A Short Introduction to Design Thinking

Though linked in innumerable ways, the worlds of art and design are separated by one key distinction: for the fine arts, form does not need to follow function. In the realm of design, whether it be industrial, packaging, digital, architecture, etc. this is not the case. Within all of these areas of design, every project will have a particular function; this may be a pen that writes smoothly, a medical instrument that cuts, inspects or tests, a chair that holds the human body in a comfortable position, a lamp that illuminates a room.

An artist is free to create whatever he or she wants. Often no one will ever physically touch a piece of art; the artist is not beholden to create something “useful” or explain anything at all. There is a fundamental difference between a house that has to provide shelter, and a painting that hangs on a wall. Right?

As an art lover myself, I have always seen the “point” of art, but can understand that someone needing to clean contaminated water or successfully grow crops, or stay warm, is a different sort of need than the need to examine social constructs, or feel empathy. But once the most basic level of survival is met – water, food, temperature – doesn’t the ability and opportunity to think critically and feel deeply, and act on those thoughts and feelings, become necessary to survive and progress as a species?

There is a school of thought revolving around this idea called “Design Thinking.” It’s fairly new – its origins reach back only a few decades – but it has made a huge impact on the world of design. Stanford’s d.school (among other design schools) swears by it, and its philosophy can be applied across myriad disciplines. There’s a lot to it, but it all revolves around empathy; how can we think of problems and create solutions that will actually impact humans on all levels? Not create something just beautiful, or just pragmatic, but something that is functional in every sense of the word. Those ideas are then insinuated into the realities of the state of business and technology to result in the best possible design.

This philosophy is what has bridged the chasm between design and art. Design thinking accepts that empathy leads to the best designs, because the best designs will impact someone’s emotions — just as art does.

If we can accept that the function of any sort of design is to solve a problem, can’t we accept that the function of art is to compel us towards those solutions by inspiring the empathy needed for successful design thinking? Put another way, art functions as the guide that exposes a problem and inspires the thought that moves us towards a solution; design functions as the solution. They are both imperative steps in the same process that moves us from the present to a better future.

The most successful and convincing example I have seen of this recently comes in the form of Ai Weiwei’s @Large installation on Alcatraz Island. It spans several prison buildings and uses six distinct media. This exhibition employed design thinking effectively in the design of the installation as a whole, and within the individual pieces. In these artworks, form clearly follows function, and their function is to inspire — you guessed it — empathy. The show itself, and especially the history that comes along with the site, the artist, and the pieces, is too grand to expound upon here. Stay tuned for a full review of Ai Weiwei’s show at Alcatraz.

At Red Clay we are interested by the power of collaboration, of getting the right team together to solve a problem. We are interested in exceptional product design. But we are also interested in how our contribution can add to humankind’s progress towards the future. If you stuck with me through this preliminary introduction to design thinking, I think you’ll join me in my hope that this Alcatraz show alone could inspire untold new instances of #gooddesign. The experience of the island and the art alone was important, but we are here to get to some solutions.