The Elements of Design Thinking (Version 2.0)

As a follow up to my original post on the Elements of Design Thinking (Version 1.0), I present to you the Elements of Design Thinking Table, Version 2.0.

This second version builds on the feedback from version 1.0, and has been organized differently into families and periods based on my ever-evolving understanding of the concept of Design Thinking. I have had the good fortune of interviewing incredibly intelligent and insightful designers and design thinkers through a research study I am co-leading called Design Thinking Foundations. My learning through this project has prompted me to reorganize the elements the way I have and has brought some more clarity to my own personal definition of design thinking. As my Adobe Illustrator skills have also evolved (for the better, I hope!), I give you a more polished graphic above.

As you can see, there are more elements then last time, but I suspect the list will keep growing and the elements will continue to be reorganized. Compared to the first version, this one has fewer gaps — maybe indicative of some cohesive thinking around my own definition of design thinking?

In any case, I’m still facing the challenge of determining if something is truly an ‘element’, that is, a basic building block of design thinking, rather than a higher level concept that would be constructed from a combination of these elements. Understanding how these elements relate to one another in order to formulate higher level “molecules” is a design challenge in itself. I think it’s worthwhile putting some more thought into this though as it might help visually and conceptually explain the varying approaches and unique interpretations of design thinking that people have. For instance, you’ll probably notice how I have included elements that reflect my public health background such as “Sj: Social Justice”. This is an element I would expect to be very prominent in building a design approach or stance in health promotion, but probably not for someone working in the area of business design, for instance.

In this 2.0 version, I have included definitions below for each of the elemental categories for some additional context:

Mindset: Elements that refer to ideas, constructs, and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation

Meaning: Elements indicating the significance of design

Humanize: Humanizing elements that bring design closer to human nature or human use

Interaction: Social elements denoting the ways things effect or relate to one another

Process: Elements emerging throughout the creative/design process

Understanding: Elements representing mental processes for comprehending information

Included here as well is a “2.0” version of the Design Thinking trading cards that pair with this version of the table. I’ve included a preview below, and the full pdf can be downloaded here: DT Trading Cards 2.0. Currently, they are only one sided but have been resized into full sized playing cards (2.5×3.5 inches).

The next steps for the Table and cards are to more fully put together the definitions of these concepts…and any suggestions in this area are more than welcome! Be prepared for further iterations and more text!

I’m also excited to discuss the periodic table of design thinking further with the Plexus Institute today! Feel free to join in on the conversation by phone at 1PM EST, it should be a lot of fun 🙂 Details are in the link.

The Design Enzyme

In biology, enzymes are defined as a class of proteins that catalyze or increase the rate of a chemical reaction. They do this by lowering the activation energy of the reaction — that is, the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.  Through this process (see image above), substrates (molecules that enter the chemical reaction) come together at the active site of an enzyme where the enzyme helps convert them into products. Importantly, the enzyme itself is not consumed by the reactions they catalyze nor disturb the chemical equilibrium of the reactions taking place. However, it is important to note that the performance of the enzyme can depend on various factors: inhibitors slow enzyme activity, activators enhance activity, cofactors activate enzymes, and particular cellular conditions (pH, temperature, etc.) may be required for the enzyme to function in the first place. Simplistically and in keeping with the example of the enzymatic reaction above, the formula for the chemical reaction could look something like this:

S1 + S2 + E ⇌ ES1S2–> E + P

Where S1 = Substrate 1; S2 = Substrate 2; E = Enzyme; and P = Product.

In thinking about design thinking and the metaphors of science as my colleague and mentor Cameron Norman has in his Censemaking Blog, I started thinking about how an enzyme makes for a wonderful way of describing a designer/design thinker (used interchangeably here). This is a rather loose metaphor, but bear with me.

In keeping with what I have described above, design thinkers can help facilitate or even accelerate a design process. “Substrates” such as things like people, policies, or physical environments or even concepts such as empowerment, participation, and respect, are convened or infused by a designer in order to create a design solution to a particular problem. However, the designer can be influenced and dependent on other factors such as stakeholders, co-designers, or policies that determine whether or not the design process can take place effectively, if at all. As a consideration, it may be that certain conditions or substrates may be essential to the reaction otherwise the process may flop or may not even be regarded having been guided by “design thinking”. In the end, a product or solution is developed. Unlike an actual enzyme however, I’d like to think that the designer is much more versatile and able to catalyze different types of reactions and able to produce unique design solutions using what substrates it has available. Being adaptable and flexible to the various contexts and substrates within a particular design process seems like a critical quality of a designer in catalyzing a meaningful reaction. In some ways, enzymes can somewhat exhibit these qualities:

since enzymes are rather flexible structures, the active site is continually reshaped by interactions with the substrate as the substrate interacts with the enzyme.[29] As a result, the substrate does not simply bind to a rigid active site; the amino acid side chains which make up the active site are molded into the precise positions that enable the enzyme to perform its catalytic function. In some cases, such as glycosidases, the substrate molecule also changes shape slightly as it enters the active site.[30] The active site continues to change until the substrate is completely bound, at which point the final shape and charge is determined.[31] Induced fit may enhance the fidelity of molecular recognition in the presence of competition and noise via the conformational proofreading mechanism .[32]

– Wikipedia

So maybe the enzymatic reaction for a design thinking process could be something like:

S1 + S2 + D ⇌ DS1S2 –> D + So

Where S1 = Substrate 1; S2 = Substrate 2; D = Designer; and So = Solution.

Anyways, just some biochem for you to consider.