The Design Thinking Process Paradox

Designers or Design Thinkers often like to think that they require a certain level of “freedom” to allow their creativity to flourish.  Indeed, the best ideas come when the mind is free from distractions: particularly in places like the shower or when you are just about to fall asleep. 

However, when we teach our clients Design Thinking, our pedagogy centers around taking them through an established Design Process.  Often this Design Process is made up of explicit steps, in our case Discover / Define / Design / Deliver.  Many would argue that the nature of a prescribed process contradicts the freedom required by those designers eager to stretch their creativity.  Perhaps, this is also why many designers are still not convinced by Design Thinking. 

As a designer myself, I often pondered this fact.  Can a structured process allow creativity?  Or does having a process prevent it?  In a recent talk I attended on ethics, morality and the law, the speaker shared an interesting story on the myth of freedom, that I think perfectly describes the paradox of a Design Thinking process.

Anyone can play the piano correct?  Even better, what if I told you that you have the total freedom to create any piece of music as you wish.  You could do it, and it would be easy.  Just hit the piano keys and music would be created.

However, this original piece of music you created would likely not sound good.  In fact, if you had no prior piano training, it would be very likely that your original piece of music would sound pretty bad. 

Therefore, when you learn to play the piano, one of the first things you would learn would be the rules of playing the piano.  Essentially giving up your freedom to play any note or key on the piano.  I don’t play the piano, but I would imagine there will be rules around reading music notes, types of chords, how these chords would be used in certain situations, and other things like tempo, etc.

Furthermore, you could take piano exams and earn piano grades to determine your capability.  You could achieve and play through 8 grades worth of music pieces, chords, and theory.  Some people say it takes 8 years, some say it will take a long as 15 years or more to hit the highest grade 8!

The thing is after some time, you would be able to play a song by just listening to it on the radio.  You would even able to improvise a song, for example making  Three Blind Mice sound like a Beethoven sonata.  Well, maybe not quite Beethoven…but you do get my point?  After years of learning how to play the piano and mastering all the rules, you can finally leave the rules behind to create the most amazing music. 

You can see this in other forms of music too.  John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” was one of the most challenging Jazz compositions to date as it was played fast and in three keys.  I don’t know what three keys mean, but it was touted as a “musical puzzle” created by the master saxophonist. 

This analogy of learning music also applies here in Design.  To learn how to Design, or be a Designer Thinker, you first need to follow some rules.  Once you know the steps well and can navigate the design process, you can finally step out of the process and create something magical.  This is why many people say that the best ideas come from all parts of the design process, not just the end.

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