Design Thinking: Cross-Disciplinary Disintegration Paradox



Jae H. Chae


Purdue University

Industrial Design Department

Yue-Kong Pao Hall

552 West Wood Street

West Lafayette, IN 47907






Design Thinking is a growing topic of interest in academia, particularly in Management, Engineering and Design schools. Although the term “Design Thinking” has gained immense popularity, still many finds it hard to practice economic cooperation among cross-disciplinary condition, choosing to expand mainly in its own specializations. This direction and framework pose cross-disciplinary disintegration concerns. In this fragmented landscape, this study is aimed to analyze the disparity and discrepancy among  specialized fields of knowledge and discusses the core cause of cross-disciplinary disintegration. 


      Keywords: design thinking, innovation, academia’s cross-disciplinary disintegration.


1. Introduction


Early glimpses of Design Thinking in context of academia shows how it emerged in the specialisations and formed as a means of integrating these highly specialised fields of knowledge, so that they can be jointly applied to the new problems as discussed in the article: Wicked Problems in Design Thinking [1]. No doubt, the integration of specialized fields of knowledge are essential for significant innovation, still many finds it hard to practice economic cooperation among cross-disciplinary condition, choosing to expand mainly in its own specialisations. Noting such disintegration among specialised fields of knowledge, this study begins by reviewing the origin of Design Thinking to understand the essence of original intentions and the evolution of its present definition. Following, the paper by analyzing of both Engineering and Management school’s Design Thinking framework. Particularly, the disparity and discrepancy among disciplines. The study further discusses its learning and the core cause of disintegration.



2. Methodology


This study uses comparisons analysis between framework interpretation and its own projection and reflection in both Engineering and Business academia and uses its learning to contrasts along fundamental design process to find similarity or disparities. There are 2 areas this article focuses to understand: first, the definition and the perception of both cross-disciplinary perspective.



3. Design Thinking


3.1 Origins

Design research provide diverse origin of design thinking tracing back to early 1950s and 1960s within the context of architecture and engineering fields. In the 60s, science made efforts to “scientise” Design, and bring the field within the objective of rational sciences as Nigel Cross, in his paper Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science [2], describes. He further asserts "[Fuller] called for a ‘design science revolution', based on science, technology and rationalism, to overcome the human and environmental problems that he believed could not be solved by politics and economics”.

Horst Rittel, who coined the term "Wicked Problems" (i.e., extremely complex/multi-dimensional problems) in the mid 1960s becomes core of design thinking in design circle and academia. Following the book "Systematic Method for Designers” was published in 1965 by L. Bruce Archer

In the 70s, the notion of design as a "way of thinking" in the sciences can be traced to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. In Robert McKim's 1973 book, Experiences in Visual Thinking also expresses  the notion design as a "way of thinking".

By 80s, design thinking made it relevant in general education and thus for wider audiences. Peter Rowe, then Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, published his book Design Thinking in 1987, which focuses the approaches used by architects, was a notable in the design research.

In the 90s design consultancy IDEO was formed by combining three industrial design companies. They are one of the first design companies to showcase their design process, which draws heavily on the Stanford University curriculum. Richard Buchanan's article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" is published in1992 [3] [4].

In recent years, interest in design thinking has grown as the term became popularized in the business press.

In short, Design Thinking emerged and developed over time from early design science to way of thinking and designedly ways followed by design thinking (Fig.1) as means of solving new and broader problems of our time.


3.2 Original Intention


The rapid societal change and its complexity after WWII, required many disciplines to converge in collaboration to collectively solve broader problems. Richard Buchanan's article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking" discusses how Design Thinking emerged in the specialisations and developed as a means of integrating these highly specialised fields of knowledge, so that they can be collectively applied to the new problems. Thus design circle and across various discipline expanded its outlook by perceiving the more holistic view of the broader problem.


3.3 In Engineering Academia


Design is expressed as central part of activity in Engineering. In recent years, Engineering university programs have transformed towards encouraging students to develop deeper levels of contextual understanding; this is meant to not only challenge students to critically reflect on the broader impacts of their work, but to develop real-world skills such as persistence, flexibility, and adaptiveness that are necessary for their professional success [5]. Paired with incorporation of project-based learning (PBL) [6] and human-centered design (HCD) thinking [7]. This thinking has been in the cross-disciplinary field of development engineering, which aims to design and implement appropriate technologies to spur economic and social development in areas with limited resources [8]. It focuses on (i) incorporating international development goals, (ii) scaling for impact, and (iii) integrating novel yet lean technologies [9].


