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Cradle to Cradle – William McDonough and Michael Braungart May 7, 2012

Posted by sunderraj3 in Design Thinking, Uncategorized.
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“Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power – economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.” -William  Mc Donough,  TED 2005 conference

“We do not want sustainability, because that is not enough. We want real quality.” – Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough, an architect and Michael Braungart, a chemist is a seemingly utopian concept that challenges our current design principles and the ‘cradle to grave’ manufacturing models. The book is not just a commentary or an outcry on our present day design deficiencies and manufacturing externalities. It goes beyond that by laying out new remedial design principles, guidelines and even a case study to show that is more rooted in reality than it is in its utopian ideologies.

The physical book design in itself quite novel. Rather than using paper from wood pulp or cotton fiber, it uses synthetic paper made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers. Apart from being waterproof, durable and recyclable, it also serves as a “technical nutrient”: one which can be broken down and circulated indefinitely in industrial cycles. This is the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ concept in action, where design enables an alternate upcycle-able material thus relieving precious trees from performing a diminutive role as a raw material for paper.

The book starts off with a critique of the current design and manufacturing guidelines that have their underpinnings in the Industrial Revolution. According to the authors, the economic revolution driven by the desire for acquisition of capital lead to the ‘Cradle to Grave’ concept and more emphasis on efficiency. They conclude that except a few generally known positive side effects, most industrial methods and materials are unintentionally depletive.

In a world in which we accept waste as the norm and less waste as an improvement, manufacture products that have been designed for the worst case scenario, use chemical and energy brute force to produce them and measure quality of living by high economic standards, the ones that go unaccounted for are the ecological health and in many ways human health as well. The authors see this as a design problem where we have unquestioningly accepted  flawed design principles that were by-products of the Industrial Revolution and call for a ‘Industrial Re-revolution’: The ‘Cradle to Cradle’, C2C design methodology.

I could see three underlying principles that drive the C2C methodology:

  • Eco-Effectiveness vs Eco-Efficiency: While eco-efficiency aims at improving existing industrial systems so that they can produce less waste and pollutants, eco-effectiveness aims at a new industrial system that does not generate pollutants or deplete natural resources. A good example would be replacing coal plants with wind mills or solar panels. The idea that materials should be ‘upcycled’ not just recycled is also one of the tenets of eco-effectiveness.

  • Waste Equals Food: This is a principle borrowed from nature where everything has a purpose and is a nutrient for something else. Similar to the biological nutrients, the ‘technical nutrients’ enable to create closed loops in our man-made world. Thus once a product has been designed, it is ‘upcycled’  to the industry, a number of times throughout its life cycle and then safely returned to nature.

  • Respect Diversity: This is C2C’s response to the current ‘one size fit all’ design principle. This principle necessitates respect not only for biodiversity but also  for geography, culture and the uniquely human element. Or more simply, its design that is adapted to local conditions using its unique ecological and cultural diversities.

As a methodology, I think C2C has immense scope for sustainable design. First, it recommends a mindset shift for designers to shed their  loyalty to the ‘Industrial Revolution’ age design principles and adopt a new principled approach for a sustainable future. Some of the suggested approaches are quite feasible and could be implemented with much less investment. One approach is to assess all the materials that are used in a product and categorize them on the levels of harm they pose to humans and the environment. Remove all chemicals that we definitely know are harmful. Another useful approach is to design products that are easy to disassemble and its different parts clearly marked so that they can be recycled effectively. These are elements that I think stretch C2C from a mere framework for sustainable design to an actionable toolkit.

I can also see the merits of the ‘respect for diversity’ principle and the ‘one size fit all’ shackles that designers bind themselves with. In my opinion, this is a more near term design challenge given that the consumption gravity is shifting away from the West towards China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies. With much less notion of environmental awareness, safety and health, these young economies would soon find themselves caught up in a ‘Re-Industrial Revolution’ than a ‘Industrial Re-revolution’, that C2C advocates for. Designers could play a vital role if they could respect the diversity for the cultures and geographies that they design for and come up with more ‘eco-effective’ solutions.

However, I have two main concerns about this framework. First, the ‘Waste equals Food’ principle is one of the vital cogs of the C2C framework and I doubt if this is fungible. Even though exemplified by some examples, the book does not go beyond that to discuss ways to identify those systems. It’s unfair to expect the authors to come up with such a universal design rule too. May be only few materials qualify and a strict adherence to this principle might leave designers with very few options or might prove to be both expensive and time-consuming. With out this principle being validated for various situations, I doubt if it would differ much from other sustainable design principles such as ‘The Designer’s Field Guide to Sustainability’.

