Design Thinking

by Don Friedman on December 16, 2015

Engineers consider themselves “designers.” We use the word “design” all the time to describe activities we perform. Unfortunately, the word has been devalued. A lot of things are legitimately design – including graphic design, architectural design, software design, landscape design, industrial design, and so on – but the word crops up most frequently in ordinary use when describing how a celebrity is a designer because she or he decided what color the logo should be on a belt. Design is a specific set of activities that, to be meaningful, require training and thought.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to spend  a lot of time trying to define design because it’s already been done. Rather than linking to a discussion of engineering design, I like to start by looking at two essays from Don Norman: Design Thinking: A Useful Myth and Rethinking Design Thinking. I first encountered Norman when I read The Design of Everyday Things, a book that emphasizes the importance of industrial design in making our lives run smoothly. In the two essays, he talks about how the issue of creativity in design – and he is focussed on his field, industrial design – and the importance of studying a problem’s context rather than rushing to solve it. He also links to a response to the first essay by Bill Moggridge that provides a more analytical framework for discussing design.

Why am I looking at discussion of the design of objects when, as an engineer, my designs involve buildings? Structural engineers are historically quite bad at defining “design” and have a tendency to point to buildings we’ve worked on and say something like “I designed that structure.” True, but not very helpful for others. The diagram in Moggridge’s essay is more helpful, even if parts of it don’t quite fit engineering.

If I come up with the size for a single-span, simply-supported, uniformly-loaded beam – which is just about the easiest calculation I can perform – I say that I designed the beam. True, but who cares? We learn to do that by our third year of college, and honestly a smart high-school student could crank out calculations of that type if the problems were set up for him or her. The hard work for us is examining the entire context of a building and knowing where it is we need such a beam and where we need something else. Or, put another way, the hard part of design is knowing what to design.

The three essays I’ve linked to discuss different aspects of this idea. (There are, incidentally, a hundred more essays I could link to on this topic, but it wouldn’t make my point any clearer.) Sometimes a client will come to us and say “I need a post in the cellar because my floor is sagging.” We could provide sizes for a post and a footing, or we can say “why is the floor sagging and what methods are available to fix it?” Sometimes we ask the questions “is the floor really sagging?” or “does it really need to be fixed?” Our solutions to that particular problem have included posts in the cellar, leveling the floor, replacing the floor, and doing nothing. It all depends on context and I believe all four of those solutions are designs.

There is a possibly apocryphal quote from Henry Ford that floats around in discussions like these: “‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Whether or not the quote is real, the point is worth taking for anyone claiming to be a designer. If all you do is fiddle with what is already there, whether that is changing the color on a teapot or running the calcs on a beam, you’re not doing much. If you want to think like a designer, think about what the problem you’re solving is about and why you need to solve it.


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