes
  2. Draw the large circle and oval
  3. Make and label a small rectangle where the circle and oval intersect on the left
    • “This is where it all begins – A design project is triggered by someone who sees a problem or opportunity here in the real world.”
  4. Label the phases as you narrate
    • “We start by going broad. In this first phase, we’re using divergent thinking to explore problems in the real world.
    • Then, we use convergent thinking as we analyze and synthesize our findings down until we understand these problems in the abstract.
    • Next, we diverge again -some people call this “going blue sky”- and imagine a wide range of possible solutions in the abstract.10
    • Finally, we converge: through iterative prototyping, testing, pilots, roadmaps, and whatever else is needed, we’re able to build our solutions in the real world.
  5. Add the arrowheads going forward, than smaller arrowheads going back
    • “These four phases make sense in this order, but it’s always acceptable to revisit prior phases. For example, you might have a great idea, and then you think “y’know, I’d really like to go back and talk to this person” or maybe the results of a test inspire a totally new idea. This isn’t a problem at all – it’s just a natural part of the process.”11
  6. Make and label the implemented rectangle at the end of the build phase
    • “When the solutions we’ve built are fully implemented, we arrive back where we started – because our solutions now exist in the real world as part of the “new normal.”
  7. Finally, from dark to light, start shading in the empty parts of the 2×2
    • “So that’s the basic design process, but there’s one last thing to know: This process usually starts with a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Things may feel chaotic and overwhelming, but lean in, “embrace the fuzziness”, and over time the insights, opportunities, and solutions will become clear.”

~fin~

What’s next?

  1. I’d love to hear what people think: Do you have a better visual model that incorporates all of the properties and visual criteria? Do you have suggestions for additional design properties? I’m a big fan of constructive criticism, so please reach out!
  2. Please use my “Reflection Bridge” model the next time you’re explaining design – then come back here to report on how it went.
  3. If you’re a fan of what I’ve made, share it with other designers far and wide – and help me nudge the world towards better teaching and understanding of design.

Thanks!!


Footnotes:
  1. I’ll be using the term “students” from here on to describe anyone who is learning

  2. Admittedly, this is more like 1.5 things. 🤷🏻‍♂️

  3. Assumptions aren’t always bad – but they should always be identified and tested.

  4. I’ve adopted the dual phrases “do the right thing” and “do the thing right” into my teaching repertoire.

  5. While it was first used as far back as the 1960s, IDEO is credited with having popularized the term “design thinking.”

  6. and as you’ll see a bit later, this is actually the lowest scoring model of the ones reviewed

  7. Some of my favorite coworkers swear by this book – so it’s worth checking out

  8. And is “Sensing Intent” a halfway point between understanding and making?”

  9. or make a better design model…

  10. I don’t know who said it, but I once took down the quote, “You can only really understand a problem once you start to solve it.” 🤔

  11. There’s no arrow back from the Explore phase, because -like the big bang- there’s nothing before to go back to.

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