Second, the authors make it seem that the mass adoption of sustainable design would fruition if only designers could change their mindset about design. I think corporations and consumers and their respective mindsets towards sustainability also play an equal role if not greater in this regard. The authors did a great job in describing the drive for economic prosperity as the propeller for ‘Industrial revolution’ and the flawed design principles that it gave rise to. But did not address the fact the propeller has not changed even today and corporations do get rewarded more for short-term earnings than for long-term sustainability.  The main reason that corporations cite is the cost associated with revamping the entire organization, including the value chain and C2C’s cost expectation is no exception to this. Even when designers change their mindset to come up with eco-efficient C2C designs and when corporations are willing to introduce such a product to the market, consumers’ unwillingness to either change their behavior or value ecological benefits than economic, could be the killer. The less than  jubilant adoption of electric cars and solar energy without government incentives, despite their superior eco-effectiveness compared to their incumbents,  are good examples of these design issues.

In conclusion, I think C2C is a great framework for designers providing them a new way of thinking about sustainability. However, the C2C methodology is not an elixir for all the woes of an unsustainable future but rather a good nudge for designers and in some ways corporations, to start thinking about ecology in addition to economy and equity.


Lee, Deishin, Bony, Lionel, ‘Cradle to Cradle Design at Herman Miller: Moving Toward Environmental Sustainability’, Harvard Business School Case, May 2007

Stouthuysen, Peter, ‘C2C Theoretical Framework’, C2C Network (http://www.c2cn.eu/sites/default/files/C2C_theor_framework.pdf)

Additional Resources

William McDonough at TED 2005


Serious Play – How the Best Companies Simulate to Innovate April 1, 2012

Posted by matthewsander in Creative leadership, Creativity, Design Thinking, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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Models are efficient tools of collaboration. So says Michael Schrage. His book, “Serious Play,” is about building many models, prototypes, simulations – and using these tools for all the learning, sharing, and forecasting they can provide.


“Serious Play” tackles the goals and pitfalls of modeling. It focuses on the diverse roles of modeling, and on the interplay between simulation, communication, and innovation. The book encourages rapid prototypes and simulations as tools to facilitate collaboration between groups. This is where “play” fits in. Collaboration, ideation, enhancement, and the simple fun of trying new things each have a role in the process “Serious Play” advocates.

Through anecdotes and case studies, Schrage explains modeling, simulating, and prototyping, and emphasizes how the three tools of “Serious Play” can promote collaboration between engineering, manufacturing, design and management. Numerous styles are mentioned, including: spreadsheets, 2D and 3D electronic drawings, sculpted models, printed prototypes, and manufactured prototypes. Costs and benefits are associated with each.

According to Schrage, creating value is the essence of the prototype. With each cycle of prototyping comes the opportunity to improve the quality of the product. More than just quality, however, rapid prototyping can allow a variety of different focuses. Improvements, cost reductions, and product enhancements can all be explored through iterations of the prototyping process.

Image of the rapid prototyping process encouraged by Schrage

"Think of the extra cycles as currency: each additional cycle can ‘purchase’ a product improvement, cost reduction, or a speedup.” (Schrage, P. 98)

While collaboration and value creation are each big picture goals of prototyping, many pitfalls also exist. These pitfalls can hinder the value of a prototype. “Serious Play” suggests avoiding models that have no inherent purpose, that fail to benefit a particular party, that are too elaborate to effectively use, and that fail to facilitate a discussion between different product teams. The book also argues that the value of each model should be considered and evaluated by realistic business metrics.


Schrage’s style is almost exclusively anecdotal. "Serious Play" is full of insightStories of product designers, modelers, and innovators blend together as the book progresses, and behind each story lies a hidden gem of insight. Each insight is as valuable as the last; creatively achieved, and relevant to the real world. Schrage argues effectively for the value prototypes bring to communication and collaboration, and for the value that cheap modeling has brought to the economics of business.

