Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Design Thinking: The Flavor of the Month

Design Thinking and Action in India and elsewhere.

Prof. M P Ranjan

The month of November 2009 seems to be the Design Thinking month with so many events and discussions taking place on the subject all around the world. It surely is the flavor of the month as far as I am concerned since I have been named amongst the top twenty design thinkers of the world by a very generous blogger in Columbus, Ohio State, USA. The list is located on the Design Thinking Exchange site that is managed by Nicolae Halmaghi through his own research initiatives and the list is his personal view but he supports it with the research that he has carried out over the past few years. This has raised many voices in India and elsewhere and my mail box is full of congratulatory messages that I cannot reply individually so I have decided to make this post and explain what seems to be happening in the design thinking space.

Image01: An early representation of design thinking as a model that was used to teach NID students in the Design Concepts & Concerns class as prepared in 1990. This was retrieved from Nagraj Seshadri's class notes which were submitted to the NID Library as part of the course documentation that was done over the years.

I write to Nicolae Halmaghi to explain why he had included me on his list of top twenty design thinkers in the world especially since I am yet to publish a major book on the subject although I do have many published and unpublished teaching notes and papers that were prepared over the years on the subjects of design, design education, design methods, design concepts & concerns course and on design thinking as well. I quote from my mail to Nicolae:

I was quite surprised to see my name on the top twenty list particularly since I have not yet published a comprehensive book on the subject of design or design thinking although I have many papers on my website and my blogs dating back to my early teaching notes and published papers. My three books to date are on bamboo and design and on the Handcrafts of India called "Handmade in India".

I am curious to know the extent of your research and if you are aware of the work done at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad over the past 50 years since it was set up in the early 60's based on the seminal report by Charles and Ray Eames called the India Report. You have not included NID in your list of Design schools either on your site. In particular which is the paper or papers you have referred to in making your assessment for the list. You mention a 1989 paper, I am curious as to which one this is. I have many papers from the 80's and several 'unpublished' ones but most of these were distributed as xerox copies to my class in design methods along with models that I used to explain the concepts“.

Image02: A chart showing the development of the Design Methods course at NID from its origins on the 60’s to the forms that it took till the time the chart was created in 1995. The course was then called Design Concepts and Concerns as it now stand today. The course has evolved further in its content and teaching method which has been explained in my paper for the EAD06 Conference in 2005.

Nicolae graciously wrote back and I quote the part of the message below and he has also made an additional post on his blog after some critical comments from Bruce Nussbaum.
“I must admit I have stumbled over your papers accidentally, about a year ago. I was very unhappy with the “muddying” of an emerging discipline and I felt very alone. Everybody seamed to be happy with the progress, except me. At that point, I was working on finding unifying principles that allow seamless communication across different systems (financial, economical etc) across both brain hemispheres.

I am not quite sure what I was searching for, but all of a sudden, I realized that I was staring at a paper whose content was plagiarized for years by an entire industry. Most of the architecture, structure and process of what we now call Design Thinking was there. All of the current buzz terms associated with design thinking were eloquently presented in this paper. Even the term “Design Thinking” was there, except it was used very inauspiciously without great fanfare.
The paper that I am talking about is “Design Visualization”, published in1997 (I think I said 1998. will correct immediately)

The paper that Nicolae referes to can be downloaded from this link here. Download paper as a pdf file here

Image03: Profile of the Emerging Designer model as it is used today was also modified a number of times and now it has a central core that is Values which inform all other actions and thoughts of as part of the design process.

I did some background research from my own archives as well as from the NID Library where we had placed student notes from the courses that had been conducted in Design Process way back in 1982 onwards. This I did to check the provenance of my ideas on design thinking. I found an early diagram that I had used to explain design thinking in Nagraj Seshadri’s class notes from the 1991 Foundation class at NID when he was a student in my DCC class. Nagraj went on to graduate from the product design programme at NID and then did his Masters Degree from the RCA, London also in Product Design. In 1999 he won the first ever award offered by for his classroom project carried out at the RCA, an intuitive electronic music device for children. When I browsed through his Foundation document of 1991 I saw that he was involved in a group assignment that dealt with the key words “Toy – Physics – Child” and the group explored the concept and built an interaction matrix that captured numerous attributes through the analysis of all the traditional folk toys that were in Sudarshan Khanna’s book, Folk Toys of India. This for me demonstrates the reflexive nature of design activity and of design thinking itself. George Soros explains his concept of reflexivity in his book Open Society and also in his recent online lectures available from the Financial Times website here. This shows that one engagement with design thinking on a particular subject could be a life long engagement since the act does something to you while you try to do something to the world.
Core77 Competitions list
Digital Sound Factory for Kids by Nagraj Seshadri

