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This article examines how design thinking can be integrated with social constructivism to produce not just a better design, but a better way of understanding reality, and helping organisations to be better suited to achieve their purpose.

Design thinking is a way of thinking about life. The great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practised it, and you can do it too. Design thinking is the mindset to think creatively, challenge ingrained assumptions and identify new options within the methodologies of business.

Design thinking searches for a magical balance between business and art, structure and chaos, intuition and logic, concept and execution, playfulness and formality and control and empowerment.

What is design thinking?

Design Thinking is an iterative process within which we seek to understand the recipient [the customer or user] of the design thinking outcome. We challenge assumptions and redefine problems to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, design thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

Design Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing the products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user. Design Thinking helps us in the process of questioning:
questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications.

Design Thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. Design Thinking also involves ongoing experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing, and trying out concepts and ideas.

Design Thinking is an approach used for practical and creative problem-solving. It is based heavily on the methods and processes that designers use (hence the name), but it has evolved from a range of different fields — including architecture, engineering, and business. Design thinking can also be applied to any field; it doesn’t necessarily have to be design-specific.

Design Thinking is extremely user-centric. It focuses on humans first and foremost, seeking to understand people’s needs and come up with effective solutions to meet those needs. It is what we might call a solution-based approach to problem-solving.

Rules of design thinking

Here are some rules relating to the characteristics of design thinking:

  • The human rule: No matter what the context, all design activity is social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the “human-centric point of view”.
  • The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.
  • The redesign rule: All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We essentially only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs or reaching desired outcomes.
  • The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively.

The five activities of design thinking

There are five activities in the design thinking process. Design thinking is undertaken in an iterative, reflexive manner, where each step informs both the step ahead, and modifies the step behind.

  1. Empathise – This entails gathering a deep understanding of the customer or the recipient of the design thinking process. Some common activities include harvesting user feedback and developing empathy maps. An empathy map is a collaborative visualisation used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user.
  2. Define – Clarifying what the objectives are with a concise description of an issue to be addressed or a condition to be improved upon. The problem identifies the gap between the current state and desired state. Some common activities include a point of view statement, a design brief, stakeholder maps, a context map, opportunity maps and a customer journey map. At this stage of the process, the design team will have composed a detailed understanding of the problem which they have to solve.
  3. Ideate – This phase involves formulating and interrogating ideas and solutions. Some common activities include classic ideation methods [divergent method, convergent method], prioritisation maps, affinity maps and ideas evaluation matrices.
    Prototype – In the prototyping phase the solution[s] begins to take form. It need not always involve a physical product but can describe processes, structures and systems. Some common activities include storytelling, prototypes, wireframes and theatre.
  4. Test – The final phase involves a thorough review of the proposed solution of the prototype and an assessment of the value proposition. It culminates with a decision – to proceed, to terminate or to modify. Some common activities include user feedback and prototype evaluation

These five activities will enable a novel and fitting solution to emerge.

The integration of social constructivism with design thinking

This far we have focused on design thinking as an objective technique. It is couched as “something that is done” to an objective, substantive problem. We have not considered what happens within the team that is undertaking a design thinking assignment. Now we will consider some of the dynamics within the team that uses design thinking techniques.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann [The Social Construction of Reality, 1966] argued that our understanding of reality is created by humans and human interaction. Not only do we construct our own reality, but we also accept it as it is because others around us are doing the same and are accepting the same understanding of reality.

Social constructivism centres on the collaborative nature of learning. Knowledge develops from how people interact with each other, their organisations, and society at large. People from all walks of life rely on others to help create the building blocks of their reality. Learning from others helps them construct their own knowledge and their reality. We often regard this reality as a given, and we seldom question what this reality is and how it evolves,

Socially constructivist learning is characterised by a lack of structure. Constructivist learning focuses on a more laid-back method to help individuals engage in their own learning. Design thinking recognises that ambiguity and social processes are intrinsically part of creating a new understanding of the problem, and hence a new reality.

William Thomas and Dorothy Thomas proposed the Thomas Theorem which states that what people believe to be true, affects their behaviours and actions — “If men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928). As every marketing manager knows, people’s perceptions of reality influence how they act within that reality.

In other words, our social construction of reality determines our understanding of our lives. Social constructivism suggests that successful learning is heavily dependent on interpersonal interaction and discussion, with the primary focus on the participants’ understanding of the conversation.

The design thinking activities of empathising, defining, and ideating are collaborative social processes within which we challenge and change our understanding of a current reality and co-create new realities.

The intense interpersonal interaction and discussion within the design thinking team not only changes their understanding of the problem and its solutions, but they themselves embrace a new reality. They come, through the design thinking process, to a widened socially-constructed reality.

Traditionally, design thinking has been viewed as a technique to solve problems. But it can also be used as a process to enhance the strategic insight and contribution of a team. The design thinking process is an iterative, collaborative process. Social constructivism embraces unstructured social learning.

The act of sharing in a design thinking process brings each participant to a new reality. With repeated exposure to the process, participants incorporate an internalised worldview that continually challenges the given and the extant. It is this constant reframing, challenging, and ideating that is essential for leadership at every level in an organisation. Our understanding of reality must change because our current solutions are based on a previously outdated reality.

The walk-away learning from this article is this:

Design thinking is not just a technique to solve problems. It is a powerful organisation development technique, which institutionalises a potent way of looking at problems. The challenge for you is to find ways to use it to enhance the contribution of your leadership team.

Now, more than ever, we need dynamic leaders who can find that magical balance between business and art, structure and chaos, intuition and logic, concept and execution, playfulness and formality, and control and empowerment.


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