Design Involves More Than Thinking

By Jason Linder

In 2008 CCA introduced an innovative new approach to the business degree—the MBA in Design Strategy. In 2009 CCA took this idea even further and began offering a dual-degree MFA/MBA. I am one of three students embarking on this hybrid journey. My curriculum integrates courses from the existing MFA in Design with the new MBA in Design Strategy Program to offer completion of both degrees in three years.

Having worked in interactive design for the last 10 years, both at small agencies and in-house at a large corporation, I have witnessed the mesh of creativity and business many times and am excited about what both disciplines can learn from each other. One term that has become a popular way of describing this crossover is “Design Thinking.”

The core idea—that the creative processes used by designers can be applied to the processes used by business—is compelling and full of promise. But the term “Design Thinking” sets a misguided expectation about how these creative processes work—that it’s simply a matter of switching to a different mental mode. On the contrary, one of the most important tools of the design process is to take the thinking out of the equation.

The creative process is messy. It is hands on, non-linear, unpredictable, and in many ways undefinable. It often varies considerably from designer to designer and project to project. It requires that you go into it not knowing what will come out of it, and provides no preplanned map for finding your way through. It doesn’t have a checklist, and is not on friendly terms with Gantt charts. But it’s from this unpredictability that worthwhile ideas will emerge, often without warning.

So how does this happen?

The thing to remember is that creative work is still work. It’s tempting to believe that creative professionals have a magic wand ready to wave whenever new ideas, visual concepts, or other materials are needed. However the only way to really create these intangibles is to work at it and the bulk of this work essentially consists of trying out many different small ideas until the ideas start to build into a greater whole. As I see it this is the creative process.

A good place to start this process is to begin with some simple experiments. For example, if the project is to develop a logo for a bicycle company, start exploring what can be done with the elements of a bicycle: gears, wheels, or anything else that catches your interest. Personally, I find it helpful to get the obvious solutions out of the way up front—otherwise it can nag at you and get in the way of deeper findings. The mind will scream, “Hey dummy, why are you still working when I’ve got the obvious answer right here.” Of course, sometimes the obvious answer does turn out to be the right one, but that doesn’t mean attempts to find other directions should be abandoned at the outset.

The main reason for starting with the simple experiments is that there is usually no other place to start. Here is where thinking will get you in trouble. The conventional mental model insists, “I know I can figure out a better place to begin designing. I know I can think up the solution before I get to work.” But that is a false hope. It is as pointless as making decisions before doing research. The important thing is to simply begin. Only by working will we find the seeds of interest that will inform us on how to continue.

Now that we have produced some results—no matter how weird or seemingly pointless—it is time to trust both our intuitive thinking and connection making skills. It is time to look at the outcome of whatever silly thing we started with and really examine the qualities that have emerged. Are there useful gems of interest? Could these be used to form a new investigations? How do we judge what is good and worth pursuing? Can something be a “failure” and still be interesting? It’s frustrating, but there is no clear way to answer these questions. This is why intuition plays such an important role in design—at a certain point you just have to trust your hunches.

This pattern—try something, see what happens, play with new possibilities, then try something else based on that—is what will generate more and better ideas, even though at times it may seem like a fool’s errand. The little experiments lead to insights and new experiments, which lead to further insights, greater understanding, larger connections, larger experiments, and so on. The point is to not know what will come out of it. The unknowable surprises are exactly what will eventually lead to the right path.

I want to underscore that logical, linear thinking does indeed have a place here—analytic working sessions are important to understanding an issue well enough to make interesting leaps. In this way, the process becomes an exercise in moving back and forth between the two modes, between understanding and experimenting.

Additionally, it’s important to note that what I’m describing here is only one component of the overall design and research process. During design investigation, the emphasis is on the individual designer; here we trust our intuition and self-listening skills as our primary guide. But in the overall process, interviews, group discussions, data collection, and other feedback are all indispensable guides along the way.

It’s unclear exactly how the messy, unpredictable aspects of the design process should be applied to business principles—especially when the bottom line is always looming. How can projects be managed in a way that will nurture unforeseeable creative leaps? How do we allow one idea to build on another and engage our sense of discovery and wonder, yet still keep on budget and in scope? Perhaps the answers aren’t something we can solve by thinking alone—perhaps it’s time to simply get to work.

Jason Linder is a multimedia designer pursuing a dual-degree MFA in Design/MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.