Why I don’t think about design thinking
Earlier this year, on the first day of my class at the Integrated Innovation Institute of the Carnegie Mellon University, a graduate student (who has several years of experience as a software product manager) asked me “What do you think about Design Thinking?” I do not remember the answer I gave her. I know what I think about Design Thinking: I don’t think about Design Thinking. My reason for not thinking about design thinking can be better explained by revisiting the evolution of my curiosities and sensitivities.
I will go back fifty years when I began search for a career option. I had narrowed down my options to becoming an air force pilot, an architect or a ceramic designer. I have a vivid memory of the day I received a beautifully designed brochure from the National Institute of Design (NID) in mail. The first impression of the book was not the message, the font or the layout. I was drawn to the tactile feel and the smell as I opened the envelop it arrived in. In contrast my lingering memory of applying to the National Defense Academy (NDA) is the experience of standing in a long line at the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) office in sweltering Delhi heat. The first impression of the application form was devoid of any emotion. I also recollect receiving application materials of a couple of architecture schools. They were beautifully designed but to date I do not have any sensory memory of the moment I reviewed those materials. In contrast, I remember that as I was going through the NID brochure I began to imagine a unique sensory learning experience of learning at NID. I opted to join the NID.
The first day at NID was a confirmation of the sensory learning I had subconsciously come prepared for. The NID building was designed by Gira Sarabhai who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin West Studio in Arizona from 1947 to 1951. Today as I reflect about my first day at NID, I am not surprised that the essence of Frank Lyon Wright’s approach to designing form space and nature interface was at the heart of NID architecture. The whole experience has remained etched in my memory as my initiation into designing by sensing.
Design education at NID was driven by the philosophy of “Learning by doing”. Our learning involved participant observation in real world experiences, cultures, traditions and indigenous craft making. Our sensory cultivation involved developing sensitivity to music, film making, playing with materials, story telling, and understanding how we experience life’s moments through five senses. NID had a large library of books from different domains of knowledge. The culture of learning involved studio assignments, working in workshops with hand tools and machines and a lot of passionate conversations about life and the society we want to create. NID invited well known designers and thought leaders from India and around the world to mingle with us. We graduated after six years of rigorous unlearning and re-learning with passion for designing life and the future.
Each of us pursued our area of specialization, product design, ceramic design, graphic design, textile design, environmental design, etc. At the same time we remained focused on the ideals and ideologies of the society we were inspired to create. Design to us has been a mission to transform the world through curiosity, compassion, and creativity.
Today, as I think about the question my student at the iii asked, “What do you think about Design Thinking” the question just does not resonate with my curiosity. The term “Design thinking” feels elitist. This is because I consider my design skills as basic human skills. I believe if everyone had the opportunity to cultivate these innate human skills and sensitivities, the world would be a better place. We would have greater appreciation for the wonders of the natural world and the instincts we have for caring and sharing. We would be solving more problems than creating them by being mindful of the consequence of our choices. As designers we would not claim to be superior to our clients or to everyday people. Rather we would practice what we have learned in design schools to nurture the same curiosities, sensitivities mindsets and practices in everyone around us.
Life has become more complex today and technology is ruling our lives. Those who are affected by both the conveniences and ill effects of technology do not comprehend how to best harness the benefits while saving themselves from the ill effects. The real challenge before designers is to help resolve the complexity of the world we live in and make living more understandable, manageable, meaningful and joyful.