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Design Thinking and the Metaphors of Science

Posted By Cameron D. Norman, PhD, Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Chemistry of Creation

There is a certain way in which things come together to create a successful design (or relationship) that is often chalked up to "chemistry." But design chemistry could mean something both literal and evolving just like biological organisms if we take the concept to its fullest.

Metaphors are commonly used in tackling complex problems. The uniqueness of the situation, the level of detail of the manner by which the influencing factors coalesce, and the multidisciplinary ways of seeing the problem in the first place all present a problem of language, thus using oblique comparators can often fill the gap.

Science and mathematics have the advantage of being closer to 'universal' languages than many of the other forms of communication we share as a species. (Leibniz's ideas notwithstanding) They are less (not completely) influenced by cultural variations and local differences and can be shared globally. It is for this reason that the the prospect for a means of communicating concepts like design through science has appeal. As Andrea Yip has pointed out, design itself can be transformed into chemistry using the periodic table as a guideto serve as a more universal metaphor for understanding the way design thinking is experienced and practiced. 

Chemistry is the study and creation of the bonds of the universe. More specifically, it is:

the science of matter, especially its properties, structure, composition, behavior,reactions, interactions and the changes it undergoes.

As a metaphor for design thinking it works beautifully. Through the Periodic Table of Design by Andrea L. Yip we see an attempt to lay out the properties of design thinking, map out the structure and explain their composition.


Periodic Table of Design (version 1.0) by Andrea L. Yip on DrawedIt


Through practice and reflection we will see how these compounds play out in the design process.

Another scientific metaphor that takes up the charge from where chemistry leaves off is from developmental biology:

the study of the process by which organisms grow and develop

In the case of this metaphor, design thinking is the organism. Just as an organism, made of chemical compounds interacting over time, evolves, so too does the design process and the thinking that comes with it. In this case, metaphors like those proposed by Ms Yip and the concept of developmental design fit harmoniously.

Designing for and with complexity requires attention to a dynamism that can be lost if one takes the approach that product development happens at only one stage of its life cycle. For many products this might be appropriate, but it falls short when we describe social design issues such as creating policies or social programs such as those found in health and education.I've referred to this concept as developmental design. Developmental design, like developmental evaluation, implies an evolved, dynamic approach to generating knowledge or outcomes and while I only loosely conceived of it in a way that matched developmental biology, it may be time to revisit that more intently. Designing developmentally means working through the design process on an ongoing basis, like perpetual beta in the software industry. It means evolving strategies for adaptation rather than solving problems because true solutions to wicked problems are often more dream than reality.

Taking the chemistry metaphor, it means that the ingredients, dosage and combinatorial mixes change over time in the production of a new compound or design. They may require catalysts - such as the inclusion of new perspectives or a particular discipline - to provoke certain reactions and move ideas into new space. It may also involve the same type of intervention from the designer to bring these chemicals to life. The chemist is not removed from her creation.

All of these are metaphors, yet they provide us with a means of taking the messiness of the language, something discussed in previous posts, to a new place until we can find the language that is most appropriate. Until that time, science might offer one of the better means of conveying design, complexity and the creativity that comes when we apply them both to generating products and services.

Cameron Norman is a designer, a scientist, an educator and a health promotion professional who is passionately committed to advancing systems thinking and design for addressing the grand challenges to our health and wellbeing. These grand challenges are those problems where no one group is the cause and no one group has the answers, but they are too big to address without cooperation, collaboration and massive action for change. These are wicked problems and I am interested in the ways we can use design and systems thinking to addressing them. This piece originally appeared on his blog Censemaking.

You can also read about design thinking and complexity in this post from Lisa Kimball from July 2011.

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