The main forte of engineering curricula seems the efficacy of conveying with reason with mathematics and sciences. Engineers believe design is itself as thinking process dependent on the systematic generation of concepts. And designing a system, in most cases, requires reliance other than empirical data. It is the “Conducting experiments” that engineers have adopted from design process to analyze and understand the results better. Engineering reflect themselves as a Driving Force Behind the Design as mentioned by Bob Sutton, Stanford University.


3.4 In Management Academia


Management school’s education has been reliant on analytical thinking in the past, but with integration of design thinking education, it complements learning to be open to other’ perspective as noted in review [10]. Herbert Simon projected upon launching a knowledge platform on how design processes can assist in management already in 1996 [11], and Kirby  indicated that creative entrepreneurial skills could be taught at business schools and universities.“ Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management asserts, “design thinking”—approaching managerial problems as designers approach design problems—and its potential impact on management education. Given constant socio-economic and environmental changes globally, professionals whose education will enable them to envisage and innovate and will continue to be highly valued [12]. Dunne and Martin [13] asserts that design thinking would encourage students to think broadly about issues, develop a thorough understanding of users, and recognize the value in cooperating with others.

Entrepreneurs are those who innovate and deliver new solutions [14]. And in business academia, they cast Design Thinking as a catalyst for “growth” and “creative skill” as value and the process that provides practical implementation in the real world challenges.


Base on Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design these are the five steps of Design Thinking process:


Empathize ‒ meaning to get a broad understanding of the experiences of users that you are designing through the techniques such as observation, interaction and immersion.

Define ‒ identify users' point of view based on the processed and synthesised findings of the empathy work.

Ideate ‒ investigate as wide as possible variety of potential solutions enabling a step further from the obvious to ideas.

Prototype ‒ turn the ideas into a physical form that would allow further exploration and learning experiences.

Test ‒ at this step the high-end products are being tested and refined based on the feedback received further advancing the knowledge of users and refining the original viewpoint.



5. Suggestions


In comparison, despite of differences in knowledge, it’s apparent that all use common Design framework with various emphasis that suite its own specialization. It is evident that various disciplines practice an common framework with some degree of variation in wording. An examination of both literature work and practices among different Academic knowledge, it reveals shared understanding in value in all of them. In other words, each discipline recognize the value in cooperating with others, yet when it comes to large program of  practice,‘disintegration’ continue to be stumbling block to progress.


This study identifies that the cause of disintegration problem is not due to the lack procedural process but, rather individual perception disparity (Fig. 3). Perception refers to a general tendency to form impressions of other people [15]. The disparity occurs when out of sync with the way you're seen by others. The perceptions of one another affect the collaboration they form.  Stereotyping and  generalizations about a group based on inaccurate assumptions is what people do all the time. This kinds of ‘people’ perception is full of  errors and it occurs in high frequency.



6. Conclusion


The results of the analysis of both Engineering and Business school’s Design Thinking framework showed that there are more commonality between specialized disciplines, however findings also showed that among cross-disciplinary practices lacked integration with each other and causing fragmentation. This study also identifies that the cause of disintegration problem is not due to the lack procedural process but, rather individual perception disparity.




[1] Richard Buchanan, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, 1992

[2] Nigel Cross, in his paper Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science (2001)

[3] Wikipedia History of design thinking

T. Brown, J. Wyatt, Design thinking for social innovation, Ann. Rev. Policy Des., 3 (1) (2015), pp. 1-10

Nieusma, 2004, D. Nieusma, Alternative design scholarship: working toward appropriate design, Des. Issues, 20 (3) (2004), pp. 13-24

I. de los Rios-Carmenado, et al. , 2015, Promoting professional project management skills in engineering

higher education: project-based learning (PBL) strategy, Int. J. Eng. Educ., 31 (1) (2015), pp. 184-198

Roger Martin, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2006, Vol. 5, No. 4, 512–523

Nigel Cross, Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science, 2001.

Peter Rowe, Design Thinking, 1987:

[4] /design thinking history overview

[5] Sheppard et al., 2008; de los Rios-Carmenado et al., 2015; Alves et al., 2018

[6] Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Wiek et al., 2014; Han et al., 2015

[7] Brown and Wyatt, 2015

[8] Nieusma, 2004; Margolin, 2007; Oosterlaken, 2009

[9] Levine et al., 2016

[10] Academy of Management Learning and Education 2014 V13 No4 653

[11] Dunne & Martin, 2006, p. 512

[12] Kanter, 1984, p. 354

[13] Dunne and Martin 2006, p. 512

[14] Kao, 1997, pp. 237–238

[15] Dym, C.L., Wesner, J.W., and Winner, L., “Social Dimensions of Engineering Design: Observations from Mudd Design Workshop III,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 92, No. 1, 2003, pp. 105–107.

[16] T. Brown, J. Wyatt, Design thinking for social innovation, Ann. Rev. Policy Des., 3 (1) (2015), pp. 1-10