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How Design Thinking Is Intuitive… And How It’s Not

Written by Ruby Murfield,  Taylor Center 2019-2020 Design Thinking Student Fellow.

As the academic year comes to a hectic close, my time as a student fellow at the Taylor Center ends, and it’s time to reflect on a whirlwind year. I interviewed numerous designers in different areas, celebrated the center’s fifth anniversary, and met Phyllis Taylor herself. I was engulfed in the whirlwind that is the Fast 48, but what sticks out most to me was something my supervisor, Dr. Lesley -Ann Noel, said to the Design Fellows in one of our very first meetings, that:

as we learned more about strategies and methods throughout the year, Design Thinking would become a more natural way to approach problems, that we would lean less heavily on ordered steps and more on realizing it’s a process or a mindset.

And at that point, it did seem rather intuitive. A quick google search will pull up infographics of 5, 6, or 7 steps with words like ideate and prototype, standard for those comfortable with other processes like the scientific method. It seemed like I was missing something, I thought, “Of course solutions are found by thinking about the problem and testing possible solutions!”

As the year went on, and I got the opportunity to participate in design sprints, I began to understand why design thinking is considered a valuable skill, separate from just design. The mindset was supposed to become more intuitive, to default to thinking through problems with a design mindset. Parts of design thinking are crucial and go overlooked in other disciplines. Empathy frames the problem, the setbacks, and the stakeholders in this process. Empathy is also not intuitive. It takes practice and patience to fully comprehend other people’s stake in the problem or their view towards possible solutions. It requires listening and understanding, and asking questions that actually reveal information, and not just asking questions because you are going through the motions. One activity that I’ve really liked is going through a stakeholder’s day, morning to night to see pinch points or problem areas, and how they interact with whatever the problem might be.

It’s the problems tackled that make designing thinking decidedly not intuitive. Issues design thinking strives to address are about making information easier to access or systems easier to use, and not just designing an object. If effective solutions to such problems were ‘intuitive’, they would no longer be problems plaguing people. Solutions need to be able to adapt as the problem ebbs and flows, and creating a dynamic answer is not intuitive.

As design thinking has become more of a natural, fluid process for me, more of a default way of approaching obstacles, I am also just starting to understand the importance of its complexity. While it becomes more intuitive to use, design thinking is not an intuitive process in the way it challenges you, from start to prototype, to new prototype, to new prototype…..

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