Designing stuff: the video

Lame gods in the service of prosthetic gods

This blog post attempts to summarize the presentation on design thinking by Harold G. Nelson during the Human-Computer Interaction Seminar on People, Computers, and Design at Stanford on April 16, 2010. In a relaxed but surprisingly dense way, he gives an overview of Nelson and Stolterman’s “The design way” (TDW: 2012, 2003), see also the seven previous posts. TDW merges several intellectual traditions, including Churchman’s systems approach, which also inspired our own book “Wicked Solutions.” It is not surprising that there are interesting parallels between the books, some of which we are happy to point out (to ourselves in the first place) at the end of this summary.

Design is a big deal!      Nelson works as an educator, consultant, and researcher in the field of organizational systems design where he brings both design thinking and systems science to his focus on leadership in innovation and sustainability in design. He doesn’t beat around the bush: design is a big deal. Why? First, it can be applied widely, you name it: architecture, services, products, academic fields, policies, organizations etc. Second, it defines our humanness: everybody does it, thus creating the world we live in, in an ongoing process. Third, it is like a third culture, next to the “making” of art and the “thinking” of science, combining the best of both, but with its own postulates and axioms. This basic concept of design can be traced back to pre-Socratic Greece, when Sophia was still understood as the knowing hand, that combined reflection and production, referring to the aesthetic hands of Daedalus and Haphaïstos (the lame blacksmith god referred to in the subtitle).

Design is terribly misunderstood     People tend to think of design in terms of products having a color and shape (like a car) or being made of particular materials (like tools or crockery). That’s apparent design. There is also systemic design, which can address wicked problems that are caused by complexity. People tend to be unaware of what wicked problems are and why systemic design is needed to handle them, for instance to ensure sustainability and effectiveness. Then there is deep design, which is all about our core values. Nelson gives the example of raku, ceremonial tea cups in Japan. These not only have a value in themselves, but also refer to underlying Buddhist traditions. Wicked Solutions is in the business of both systemic and deep design by using values as fundamental in systemic inquiry for resolving wicked problems.

Design thinking and innovation     Design thinking enables innovation as the final result of a process of intentional change. Intention is defined as the basic direction of a design that follows from the desires (or desiderata) of people who are intended to benefit by the innovation. Innovation is the realization of something new in the world. Creativity is the practical partner of creativity. Design judgment is the linchpin of it all: it somehow manages to decide which desiderata to cater to and which creative insight could be helpful in doing that. Any breakthrough insight must reflect the original intention in the form of a formative schematic ideal that can be realized by a crafty process of composition to produce the final design.

Justification and change       Science collects data to describe, explain, and predict, especially non-complex phenomena under controlled conditions. Fail-safe prediction and control give power that may elicit action for change, but will never justify it. Science expresses its finding in terms of principles and laws that are about necessity and chance (i.e. statistics). They say nothing about intentional change. The only justification for inentional change comes from desiderata. Some of these desiderata concern sustainability, the lack of which has become a hot issue. This lack of sustainability comes from the absence or non-consideration of certain essential relationships in a design or from the emergence or production of unintended consequences. Design thinking addresses this type of problems, and justifies change by creating value and making meaning for its artefacts.

Postulates & axioms     … of design thinking include the fundamentals of the systems approach and more. Connections are everywhere and key to design thinking. Emergence comes from the complex interactions associated with connections. Purpose must always reflect the client’s desiderata, meaning and values. The service relation of the designer with his clients (surrogate clients, customers, and end users) is a dynamic one, which requires careful balancing to avoid inappropriate designer/client power relationships (e.g. those of the designer artist, designer, facilitator, designer expert, or designer technician) that may negatively affect judgment in the design process and accountability of the designer to the client.

Design expertise     A designer in the broad sense must seek to become a design expert, because it is the only way to give meaning to accountability in an unpredictable world (part of subtitle of TDW). Thinking and making must be one, so inquiry and design are two sides of the same coin. Most of college or university training turns us into routine experts to enable us to come up with the answers for average conditions, i.e. when nothing has changed (significantly) from the conditions for which the expertise was developed. If a significant change occurs, there is a need for more advanced knowledge as embodied by the adaptive expert. If it is found that the need for change is beyond the adaptive approach, a design expert is called for. These three types of expertise form a pathway for development.

System of inquiry     A design expert requires a system of inquiry that is based on design thinking can reveal the intention that precedes the intentional change necessary. TDW uses a compound system, composed of true, ideal, and real approaches to gaining knowledge. The real looks at ultimate particulars (both in the old and new situation), the true at the facts, and the ideal at desiderata. This means that a basic inquiry asks at least four questions: (1) what is true; (2) what is real; (3) what would be ideal; and (4) what should/ought to be made real?

Parallels with “Wicked solutions”    Where TDW uses true, ideal, and real approaches, Wicked solutions uses inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Inter-relationship by and large corresponds with the true, whereas the ideal (i.e. desiderata) can be found in both perspectives and boundaries. Wicked solutions does not make a clear distinction between the real and the true (which is important in TDW to carve out a place for design as a third culture), but its focus is on intention (using framings) and, further down the process of inquiry and design, on actual innovation design. On first sight, the core concepts of the two cannot be easily mapped on each other, but on closer inspection the differences are not that great. My tentative conclusion is that in many ways the two are complementary, although they have not been designed for each other. If you want to do some actual designing directly (e.g. of a project, programme, or policy), chose Wicked Solutions. If you need more guidance and a deeper grounding in backgrounds, concepts, and principles, chose The Design Way.


  • Nelson, Harold G. and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world (Second edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts. Available from or via WorldCat. You may also like to check out the preview of the book or watch the video.
  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from or via WorldCat.

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