It isn't clear how every insight fits into the thesis of each chapterThe book’s value is in its insights. But while very insightful, it struggles with organization. At times the book loses itself in its anecdotes, and fails to thematically tie its insights together into coherent themes. Selected blurbs are blocked out of the page, and are as likely to agree with a poignant point as they are to summarize an anecdote, repeat a commentary, or make their own point. The problem with this is that, although the points are insightful in themselves, it becomes difficult for the reader to quickly grasp where each point fits into the bigger picture.

The book is a model built for communicating opportunities in modelingThe book seems determined to offer ideas for a multitude of scenarios, model types, and businesses, and in so doing loses some focus. However, the variety of business practices, prototyping styles, and methodologies help provide a examples, or if you will, a “model” for a large section of reader needs. The variety allows the savvy reader to re-read particular sections that may apply specifically to their business strategy, and to pick up general practice techniques as they go along. This should be beneficial to the sect of readers who are currently exploring prototyping within their business model, and for those of us interested in ideology that guides when, where and how we should prototype.

Fortunately for those of us “time-pressed” innovators, Schrage recognizes that “Serious Play” is not easy for everyone to quickly read and apply. He recommends that some of us instead read “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Innovators,” or “The One Minute Modeler.” For the generalist, looking for tools to apply, I agree. However, to give us some quick tips, Schrage concludes his book with a “User Guide,” where he outlines specific steps that even the time-pressed can take to seriously play.

The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman March 11, 2012

Posted by dairui72 in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.


The Design of Everyday things is an absolute classic in the arena of design and psychology. It was written by Don Norman and first published in 1988. The book has a good balance between theories and examples, most of which are industrial designs and products. Because of the broad range of design topics covered in the book, there is no single author’s point of view except that the design should be user centered – Norman argues issues and principles of product design from the user’s perspective and uses psychological models to explain usability and good designs.

The most important concepts (in my opinion) of design psychology include affordances, models, and mapping.

Affordance is the “perceived and actual properties of the thing”. For example, we know to turn the knob on a door (instead of pushing it or applying other actions) because the knob “affords” turning. The lesson for designers, therefore, is that the shape and build of a product can convey meaning and usage to its user.

Next, Norman argues that the design of a product is the conceptual model of the designer. The design (or presentation) essentially conveys that model to the user, who may or may not develop the same user’s model, which is a result of experiences and perceptions. When the two models mismatch, the product is perceived with poor usability. Then how to develop a better conceptual model? One solution is through natural mapping, a “close, natural relationship between the control and its function”.

Among other issues Norman also dedicates a whole chapter talking about errors. Norman categorizes errors into slips and mistakes: the former being errors from subconscious actions and the latter being errors from conscious deliberations. “To err is human” and as designers we should be proactively thinking about how to design better products to prevent and be able to correct human errors.

Critical analysis
The theories that Norman introduces in the book are valid and fundamental to better understand design from a user-oriented perspective. However, I argue that they are necessary but hardly sufficient to understand the full picture.

Affordance as a concept is centered on the product, emphasizing the physical design of the product conveys certain properties. It is a powerful tool and I use it to look at a familiar product that we take for granted and think of the design that goes into it. For example, we twist and turn the cap of a bottle because the round shape affords turning. We flip open the cap of a shampoo because that particular cap affords to do so.

However, assessing a product by its affordances does not take into account the context in which the product is used. A product can be used in very different ways in reality and can even be repurposed to achieve a drastically different goal. For example, when a water bottle is considered poorly designed by itself, should it still be considered poorly designed when it is not used as a water container but a vase?

With regard to the different conceptual models, a takeaway that I recognize is that as designers of a complex product or system we know it inside out; we know a great many details of how the system solves a problem and we can be inclined to present the product the same way to the end user, who, on the other hand, often only cares about the end result. Therefore, the way to present a system should not necessarily be the same way we design it or the way we solve the problem; rather, the presentation should always be user centered; keep it simple and intuitive.

For a current day example, think about the BART ticketing kiosk. To get a one-way ticket from SFO to Powell, a visitor/user needs to look up the exact dollar amount of the trip separately and enter that amount into the kiosk. But the dollar amount is just part of the solution to the user’s problem: I want to get from point A from point B! The design of the kiosk clearly does not match the user’s model. On the other hand, the best metro kiosk interface I have seen is one where I as a user can simply select my destination on the screen from a map and continue to payment. The control is the map of the metro system, which naturally maps to the function of the kiosk and also my need of getting from where I am to some other point on the map.

