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Design Thinking as a Complex Adaptive Framework

Posted By Lisa Kimball, Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Updated: Thursday, July 28, 2011
In his piece, The Catch Behind Design Thinking, Thierry de Baillon proposes "As businesses are more and more challenged by the wicked nature of the problems they face, whether in strategic or operational context, we need to integrate more divergent and resilient reasoning in our decision-making practices. Cleared from all the fuss which so often surrounds it, design thinking could provide the ongoing transformation of businesses toward "social" with an actionable framework to leverage the true potential of collaboration."

In the same post, de Baillon describes design thinking as a complex adaptive framework aimed at addressing other complex dimensions of business.

Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, asserted, "Design is an agent of change that enables us to understand complex changes and problems, and to turn them into something useful. Tackling today's global challenges will require radical thinking, creative solutions and collaborative action." He defined some key principles of design thinking:

Transparent: Complex problems require simple, clear and honest solutions.

Inspiring: Successful solutions will move people by satisfying their needs giving meaning to their lives, and raising their hopes and expectations.

Transformational: Exceptional problems demand exceptional solutions that may be radical and even disruptive.

Participatory: Effective solutions will be collaborative, inclusive and developed with the people who will use them.

Contextual: No solution should be developed or delivered in isolation but should instead recognize the social, physical and information systems it is part of.

Sustainable: Every solution needs to be robust, responsible and designed with regard to its long-term impact on the environment and society.

Debra Johnson, a Plexus Institute advisor, is also Pratt Institute's Academic Director of Sustainability and has been using her perspective as a designer to tackle complex problems. She directs the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation which works to help launch and grow social/environmental enterprise using a design approach.

Design Inc

For example, Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX) director Miquela Craytor, asked the Pratt Design Incubator if they would partner with community members to create a series of street furniture for the South Bronx Lafayette Avenue Greenway project. "I jumped at the opportunity to work with SSBx," said Johnson. "It ambitious to come in a work with the community on a design. Let alone having a goal that the community of Hunts Point be able to fabricate the furniture themselves." Johnson assembled a group of six Industrial Design alumni from Pratt and added an architecture an environmental designer and an urban planner who joined together for an intensive six week design process.

Project: Interaction is a 10-week after school program that teaches New York City high schoolers to use design to change their communities. Students learn valuable skills in storytelling, communication, creative thinking and problem solving while being exposed to interaction design as a potential career opportunity. The program is based on the notion that great designers are creative, observant, empathetic, and curious and that students can discover their own capacity.


Design with intent has created a tool for people who would like to use design thinking. Design with Intent: 101 Patterns for Influencing Behaviour Through Design, it's in the form of 101 simple cards, each illustrating a particular 'gambit' for influencing people's interactions with products, services, environments, and each other, via the design of systems. They're loosely grouped according to eight 'lenses' bringing different disciplinary perspectives on behaviour change.

Interested in learnng more about design thinking?

Mar 13 2009 PlexusCalls: The Role of Design in Urgent Social Needs
Dr. Richard Farson, psychologist, educator and author, is president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), an independent nonprofit organization he helped founding La Jolla, California, devoted to research and education for the advancement of society, the strengthening of democracy and the enrichment of life. Lisa Kimball, PhD, is the President of Plexus Institute and executive producer and owner of Group Jazz, an organization devoted to supporting the efforts of teams, task forces, communities and organizations.

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