Design Thinking: A Solution to Fracture-Critical Systems
An Interview with Tom Fisher, Dean, College of Design at the University of Minnesota.
Conducted by Tim Larsen, President and Founder, Larsen Design.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The banking collapse. The foreclosure crisis. Tom Fisher, Dean, College of Design at the University of Minnesota, views each of these disasters as a “fracture-critical system,” and he sees design thinking as a potential solution.
“We have so many vulnerabilities right now,” says Fisher. “Redesigning as much as we can, as fast as we can, and as resiliently as possible remains the most important task of our time.”
As a member of the advisory board at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, I have witnessed, firsthand, Fisher’s forward-thinking view that what our society desperately needs is design thinking—and more socially responsible, civically-engaged design leaders who can offer workable, creative solutions.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Fisher about design thinking and the increasing relevance of a design education. Our conversation follows.
Larsen: There’s lots of talk today about design thinking. How do you define it?
Fisher: Design thinking is the rigorous process by which we come up with things that do not exist.
Design thinking is synonymous with abductive thinking. It’s characterized by creative leaps and paradigm shifts, and it connects things that would otherwise seem to be disconnected.
Larsen: That’s another currently popular term: abductive thinking. Can you talk about its genesis?
Abductive thinking is a method of logical inference that considers a set of seemingly unrelated facts—and then connects them. Aristotle wrote about abductive thinking, but, strangely, the term got lost until the 19th century.
Abductive thinking is quite different from deductive thinking, which moves from general principles to specific conclusions, and it’s also different from inductive thinking, which moves from specific instances to general principles.
Abductive thinking was actually rediscovered by Charles Sanders Peirce, the late 19th century philospher and American pragmatist, who reread the Aristotelian literature and found that this third type of logic, “abduction,” had been lost.
Larsen: From your perspective, then, design thinking, is not new?
Fisher: It’s as old as human thought. There is a tendency to think that design thinking has been discovered recently, especially given its popularity.
Larsen: We’ve come through a century of privileging left-brain thinking. Is design thinking now bringing the pendulum back?
Fisher: Absolutely. And it’s necessary. The humanities are engaged in a study of the past, the sciences and social sciences study the present, and design is one of the few fields that imagines alternative futures—in a rigorous way.
Larsen: Your view, then, is that design thinking is practical, rather than esoteric, even though many, unfortunately, still see design as ornamental or even frivolous.
Fisher: Design thinking is practical. That’s its hallmark. It’s not ornamental at all. Design is fundamentally tied to producing something that’s useful. And that’s where the prototyping and the iterative process comes in. Design moves from thinking to making to thinking to making, in a continuous cycle.
Design thinking is also about optimizing. Design is the process of creating solutions that address the greatest number of issues—with the least number of steps. It’s the elegant solution.
Larsen: What practical problems can design thinking solve?
Fisher: Whole industries now recognize the need for design thinking—applied not only to the facilities, products, and communications of companies, but also to systems, services, and organizations.
At the Mayo Clinic, for example, the Center for Innovation’s SPARC Design Studio is constantly looking for ways to improve healthcare delivery and patient experiences through design thinking. This shows the profound shift that has occurred in the business world’s thinking about design.
This progress is very exciting. Design, once viewed as an expensive frill, has now been recognized as a way of thinking that adds tremendous value, reduces unnecessary costs, and increases efficiency and effectiveness.
Larsen: Do designers recognize their role as broad thinkers?
Fisher: Yes, many do. But all of us need to continue to imagine a new set of opportunities that no one is asking us to solve. That’s where design is particularly valuable, because it will help us imagine the future.
As designers, we should routinely ask ourselves: Are we tweaking or are we leaping? We have inherited from the 20th century multiple fracture-critical systems that are crying out for creative leaps.
Larsen: Talk more about fracture-critical systems and how they relate to design thinking.
Fisher: Engineers call a fracture-critical design one in which failure of any one part of the system leads to the sudden and catastrophic crash of the whole.