On the other hand, I do not think Norman has given enough elaboration on the role of a user’s cultural experiences when forming a conceptual model. There were some generalized discussions in terms of cultural constraints and social behaviors, but I think these factors largely determine how the product is being adopted and used in reality. How they actually help form the user’s model can be explored further.
Not saying that Norman should have included all these issues for the book to be valid, I think it is necessary for readers of the book to recognize them and be able to think about design in an even bigger context.

What is the value of this book?

The book offers valuable frameworks, guidelines, and concepts to product design. Like the book title suggests, these concepts are easily applicable to everyday things. A reader will be able to look beyond just the presentation and aesthetics of a product and practice critical design thinking.

The book joins tangible designs with abstract theories of psychology and it presents both aspects cohesively in a way that is also easy to understand. The theories provide insights into issues such as: How does the designer of a product communicate to the end users? How to make products intuitive to use? How to avoid and recover from errors?

What is the relevance of the book?

The book is highly relevant to our daily life, whether we are trained designers or not. Examples of everyday things such as doors and stoves are easily relatable and they make the book very easy to read. Users of a product no longer have to always blame themselves for not being able to use the product or when they make mistakes – maybe it is the designer’s fault! After reading this book I have become an avid critique of everyday things and I am able to appreciate good designs much more. For example, I went to my kitchen to inspect the conceptual model and mapping of my stoves, which turned out to have the “full natural mapping” as per Figure 3.5 – no wonder they were easy to use. The theories really come alive and I actually enjoy practicing them. In conclusion, the book is highly recommended.

The book has a few limitations, however. It is unfortunate that it was published over 20 years ago and a lot of the examples, although useful, are a bit outdated. When I was reading I could not help but wonder whether some of the problems are still common challenges for today’s designers and/or users, and whether developments that took place in the past 20 years brought up new challenges. In addition, the book centers on industrial design, but in today’s world which heavily runs on computer systems, it is necessary to understand how well the book’s concepts apply to software systems. Last, the book does not offer a methodology of how to come up with a good design. The concepts are good foundations and frameworks to evaluate existing work, but they do not necessarily “teach” someone how to know what the customers want, how to design iteratively, etc. It is difficult to turn some of the theories into actions.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson March 11, 2012

Posted by doviknissim in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Leadership & Change, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”
(Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, 1997)

I’ll begin with a confession – Steve Jobs was my hero! I found his unique personality fascinating. On one hand, he was the genius with the Midas touch, the man who discovered the secret sauce for designing great products and the subject of legends while still alive. On the other, Steve Jobs was notoriously known for his bad temper and controversial character He was a very difficult man to work with. These contrasts generated a colorful personality that is normally attributed to great leaders and crazy inventors. When I learned that Mr. Isaacson wrote this book at the request of Steve Jobs and with his cooperation, I was eager to learn more about who Steve Jobs really was and what was his secret sauce.


“Steve Jobs” – the book tells the life-story of Steve Jobs and the stories of the companies and products he created. It is beautifully written. Isaacson uses simple language and simple story telling techniques to tell the tale of a complex man. He uses a chronological order, combining commentary from Jobs, his friends, his family, his co-workers, and his enemies, who offer contextual information that ties these beautiful stories to the man and his reputation. The author strips Jobs from his celebrity status and knowingly pays attention to the man behind the curtain, emphasizing that Jobs is not the “Wizard of Oz”

Critical Analysis:

The book gains credibility as it portrays and contrasts both sides of Jobs’s personality: The brilliant creator whose outstanding products changed our lives versus the obnoxious, untrustworthy, manipulator who stole ideas from others. In that sense the book does justice with some of the talented people that worked with Jobs and were hardly recognized. A great example for that is Jony Ive, Apple’s VP of industrial design and the man who should be credited as the designer of the iPhone.

But the book is not perfect. I was particularly disappointed with the author’s failure to pursue and document Jobs’s “secret sauce” for designing great products. While many believe that Jobs only used his intuition, there are indications that he had a set of clear, well-defined design rules (a.k.a. “the secret sauce”). An example for that is the story of both Jony Ive and Steve Jobs separately picking up a beautifully crafted knife in admiration, and then dropping it with disappointment, pointing out the same reason that made the knife’s design flawed. These rules should have been tracked and shared as Jobs’s legacy, as his gift to mankind. The author failed to realize that.

