Senior Capstone, Visual Communications :: Design Education & Design System Thinking

In this post, I’ll be discussing and rephrasing in my own words Design/Systems thinking, based on two articles we read for Senior Capstone.

Over the course of my academic career, there have been three layers to the knowledge that our instructors have strived to instill in us. So far, in the way that I see it, my cohort has experienced these distinct sectors of design education:

  1. 1.  Formal/Compositional Instruction: A comprehensive look at how to execute and render ideas through an understanding of the form-building process. Examples: Color theory, 3D design, typography, motion graphics courses.
  2. 2. Wielding the Artifact: Where we grow our understanding of how posters, logos, and the things we make can be applied to solve problems. Examples: Branding exercises, identity exercises, app design classes.
  3. 3. Design/Systems Thinking: The way of approaching design problems we are learning about now, and the way the industry currently works. Examples: Just about anything produced by professional agencies.

Design and Systems Thinking is a modern approach to solving problems developed by designers and innovators. It was mostly brought to fruition through some smart people at IDEO. It shapes the way designs and problem solvers approach the challenges in front of them by offering them a heuristic method through which they can systematically approach a problem from the interior of the problem versus the exterior. This is more commonly phrased as bottom-up versus top-down. Allow me to add some context and relevance for me and my cohorts as young designers.

In the Formal/Compositional phases of our design education, problem solving rarely factored into the exercises my cohort engaged in. Courses color theory and typography simply gave us a fleshed-out toolkit that we brought to the second stage of our education. As we learned to Wield the Artifact, we began to brainstorm ways in which we could use our creations to solve meaningful problems. As we enter into the quarter-long process of graduation, we begin to take that line of reasoning one step further. In the same way that we practiced thinking beyond our own compositions, we must now think beyond our own top-down solutions.

But what does it mean to approach a problem with this bottom-up heuristic? It is composed of three ‘sectors,’ as defined by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt:

The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. [From Design Thinking for Social Innovation]

While these are often semantically touched upon in the “Wielding the Artifact” stage, purposefully living in, exploiting, and making sense of these stages is at the core of design thinking.

Inspiration is a zone of thought dedicated to understanding every facet of a problem, and often conceiving of it in a new way. Understanding the problem isn’t enough: The designer must assess who faces the problem, why it is present, what causes it, and if they have any preconceived notions that are getting in the way of effective solutions. Inspiration includes field research, data collection and visualization, interviews, experiments, visual research, and all forms of documentation and collation.

Ideation is what is sophomore and junior designers usually practice first when approaching classroom exercises. It represents the concatenation and processing of inspiration into synthesized plans, and is the phase where many ideas are culled into a good idea, or small set of ideas.

Implementation is the turning of that final, good idea into a fully actionable plan. Prototyping is the key to creating perfectly actionable plans, which means small scale tests of ideas, whether they be apps, posters, systems, or programs.

Although I’ve only touched upon this process in this class and in this post, using this in and outside of class will look like ‘becoming an expert’ in the fields that I want to solve problems in. The ‘inspiration’ part of design thinking is tantamount to laying a groundwork for effective solutions.

For example, in my capstone class, I will be focusing on figuring out how to get more children in low-income school districts involved in (and staying in) educational music programs. Inundating myself into how music education works will be essential, as will understanding the children and demographics that I want to reach. I fully expect my preconceived notions to be completely re-written as I begin exploring and taking in all that I can about the problem/goal that I have in mind. Thankfully, design thinking has given me a framework for this process.

Now to hop to it!