Like many specific ‘creative’ disciplines, design thinking carries a fair bit of mystery — as to what it is, how it works, and why it tends to cost so much. Over recent years, many practitioners have popped up claiming to be specialist Design Thinkers. And while this is certainly a legitimate skill, it’s not quite as mysterious as some might have you believe.
Whilst many design thinkers are forged in the halls of academia, others refine their approach through practical experience, in our case redesigning large publications. With multiple facets including design, writing, technology, marketing, strategy, structure and hierachry, we’ve been able to test (and in our opinion, prove) a number of our own theories about design thinking, which we’ll share with you.
First. What's in a name?
Personally, we prefer the term ‘creative thinking’ over ‘design thinking’, as it embodies a broader sense of what it involves in practice (and besides, we like to be different). So that’s what we’ll refer to it as from now on. But call it what you will, creative thinking generally refers to an approach to problem-solving and/or innovation that involves using predominantly the right (creative and visual) side of the brain. Rather than being limited to visual or ‘design’ problems however, this type of thinking is often used to develop strategies for which there is no immediate visual outcome.
What is it? Our definition of Creative Thinking
In order to define creative thinking, it helps to first define the opposite approach, which we’ll call linear thinking, AKA traditional thinking, AKA rational thinking.
A typical process using linear thinking might be:
Here, we share some of our opinions on a range of subjects, adapted from lectures we've delivered at public events and universities and curated for your reading pleasure. Want our opinion on something? Drop us a line.
Top-down thinking is a strategic approach: combining knowledge, research, and hard facts with critical analysis to form a ‘big picture’ view. It starts with a broad intellectual scope which is narrowed down until a solution naturally presents itself.
Bottom-up thinking is a hands-on, process-driven approach often used by designers and other visually-inclined types. It combines experimentation with rapid prototyping (creating physical artefacts to prove a conceptual theory). It starts with a broad physical scope which is narrowed down until a solution naturally presents itself.
Creative thinking allows us to look at a problem simultaneously from the top down (that is, strategically) and bottom-up (that is, process-driven) to find an answer or answers. The most robust of these are usually found where the two directions intersect, taking the best from each approach.
Most business strategies tend to follow this pathway. First, the problem or need is identified through market research, metrics and analysis. Then, multiple initial ideas are gradually sifted and narrowed down through a series of standard strategic filters such as quadrants, pyramids, matrices and other impressive-looking diagrams, leaving a single logical conclusion. For many people, this is a robust enough process to create a suitable outcome.
Creative thinking, however, is a less predictable process. While the problem or need is often identified in the same way as above, the ideas for addressing that need are dealt with in an entirely different way. Essentially, rather than following a single pathway, multiple paths are created and followed with equal vigour. And one step doesn’t necessarily follow the next — many steps are re-traced and altered, with ideas branching off and feeding into each other.
The field of possibilities
If we liken uncovering solutions to digging in a field of possibilities, it’s easy to see how creative thinking covers much more ground, forming a bigger overall picture, with less limitations than linear thinking. Often previously undiscovered problems can be unearthed, sometimes identifying a very different need to what was originally being addressed.
Of course, this ‘digging everywhere’ approach means you get your hands much dirtier, and the time it takes to get from A to B (or C,D,E & F) is longer and not as straightforward. It might sound a bit like making things up as you go along, but in reality it’s firmly grounded in traditional problem-solving approaches. Which brings us to...
Thinking, as applied to problem-solving, can be divided roughly into two directions: top-down, and bottom-up.
Or, in other words:
Surprisingly, more often than not this process is completely segregated. But as the idea of combining strategic and creative approaches becomes more widely accepted, it is our sincere hope that this approach will become less avant-garde and more standard practice.
I see a lot of parallels between design thinkers and entrepreneurs... when you are delving into massive change and complexity it’s very difficult to create order and structure if you are just using analytical tools.
Project Manager/Strategist, design and manufacturing (from the study Design Thinking: Exploring Opportunities for the Design Industry and Business in Australia by Leanne Sobel)
Creating Thinking on the rise
As already mentioned, Creative Thinking is a combination of critical analysis and physical experimentation. As such, many problems involving a visual outcome are addressed this way. However, applying this style of problem-solving to non-visual outcomes is relatively new, and also relatively lucrative. So it’s no surprise that people are jumping on the creative thinking bandwagon. A few examples:
Over the last decade or so, User Experience design (or UX—which employs a very similar approach to creative thinking) has become widely accepted as an essential part of strategic planning and implementation. However, the origins of UX can be traced all the way back to the advent of ergonomics, most notably Hippocrates' description of the optimal surgeon’s workplace. A long incubation period with a recent, and sudden, explosion?
In mid-2012 the Australian Federal Government established the Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design to realise the benefits of design thinking and innovation in government, including involvement with significant policy, administration and service delivery. Although the centre only ran for an 18-month pilot period, much of what it started has been continued in the Public Sector Innovation Toolkit.
As well as being introduced as part of business degrees and post-graduate courses, Design Thinking is now offered as a specific course at Universities around Australia including Swinburne, the University of Queensland, University of Sydney, UTS, and others.
So ... what’s the big deal?
Whilst there appears to have been an explosion in creative thinking-related disciplines over the last few years, it’s possible that like many previously innovative approaches to problem-solving, it will plateau or even eventually be replaced by the next buzz-filled practice. Whether or not it has an official name, we’re sure that as long as people continue to value problem solving based on observation, empathy, and insight, creative thinking will always have a place.