Another disappointing fact is the author’s failure to bring John Scully’s point of view. John Scully was Apple’s Former CEO and the man who mentored Jobs for a while, later on he publicly clashed with Jobs, and finally ousted him from Apple. John Scully played a pivotal role in Jobs’s life and Jobs even mentioned him at his Stanford commencement speech. The choice not to bring his perspective was a poor one.

The Story:

The book begins with a wonderful historical overview of how a beautiful valley filled with apricot and plum orchards boomed to become the Silicon Valley. The author walks us through how it all started when Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett launched their company at a Palo Alto Shed and how Stanford created an industrial park for companies to commercialize students’ ideas, opening the door for a booming economy based on technology – A great read for all residents of the bay area.

The author uses stories to rationalize Jobs’s complex personality. A good example is Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field” (e.g. his ability ignore certain realities when he didn’t like them or when he thought they were insignificant, like his cancer). The author uses the story of how Jobs’s foster parents treated him as the “chosen one” to rationalize Jobs’s belief that certain realities did not apply to him as he was “enlightened”

Similarly, the author tries to track the origins of Jobs’s design perceptions. He describes how Jobs’s father, while building a fence around their house, taught him how important it was to perfectly craft even the parts you could not see. The author also mentioned Jobs’s admiration to the clean design of his childhood home (built by Joseph Eichler) that instilled on him a passion for making great designs at an affordable price for the mass market. Furthermore the author ties Jobs love for simplicity, utility, and beauty to his trip to India to search for enlightenment and his interest in Zen Buddhism.

The author uses the early years of Apple to emphasize Jobs’s unique understanding of user needs and market trends, his strategic thinking, and his business sense – Apple wouldn’t have existed without these “superpowers”. Conversely, the author uses Jobs’s ousting from Apple as a platform to emphasize some of his weaknesses, such as: his a-political nature, his mood swings, his difficulty in building relationships, and his obnoxious behavior towards his colleagues.

But by far, the best part of the book tells the story of Jobs’s “restoration”, his second run to greatness. The author emphasizes Jobs vision, design principles, and business acumen as the main reasons behind the tremendous success both Apple and Pixar had. The author also uses detailed descriptions of the different product launches (iPhone, iPad, and iTunes) to emphasizing Jobs’s intuition and his attention to details.

Steve Jobs was a man on a mission and the author emphasizes that through his descriptions of his sickness. Cancer did not define him; in fact Cancer was pushed to the background. It focused him on what’s important (in his mind), it motivated him to pursue his destiny and create some of Apple’s boldest products.


Oh and one more thing, the last words of book are Steve Jobs’s own words about what his legacy would be. After reading these words, I couldn’t stop but thinking how different and how much better our world would have been if only Steve Jobs was given one more year to live.

The relevance of the book:

The book shares some of Jobs’s thoughts about design as a competitive strategy. These are, in my opinion, the “tip of the iceberg”, indicating why there was only one Steve Jobs. Here are some of those thoughts:

Jobs about design principles:

  • Less But Better: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Jobs made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
  • Simplicity comes from conquering complexities, not ignoring them: Simplicity is not just minimalism; you have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential
  • Design is not just about how the product looks like: it reflects the way the product was engineered, manufactured, packaged. A manufacturing mistake will ruin the greatest design.

 Jobs about designing great products:

  • It is not about the money, it’s about making great products!
  • Figure out what people are going to want before they do: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Never rely on market research. 
  • Focus: deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. Free your resources to focus on what you do best. 
  • Design a great user experience end-to-end: tailor the purchasing experience, the ritual of un-wrapping the product – such experiences should be theatrical, and tell a memorable story.
  • Design drives engineering, not the other way around: Innovate via the design. Engineering will fit the boards and wires into the new design.
  • Do not allow hacks or customizations to your product: that way you control the user experience and make sure it executes your vision. 
  • Constantly refine your art: If you are not busy being born, you are busy dying. 

Jobs about the design process:

  • Ban PowerPoint Presentations: “People who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint” 
  • Build models you can touch: instead of endless design documents and convoluted diagrams. Iterate often. 
  • Use intuition, instincts and fluid conversation as a review mechanism:  instead of formal design reviews that often lead to major disagreements.
  • If it’s not right, do not be afraid of making last minute changes: even if such changes will cause significant delays. It has to be right. 
  • Design all products in one place: gives you a sense of how all the newly designed products relate and connect with each other.


