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Design Not-Thinking

Aaron Howes
5 min readApr 21, 2021

During week eight of Creativity in Design, Alex said that “the creative process is responsive to the problem/setting/context, not following a recipe.” And that creativity should not only be expressed in the things that result from our process, but be expressed in the process itself, challenging cookie-cutter prescriptions like design thinking. As a group, it had been difficult navigating an unmapped space and so I wanted to explore these ideas around creativity and process in more detail.

One of the first things I was reminded of was a quote from Frankenstein author Mary Shelley: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” A recipe, or any other prescribed process, doesn’t allow much for chaos. It can’t. A recipe is a set of precise actions that will lead to a predetermined result, or something close to it. Any deviations from the instructions will lead to a different result. This is great when cooking because you want your chocolate cake to always be a chocolate cake. But arriving at the same result every time doesn’t lead to innovation. You can’t predetermine the results of creativity.

“Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something ‘new’”

In another analogy, graphic designer Paula Scher likens creativity to the randomness of a slot machine. One continually pulls the lever — sketching, brainstorming, speculating, putting in work — hoping that various pieces of knowledge one has gathered across a lifetime align with whatever problem one is working on. “To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense,” she explains in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. “And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.” In a similar vein, writer Maria Popova describes creativity as combinatorial: “Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something ‘new’”.

From these perspectives, to invent we must embrace a chaotic reality. We must allow problems, settings, contexts, people and so forth to collide unpredictably and accept we have no idea exactly where anything is going to land. We can approach this game strategically but must remain aware that we’ll never have enough data to predict the outcome.

“Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves.”

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Service Natasha Iskander directs criticisms specifically towards design thinking — her critic was eye-opening to me considering its prevalence and appearance of infallibility in the industry. Iskander references many faults in the design thinking methodology but suggests one has been sorely overlooked: “It is, at its core, a strategy to preserve and defend the status-quo… Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process.” Echoing Shelley, Scher and Popova, she adds, “In doing so, it limits the scope for truly innovative ideas, and makes it hard to solve challenges that are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty.” All four seem to agree that you can’t try to apply order to the chaos, but must instead embrace it.

Iskander suggests an approach called “interpretive engagement”: “A process of collaborative and wide-ranging interpretation, where participants revisit the understandings they have about themselves and others, as well as about the changing world they live in. It represents a commitment to a process with no clear beginning and end, with a goal that is often no more explicitly defined than imagining and articulating new ways to meet changes that are still murky and immeasurable.”

This “inchoate messiness,” she explains, creates opportunities to serendipitously stumble upon innovative solutions. More importantly, “They also allow a complete re-imagination of what counts as a solution to begin with.”

“Fear is built into making things.”

Chaos, randomness, uncertainty, re-imagination — all of this sounds scary. I discovered on this module (on this course, even), that it is scary, embarking on a journey with no clear destination and often without even a clear starting point. About midway through the term, I found solace in an interview with Ira Glass, the host and producer of the radio and podcast series This American Life. Ira has been producing and hosting This American Life since 1995. He and the show have received every award in radio. Yet, he had this to say, “honestly, making the radio show is still hard. I have really hard weeks on the show where I’m really frightened, and really struggling to make the show good… You don’t know if the thing is going to be any good. And you’re in the middle of preparing this thing that’s not done and you don’t know if you’re going to finish it on time and you don’t have enough time… for me, fear is built into making things.”

And herein I’ve also discovered a benefit of a workbook. In using it to explore concepts — in this case, creativity and the creative process — in more personal detail, I’ve come away learning two things that have been key to achieving my goals on this course and will hopefully benefit me in my career. (1) embrace chaos and (2) embrace fear. In a sense, Alex’s lecture was the starting point, while my own research and writing have been where I’ve really got to grasp the ideas on a level relevant to me personally. I suppose this entry isn’t directly related to our group work but it’s also inextricably linked.

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