I maintain that when designers are not in the room—and not involved in imagining the future—the systems that often get designed are fracture critical, rather than resilient and flexible. Without designers, our society tends to create highly-efficient, siloed systems, removing all their redundancy, and then piling on stress to the point of collapse.
Larsen: Crash, crush, collapse, we’ve certainly had our share of massive failures. Could design have averted these?
Fisher: I think so. The failures have started to happen with ever-greater frequency, and to devastating effect. The same thinking behind the exploded drill rig in the Gulf also led to the collapse of the banking system, the breached floodwalls in New Orleans, the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.
In all of these seemingly disparate situations, people designed systems vulnerable to sudden and catastrophic failure because of a lack of imagination of all that could go wrong and the omission in their design of fail-safe, back-up, or redundant measures.
Larsen: It would seem that optimism is a key requirement in light of these massive, devastating vulnerabilities.
Fisher: Optimism is inherent in design thinking. Design seeks to improve the world, to create better physical environments or fairer interpersonal ones, and so it gives us hope. This inherent optimism of design comes from confronting the worst conduct and the greatest conflicts with a design perspective—and then seeing which solutions arise.
Larsen: How are universities training designers to make these creative leaps and to address society’s vulnerabilities?
Fisher: For the most part, universities now educate designers to make stuff: Websites. Packages. Furniture. Houses. Products. Cars. We need to loosen the connection between design and the things we design and focus more on the thought process—the epistemology—of design itself, which has myriad applications far beyond those normally studied in design schools.
We need a different educational model, in which the thought process itself serves as the core. We can begin to do this by making design thinking more explicit in our schools. Then, whatever the particular context of the problem, design students can become more aware of the thinking behind their work.
This will prepare our graduates to work in an economy that increasingly needs us not to design things, but to apply design thinking skills to a whole range of problems and activities.
Larsen: This intellectual diversity will only strengthen design education, it seems.
Fisher: Yes. By broadening our definition of what constitutes design work and by listening to what the world needs from us, we can increase the resilience of our infrastructure and the flexibility of our systems, and help avert more of the catastrophic failures we’ve experienced over the last decade.
About Tom Fisher
Tom Fisher is a professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Educated at Cornell University in architecture and Case Western Reserve University in intellectual history, he previously served as the regional preservation officer at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, the historical architect of the Connecticut State Historical Commission in Hartford, and the editorial director of Progressive Architecture magazine in Stamford, Connecticut.
Tom has lectured or juried at over 40 different schools of architecture and 60 professional societies, and has published 35 book chapters and over 250 articles in various magazines and journals—most on the topic of architecture. He has published five books over the last eight years and recently completed a manuscript of case studies, Ethics for Architects, to be published by the Princeton Architectural Press in 2010.
Tom recently moderated an expert panel on design thinking, featuring futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, as part of the yearly Design Intersections symposium series, hosted by the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and sponsored by Larsen.
You are invited to connect with the College of Design on Twitter.
About Tim Larsen
Tim Larsen is president and founder of Larsen, a design, branding, marketing, and interactive firm with an international client list and offices in Minneapolis and San Francisco. Tim has been featured in national design publications and has won numerous design awards, including the AIGA Fellow award. Over its 35-year history, his firm has won countless awards from the profession's most prestigious organizations, including Communication Arts, Graphis, HOW, and AIGA, the professional association for design.
Devoted to design education, Tim serves on the advisory board for the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, he is chairman of the board for the College of Visual Arts, and he sits on a number of regional design program councils. He guided the formation of the state chapter of AIGA and was a national board member. Several design conferences owe their start to Tim: AIGA Minnesota Design Camp®, CVA Leaders of Design, and Design Intersections—a yearly symposium series on design thinking hosted by the College of Design at the University of Minnesota and sponsored by Larsen.
You are invited to connect with Larsen on Twitter and Facebook.
This article appeared in the June
2010 edition of the DMI News & Views.
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