Good quote about design and the relationship between art and engineering April 28, 2011

Posted by Jon Pittman in Design Thinking.
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“Design is first and foremost an intellectual process. Contrary to popular belief, designers are not artists. They employ artistic methods to visualize thinking and process, but, unlike artists, they work to solve a client’s problem, not present their own view of the world. If a design project, however, is to be considered successful (and that would be the true measure of quality) it will not only solve the problem at hand, but also add an aesthetic dimension beyond the pragmatic issues. I consider design not to be a series of “creative” one-offs, but an integrated process, from planning the appropriate communications strategy to designing functional and beautiful objects as well as ( for example ) implementing electronic stationery on clients’ systems. What clients say and what designers hear are too often very different things. Design is a powerful tool to help clarify the problem. It is only when a common understanding has been established between client and designer that effective results can be achieved. Design quality needs an integrated approach: look more closely than expected, ask many questions, think laterally, get involved in things you shouldn’t, do more than you are supposed to and have fun doing it. Problem solving is one thing, aesthetic pleasure another. Combine the two, make the engineer sketch like an artist and make the artist analyze like an engineer, and you are half-way there.

– German designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann.

The Design of Business by Roger Martin April 25, 2011

Posted by S.T. in Design Thinking.
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Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman school of business. In his book, The Design of Business, he nicely unfolds the importance of reconciling analytical thinking and design thinking in order to gain competitive advantage. Starting from post world war II period, Roger Martins tells us the story of sustainable businesses and how some business owners have created breakthroughs in the market over time. The book contains several case studies such as McDonalds, Target, RIM, etc. and how the CEOs/managers could come up with promising methods for delivering innovative and efficient businesses.

In short, the main question that the book arises is: “how to design a successful business?”. Author offers the notion of “knowledge funnel”.

The knowledge funnel is the progress of mystery to heuristic to algorithm. Author argues that successful organizations are ones that are able to extract business algorithms from obscure issues. It seems simple but it is a challenging journey that starts with a question and might end to a strategy.

In summary, knowledge funnel process is:

1 – Exploration of mystery that involves pondering over a concept or an issue

2 – Heuristic which is understanding the mystery and narrowing it down to a manageable size

3 – Running, controlling, and studying the heuristic until finding the formula.

It is about looking at a problem form the client perspective, arising a question, trying innovative and original ideas until finding the right rules or set of processes.

He also compares two school of thoughts: “analytical thinking” and “design thinking”. As he describes in his book, the model for value creation requires a balance and reconciliation between these two approaches.

Analytical thinking is the old school that is based on rigorous and quantitative analysis. The goal of this strategy, as he explains, is mastery through diligent analytical process.

Design thinking or intuitive thinking, that opposes the old-fashioned one, involves creativity and original innovation. It is when the person knows without reasoning.

I want to take a break from the book and gently remind you of what Don Norman stated in his article – Design Thinking: A useful Myth.

“What is design thinking? It means stepping back from the immediate issue and taking a broader look. It requires systems thinking: realizing that any problem is part of larger whole, and that the solution is likely to require understanding the entire system”, he says. I believe that the core of Norman’s view is Rogers’ knowledge funnel and the balance between analytical and intuitive thinking.

Although he emphasizes the importance of the knowledge funnel for design thinking, not every mystery can become an algorithm. It is more true when it comes to methods that  requires high level of tacit knowledge which is hard to codify. Another challenge is balancing between analytical and intuitive thinking within organizations. Most often, companies choose – not intentionally necessarily – either exploration or exploitation and neglect the other one. Third challenge emerges when the competitors follow your algorithm. To stay competitive, you need to start over; in other words, the process of knowledge funnel is cycling and not linear.

The development of design thinking asks for continuous practicing and staying in balance. Companies need to know how to delve into the knowledge funnel, pay the price for understanding an unknown situation, devise question(s), explore valid solution(s), and be able to exploit those solutions efficiently.

Here is a short visual summary of the book. Enjoy it!

A couple of links on design education April 11, 2011

Posted by Jon Pittman in Design Thinking.
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Here are a couple of posts about design education


— Jon

The Story of Stuff April 11, 2011

Posted by dellahuff in Design Thinking, Systems Thinking.

