Design Thinking Gaining Adopters from Gurus Eames, Simon and Samuels


EVERYONE has now seen and enjoyed the Eames Lounge Chair shown. Design legend Charles Eames once famously said: “design depends largely on constraints”.  And, as IAI illustrated in our earlier blog about the A-10 Warthog, additive manufacturing or “3D printing” is eliminating design constraints on replacement and spare parts for this stable, tough CAS platform which will yield even better strength to weight performance. Of course, Charles and his wife “Ray” Eames made contributions to the development of modern architecture, furniture plus the fields of industrial and graphic design, fine art and film.

A.M. Turing Award winner, MIT Professor Herbert Simon made contributions to artificial intelligence, the psychology of human cognition, and list processing. Simon succinctly defined design thinking in 1969 as consisting of seven steps:

  • Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, Choose, Implement, Learn.


Picture Credit: Pinterest

How is that the Eames’ and Simon intersect at the elegant thought process of design thinking ? Here’s a working definition:

The methodology commonly referred to as design thinking is a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol involving unusual and creative techniques that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results.

Design thinking consists of four key elements which Fast Company lays out in some detail:

1: Define the problem

Design thinking requires a team or business to always question the brief, the problem to be solved. To participate in defining the opportunity and to revise the opportunity before embarking on its creation and execution. Participation usually involves immersion and the intense cross examination of the filters that have been employed in defining a problem. In design thinking observation takes center stage. Observation can discern what people really do as opposed to what you are told that they do. Getting out of the cube and involving oneself in the process,product,shopping experience or operating theater is fundamental. Design thinking in problem definition also requires cross functional insight into each problem by varied perspectives as well as constant and relentless questioning. Finally, defining the problem via design thinking requires the suspension of judgment in defining the problem statement – the goal of the definition stage is to target the right problem to solve, and then to frame the problem in a way that invites creative solutions.

2: Create and consider many options

Design thinking requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions be created for consideration in a way that allows them to be judged equally as possible answers. Looking at a problem from more than one perspective always yields richer results. Look at the filters employed, change them, and multiple opportunities present themselves. Multiple perspectives and teamwork are crucial (and new visualization tools like 3D printing are enabling breakthroughs in design.)

3: Refine selected directions

A handful of promising results need to be embraced and nurtured as even the strongest of new ideas can be fragile in their infancy. Design thinking allows their potential to be realized by creating an environment conducive to growth and experimentation, and the making of mistakes in order to achieve out of the ordinary results. At this stage, many times options will need to be combined and smaller ideas integrated into the selected schemes that make it through. Which brings us to stage 3.5.

3.5 Repeat (optional)

Design thinking may require looping steps 2 and 3 until the right answers surface.

4: Pick the winner, execute

At this stage, with a multi-disciplinary consensus built, commit resources to achieve the early objectives. The byproduct of the process is often other unique ideas and strategies that are tangential to the initial objective as defined. Prototypes of solutions are created in earnest, and testing becomes more critical and intense. At the end of stage 4 the problem is solved or the opportunity is fully uncovered.


In the third edition of Simon’s defining book,  The Science of the Artificial,  he repeats his basic thesis that a physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for intelligent action. Simon says (sorry): Design thinking is, then, always linked to an improved future. Unlike critical thinking, which is a process of analysis and is associated with the ‘breaking down’ of ideas, design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas. There are no judgments in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation.” But then MIT Press notes, “(the chapter) ‘Economic Reality’ has also been revised to reflect a change in emphasis in Simon’s thinking about the respective roles of organizations and markets in economic systems.” In this chapter dating to 1996, Simon discusses chaos theory, adaptive systems and genetic algorithms. MIT Media Lab in “Notes” (1998):

Simon seems to conclude that everything might seem very complex, but that actually if you design the way you think about and the way you view everything, it actually can be described. He describes a system of a hierarchy of chunks which are “near decomposable” which means that intra-component (intra-chunk) linkages are generally stronger than inter-component linkages.

Well, design thinking is making a comeback as BIG companies like Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon appear to be looking at artificial intelligence as heuristic symbol systems. At MIT Media Labs, one dedicated blogger highlights, for example, “cellular agriculture” at a 501(c)3 called New Harvest. “Isha Datar works on cellular agriculture research, the science of growing animal projects in cell cultures instead of farmed herds. It’s a very new field with a lot of challenges including questions about how to make non-animal based nutrient systems, how to make it taste good, how to make it energy efficient, how to scale it, etc” YUCK!  Allen Samuels delivers a more palatable TEDx Talk on design thinking here (“design, not prostitution, is the oldest profession”).

In the end, the drive to unlock creativity in corporate and university settings should be promoted and IDEO U’s Leading for Creativity is one approach. Another promising idea comes from Fidelity’s Innovation Lab and the University of Denver’s Project X-Ite which is organizing teams from the state’s major colleges compete to design new business approaches to particular problems in a competition running through until spring 2017.


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