So I wrote back to Nicolae and told him about my findings.
Thank you for the clarification. However, it is very daunting to be placed in the rarified space of the worlds top twenty, which is always a very difficult task since there are so many perspectives from which all of us work and look at ourselves and our peers. Your blog post has stirred up much interest here in India and I hope that it will bring a better appreciation of the role of design itself.

I must give you a background for the 1997 paper on Design Visualisation. I started teaching a number of courses at NID dealing with materials and geometry in the early 70's and was part of the group that worked closely with the development of the Foundation Programmes at the Institute, particularly for the Undergraduate programme in Design. I started teaching Design Methods as a course in the early 80's and in these courses used the work of Prof Bruce Archer and the works of John Chris Jones and Christopher Alexander as the platform for building a teaching module for NID's Foundation programme in design. In 1988 Prof Bruce Archer visited NID and I had the opportunity to act as guide and local host and traveled with him to Bombay IIT for a short exposure at IDC. During this early period I had prepared many slides with models that could be projected on an over head projector and these were used in the class as well as distributed as teaching notes along with a course abstract paper. The course evolved each year due to interactions with students as well as critiques from faculty colleagues in a very lively environment that was the NID of the 80's and 90's. Much of this work is undocumented although occasional internal papers may have been distributed since all the texts were made on ordinary typewriters and never published.

The Design Visualisation paper too was never formally published but earlier versions of this pdf file were shared with students and faculty at NID as xerox copies of typed paper. This particular version was made after our Apple Mac lab got established in 1988 when I started converting the OHP slides into computer illustrations and this too went into many versions in those days. While these models have been with my students all along I was able to share these with a wider audience only after I set up my website in 2004. All along I have been collecting a substantial list of books as well as using ones that are in our Institute library. Of these I would list the HfG Ulm and Bauhaus papers as major sources of design exploration and pedagogy. In early September 2003 I made my first post on the PhD-Design List <003565>and from then onwards I have made perhaps 150 posts in response to the very stimulating exchanges that have been taking place on that list about the nature of design and all aspects of the subjects. This paper was first posted on the PhD-Design list as a text contribution on 20th September 2003 during a discussion on Creativity and Visualisation <003681>

There are many serious design thinkers populating the PhD-Design list who have been making significant contribution to our understanding of design and design thinking. I wonder if you have studied this list. I am hugely impressed by the thoughts and writings of Klaus Krippendorff, Jerrome Diethelm, Charles Brunette, and many others on that list, to name only a few. Next month I will be traveling to Melbourne at the invitation of Ken Friedman, Dean, Swinburne University Department of Design to attend a conference on Design Thinking on the 21st and 22nd November. We will expect to meet many of the leaders of design thinking at that conference and I look forward to it. I have also been invited to speak to business leaders by the Design Victoria at a breakfast meet on 24th November at Geelong.

Notwithstanding the Design Thinking Exchange posts and the top twenty list we do see signs that things are stirring up and Design Thinking is becoming the flavor of the month. Last week Bruce Nussbaum sat down with Tim Brown and with Roger Martin, authors of two new books on design thinking for business applications and these talks were much publicized. Tim Brown’s TED Talk is doing its rounds and Roger Martin too appears in the New School interview. Both the books landed on my desk thanks to my advance orders at Amazon. I will get down to reading them when I get back from my own do at Melbourne. Another significant event is the ICSID conference in Singapore from 23 to 25 November and the theme is …. Design Thinking!! NID Director, Prof Pradyumna Vyas and two faculty colleagues Prof Vinai Kumar, Acting Dean Gandhinagar and Prof Shashank Mehta, Chairman Faculty Development Centre will be traveling to Singapore as well. Prof Proadyumna Vyas will be standing for election to the ICSID Board in the long tradition of the NID Directors since Prof Kumar Vyas, Mr Vinay Jha, and Darlie O Koshy and I would urge all ICSID members to cast their vote in his favor.

