Updated: Apr 22, 2020
As a Designer, I am used to breaking methodologies. Even though I have studied under a very orthodox curricula (circa 1999) where what is nowadays called Design Thinking tended to be disguised as a more linear and formal process in order to be accepted as a reliable course of action. It had different names, but it was still Design Thinking. Even when our teachers gave us a strict path for solution finding within a project, we design students would fake it, pretend to follow every step, often passing through an inspiration phase, then falling in love with an idea, the hating that idea, then through a panic crisis, and luckily letting go of our ego and at the last moment arriving to something that is just right.
Once we polished our solution we would go backwards to fake the creative process in the project report and make it seem that our idea was the predictable result of a calculated agenda. Only to look at the whole farce afterwards in paper and realise that it made a lot of sense. That our backwards path seemed logical, with an extra spark that made it magical. And that the methodology of breaking the rules and faking the process, the struggle, the panic and the loss of ego, did in fact take us where we wanted to go: through an absolutely non-linear, obscure path that bordered consciousness. Our teachers knew this, I want to believe that they knew about the pretend game, but they still covered it up and pretend not to see it. I guess that as academics, accepting the farce was better than not having control.
It is scary... isn’t it? Not to be able to control, figure out, rationalise, communicate, own, learn or teach a formula for magic. Many authors have tried to describe it within different design fields, to formalise this process so that it can be taken seriously. From Tomás Maldonado to David Kelley. And while their efforts are genuine and their publications are enlightening for many of us, just by putting it in paper they have given linearity to an ever changing whirl of multiple dimensions, connections and ramifications, taming what makes us human - and therefore losing humanity?...
After becoming a Product Designer, and liking it, I started studying Design for Sustainability, where my interest became purpose. And after finding my purpose…. I made the terrible decision to get a PhD in Environmental Engineering. At first, of course, I thought this was a smart decision: I would have a degree that would allow me to be taken more seriously, and of course I would have more technical tools to make the world a better place. But it ended up being a terrible decision, because I found myself in a methodological prison: Whenever I could not explain and trace all my steps towards an innovative idea, this idea was completely discredited. Even the magical ones. I am not saying that it was not my tutor’s fault, it was the whole system behind engineering, PhDs, and the western scientific community. And mainly my fault, because I chose to be part of that system.
This methodological prison led me to write an acceptable thesis where I would assign numbers to human behaviours, combine these numbers through accepted mathematical models and arrive to incredibly limited, predictable conclusions. The result was a timid, pale and utterly inadequate vision of this world and its richness. This was also a farce, and I knew it all the way. It drained me of my integrity and passion. But it did not arrive to anything useful, unlike the designer farce. Sadly, I do not think that I have improved the worldly knowledge with my thesis, I have just made yet another failed attempt to harness humanity.
It took me 5 years of valuable public funding, to show people that I am an accredited professional. I did, however, improve my knowledge on technical solution finding. I think I can simplify systems and arrive to adequate technical solutions for parts of that system. And this why engineering makes the world a better place.
But my thesis could have been SO MUCH BETTER.
It could have been human, flawed, humble, adaptive, versatile, passionate.
Oh, it could have been magical...
This experience did teach me many valuable things though. I will never compromise my instinct again. I will accept me for what I am, for I am just right, since I can always evolve. If a project is the result of hard work, its result will be perfect always open to evolution and adaptation. I do not need to explain my creative process, and ideas are not always logical, and that is fine.
The need to stay human
Only now that big industry innovators have embraced Design Thinking, it is that we Designer Academics accept that magical (functional and beautiful and poetic) ideas rarely come from organised processes, but more from rare connections between our brain, heart, soul, mystique and passion. Magical ideas happen when unseen connections become visible, not only within a single person, but amongst a group of highly diverse people who dare to make visible some parts of them that are often hidden from the outside. By making visible, I refer to using the many languages that are valid in DT: such as written or spoken word, drawing, prototyping, storytelling, acting, dancing, and any other form of expression that could be documented either in paper, video, photography, etc.
When this creative process is genuinely experienced collaboratively, magic happens, reflected not only in results that are an adequate, simple, viable, feasible and desirable destination; but in the journey itself: an eye-opening and enlightening experience for the stakeholders involved.
This is when the most important lessons of design thinking (in my opinion) is learnt: Design Thinking is, above all, a human methodology. Be yourself! The more human you are, the more genuine you are, better the results. You frail, you strong, you playful, you vulnerable, with your lights and shadows, embrace your human nature. We do not know the definite answers to anything, everything is relative. Everything is in constant change. Mistakes are a valuable source of insight. It is ok to make mistakes, therefore, strictly speaking: mistakes are not mistakes in DT.
Of course, you must work hard in order to achieve magical results. Working hard not only consumes time and dedication, it means to be prepared to let go of your ego and the trustable pre-conceptions that you cherished so dearly. Unlearn. Question. Break. Go deep. Get real. Be human.