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

Review by Della Huff

In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard walks us through the materials economy step by gory step: the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of consumer goods, or as Leonard calls it, “Stuff”. In each chapter, Leonard delves into the processes and materials involved in creating our Stuff, illustrates the environmental and social costs created (through a lot of scary data points), and, thankfully, also offers reasons to hope and describes areas which are improving – or at least aren’t worsening – and provides some viable alternatives for our current systems. One thing is for sure: after reading The Story of Stuff, it’s impossible to look at your ‘Stuff’ the same way again.

The book is meant to be a wake-up call, because as Leonard says in the book and in her documentary of the same name, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”. If we want Earth to remain habitable, we cannot keep extracting its key resources at an accelerating rate and transforming them into disposable Stuff. She shares scary statistics like these:

  • We lose 50,000 acres of trees a day globally to deforestation for the making of our paper, furniture, houses etc.
  • In the U.S., each person uses 200 gallons of water on their lawns per day during the growing season.
  • It takes 256 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt.
  • The average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous waste.

The book is a intentionally controversial, polarizing, and a shocking. It’s been called “an anti-consumerism diatribe” and even “community college Marxism in a ponytail.” This is because she asks a question that is very unpopular if you are involved with the making, selling, and consumption of Stuff: “Are we consuming too much?” Leonard posits that the world’s economy, ever focused on growth, now depends on consumption at an ever accelerating rate. Because of this, Stuff is made to break, to be thrown away, to pile up in landfills so that companies can sell more Stuff.

To some, this sounds like a conspiracy theory. To others, it sounds like a truth that’s just hard to hear. Many detractors have tried to discredit Leonard’s facts and figures in the Story of Stuff (you’ll find as many detractors as supporters if you google “The Story of Stuff”), but it is very difficult to discredit her basic premise that we are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

My biggest takeaway from book was Leonard’s overall approach to the issue of sustainability. Leonard is a systems theorist. While many activists focus on a small part of the consumer goods lifecycle (e.g. fighting strip mining, hazardous waste disposal, or wasteful transportation of goods), Leonard believes that one much understand the entire lifecycle of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal in order to contextualize each step within the process, and to understand the incentives up and down the value chain that influence each step. Solutions must address each step of this value chain in order to succeed. This spoke to me as a business school student, and I found this to be especially relevant to our study of design: no object, system, or business model can stand alone; each is part of a greater system which must be carefully considered in order to maximize the design’s usability, efficiency, and sustainability. Therefore, the design thinker ignores systems thinking at his/her peril. To ignore the broader ecosystem leads quickly to the design graveyard.

It can be easy to quickly become depressed while reading The Story of Stuff. The data she shares on declining animal species, toxic chemicals in our food, air, and water, formaldehyde in our clothing, and toxins in cosmetics is terrifying. Luckily, it is not all depressing news. At the end of the book, Leonard presents a vision for a better world. So, while The Story of Stuff outlines everything we’re doing wrong, Leonard does her best to show that it is a fixable problem, and that there are alternatives to the consumption cycle that we have developed. She tries to show that we  all have choices in how and what we consume, and that these choices don’t require completely relinquishing our Stuff, but rather adjusting our thinking around it.

As Leonard says, “It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it, and we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

If you’re interested in watching the 20 minute documentary, which has reached over 10,000,000 viewers in over 200 countries, you can watch it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/storyofstuffproject#p/u/22/9GorqroigqM

You can also check out the eponymous blog at:


Design Thinking Is a Failed Experiment April 6, 2011

Posted by Jon Pittman in Design Thinking.
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Check out Bruce Nussbaum’s views on Design Thinking. He was one of the original proponents of the term, and now is reconsidering its usefulness.


The Design of Everyday Things March 7, 2011

Posted by Sophie Wong in Design Thinking, Design-related Books.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Review by Sophie Wong, PhD student in Bioengineering

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman describes the psychology of users when they encounter products. Dr. Norman emphasizes that design is based on the “needs and interests” of the user, a philosophy called the user-centered design. Products should be usable and understandable without requiring the user to consult the user manual. If a mistake is made, it is never the user’s fault, it is due to poor design. Every day, we are bombarded with choices such as pulling, pushing, sliding, flipping, pressing, etc. How do we determine what to do? Design cues are supposed to point us in the right direction. Through examples of everyday objects such as doors, sinks, faucets, and telephones, Dr. Norman outlines the guiding principles to good design.

The seven principles for transforming difficult tasks into simple ones are listed below.

1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.

2. Simplify the structure of tasks.

3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.

4. Get the mappings right.

5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.