So Design Thinking is indeed the flavor of the month and is here to stay and I hope India will take it a bit more seriously than it has been over the past 50 years since design was established as a discipline here in India.

Prof. M P Ranjan


  1. It may be the topic of the month for you, and certainly has gotten a lot more attention particularly this month due to the release of Roger's book, "The Design of Business", but it's hardly new:

    You're also missing a whole debate that went on in a Design Thinking group over the 'validity' of Nicolae's use of the term "Design Thinker" and his list. Let's just say, many of us do not agree with the need for a list of "Design Thinkers" because Design Thinking isn't a solo act.

    No discredit to you, I'm glad to actually see the details of your work and your thoughts, to value it all devoid of any labels. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dear Paula Thornton

    Thank you for your comment and I am aware of Roger Martins books and both of these are on my table at office back at NID and I have followed his seminal work at the Rotman's School of Management over the years. I had written about this as well on my blog and you can see it at this link here dated 2 November 2007 : http://

    However design thinking is not just about management decision making nor is it adequately captured in the Wikipedia article that you have drawn attention to in your article on your blog. I agree that wiki has missed the point altogether. The first step proposed itself does get it all wrong asking the reader to follow a seven stage process : define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Further the seven steps are prescriptive very unlike design processes and design learning that are based on exploration and compositions aimed at both understanding situations as well as looking for potential solutions.

    The work style and attitude needed are ones that supports iterative modes of thought and action and the ability to suspend judgments in the face of great ambiguity is of great value. While I started teaching Design Process as a course at NID in 1982 I started focussing on design thinking and offered the model that is shown on the blog post above in 1990 and I also changed the name of my course to Design Concepts and Concerns since the thinking had to be informed by feeling. I now have a blog to share the work done in that course at this link here below which has been reporting about the course for two years now:

    My post on the blog on October 2007 is about how we teach design thinking at NID along with a model of the Design Journey as I see it with the various modes of thought that would need to be used to accomplish results. The link to that post is here below.

    Design Thinking has become a buzzword in management circles and I am not sure that we are all talking the same language. I have seen this variety at the meet at Melbourne that just got done yesterday and I am sure we have not seen the end of the debate on the subject as yet. However the managers have great reach through the business magazines and I do hope we can get in a word edgeways to change the tenor and tone of the discussion to include design experience in the whole equation here. Which is why I started my blog here called "Design for India".

    Prof M P Ranjan
    from my PowerBook on tour at Torquay, The Sands Resort
    23 November 2009 at 11.45 pm local time

  3. Thanks for all the clarification and insights, particularly for taking a stand on the Wikipedia description and for adding your own observations as to the related issues. [Mulling over the "design journey" as a concept.]

    Again, grateful for your continued contributions to moving the discipline further, and much respect your sound judgments.

    Look forward to your evolving perspectives.

  4. Nice topic I always read your blogs and i found always something new. I am very thankful to you thanks

  5. this post is awesome and thank you for making it understandable.

  6. You try to have an effect on something and something has an effect on you. This was seen in
    1991 work and reciprocated later to give a winning
    design project. But NID is almost a very late entry
    to life to make as significant change as can childhood can make. The student who explored
    child/toys/physics must have done so, due to some
    formations within him left in him from his previous
    part of life - childhood.

    In India, the core spiritual principles also lay this
    thought in which we have cycle of deaths and births and there is a continuity from past lives
    which is called sanskaars.

    Yes in trying to do, in trying to be a part of something, that something also becomes part of you. But the roots are much foundational and
    NID as well as design thinking, design education
    is a late entry to one's life. Since last 50 years
    design is recognised as a discipline in India
    and your call in this blog is raising this awarness too, but again this is not the only
    predominance which human or India needs.

    You are doing great on your part.

    - Manish Desai, NID

  7. Informative post. I liked it. Hope you will keep coming up with such good stuff.

  8. this is my first visit...
    but now i will visit regularly...
    nice blog...


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