Design thinking and weight loss

Over the last three or so years I have approached the topic of design thinking from all angles: I have written a master’s paper on it; I’ve used it in my design practice; I’ve spoken to different groups about its application to everyday problems; I’ve explained design thinking to prospective clients; and I created this website to make design thinking a concept that is accessible to the curious reader.

What I should have done is ask a science writer from the New York Times to write about it. Tara Parker-Pope, one of two iconic writers whom I regularly follow (Carl Zimmer is the other one) can translate subjects as complex as quantum physics into simple concepts that have relevance in our everyday lives. She recently did the same with design thinking:

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What IS Design?


What is design and who is a designer? These questions are certainly not new. From the late 1800s and well into the first half of the twentieth century, someone who produced art for commercial purposes—ads, signs, posters, etc.—was known as a ‘commercial artist‘. This was distinct from a ‘fine artist‘ whose work evoked something more cerebral and unbound by market forces. The boundaries between between artisan and artist seemed clear.

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How ‘wicked problems’ changed design

The 1990s were a tipping point. In 1992, Richard Buchanan’s book “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” changed how the design profession regarded its tools and assets. Buchanan proposed that design move beyond its traditional role as a trade-oriented profession—where skills such as draftsmanship were key to a successful career—into the realm of ‘design thinking’ where problem-solving itself is the core component of practice (Buchanan, 1992).

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Design creates experiences

How is design changing the world? Designers are rejecting narrow job definitions and pushing into spheres of influence previously off-limits to visual thinkers. They are following the example of luminaries like Tim Brown and David Kelley who, frustrated by the ‘ever smaller canvas’ of aesthetics, image, and fashion, embraced a larger vision of design practice in the 1990s (Brown, TED Talk, 2009).

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The wrong problem

Chasing the wrong problem is a significant source of frustration among designers (Tim Brown, 2010), wasting not only time and money but arriving at a solution that, in the end, doesn’t address the real issue. Problem definition, along with observation, is perhaps the most important step in the design thinking process, and both clients and designers often misstep at this stage.

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Social impact design: a new career path?

Ever since Buchanan coined the term ‘wicked problems’ and redefined the role of the designer in solving these problems, new opportunities appeared for people who wanted to marry their design skills with a sense of social responsibility. However, there is a caveat: many designers experience a separation between working for a paycheck and working to make a difference in the world.  

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Doing good design . . . for free?

Do people value good design? One might look at the success of the iPhone and say, ‘absolutely!.’ In the product world, people will choose functionality and a strong aesthetic over the alternative, in part thanks to Steve Jobs’ uncompromising design sensibility.  However, the answer is not so clear when you look at the social sector.

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