6. Design for error.

7. When all else fails, standardize.

Knowledge in the world relieves the user from memorizing every detail about how to use a certain product. However, knowledge in the head allows for more efficiency when performing tasks.  Thus, Dr. Norman argues that a product with external physical cues and easily interpreted internal relationships that allow the user to understand intended actions provides the user with the most comfortable experience.

The overall take home message is that successful products will provide the user with visibility and feedback. The user must be able to figure out what to do with the object and be able to understand that an action has been completed. I particularly agreed with and enjoyed the chapter on developing conceptual models and mapping features to functions. When there are fewer features than functions, the user becomes confused because the “hidden” functions are not immediately obvious. However, too many features can also be confusing and create a learning barrier for the user. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the modern day TV remotes, especially the Sony Google TV remote vs. the Apple TV remote.

Sony Google TV remote and Apple TV remote

The Sony Google TV remote has many buttons that are the same shape and size – it would be difficult to use in the dark while watching TV.  This design must imply that the remote is capable of many functions, but what a nightmare to learn! On the other hand, the Apple TV remote only has three buttons. How would the user input channels? Both of these products are at the extremes of design: one has too many features, the other doesn’t have enough features.

I also strongly agreed with the analysis of conceptual models: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the designer’s concept of the product; it is what the product is meant to do. The user’s model is how the user explains and interprets the way the product functions. The goal is for the designer’s and user’s models to be the same. However, as we all know, this isn’t always the case. The system image is how the designer communicates with the user. The challenge is for the designer to ensure that the system image (the product) has the proper appearance, function, and feedback that is necessary for the user to understand how to operate the system.

Simple mappings in the system image can go a long way. Natural mappings that take advantage of the user’s knowledge in the head help increase aesthetics and reduce confusion. Dr. Norman emphasizes that good design does not require extraneous labels or signs to describe the intended action. A door handle should be designed in such a way that would be obvious whether it was meant to be pushed or pulled or slid or flipped. Light switches and stove controls should not have to be labeled. The steering wheel is used as an example of natural mapping. Users instinctively know that spinning the wheel clockwise will cause the vehicle to turn left and vice versa. This action makes sense because the clockwise turn points to the left side, which is the same direction the vehicle will turn. This natural mapping doesn’t require posted signs next to the steering wheel that says, “spin wheel clockwise for left turn”.   The balance between aesthetics and practicality is essential to a successful product.

The chapter on constraints was also provoking. It helped me re-examine the purpose and nature of everyday objects. Physical, semantic, cultural, and logical constraints work together seamlessly to help users determine how to approach an object without having to consult a manual. The example of a well designed car key that works in both directions never occurred to me until I read the book! I had taken for granted the ease of always being able to open the car doors immediately. I realize now that 60% of the time when I open regular doors, such as my apartment door, I use the key in the wrong direction and have to flip it over.

At the end of the book, Dr. Norman stresses the importance of planning for errors and keeping systems consistent.

Given that this book was written in 1988 (originally named The Psychology of Everyday Things), Dr. Norman’s vision of technological advances is impressive. Many of his descriptions of how things could improve have actually been developed in the modern world! For example, on pg. 74 Dr. Norman asks the question,

“Would you like a pocket-sized device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive…it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Apple iPhone 4 (source)

What do we have today that perfectly fits this description? Welcome, the iPhone and Android phones. The first smart phone, the IBM Simon, was released in 1993 (five years after the book was published) and the most recent iPhone 4 was released in 2010 (22 years after the book was published). These products demonstrate how attentive observation of everyday objects and user experience can help us design better products. I wonder what Dr. Norman thinks of today’s technologies and what improvements he suggests we need to make for the next ten years?

I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to realize the difference between “good” and “bad” design. The book is entertaining because anyone can relate to the frustrations of the everyday objects that Dr. Norman uses as examples. The writing style is easy to follow and the arguments are sound. Although the examples are quite outdated, the underlying principles remain applicable in a timeless fashion.

The only criticism I have is more of a curious question for the readers: If visibility and feedback are so important why do designers who make “high-end” products that are also very expensive tend to disguise the product’s function? Does the monetary value of these seemingly aesthetically pleasing products reveal how society values non-user centered design? For example, how do the doors open in this image (bathroom stall doors)?

Bathroom design by architect Thomas Heatherwick. Pacific Place Mall in Hong Kong.

Image sources: