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Design Thinking

Design Thinking:  Understanding How Designers Think and Work

by Nigel Cross
Berg Publishers, Oxford, UK, 2011
192 pp., illus. 40 b/w.  Paper, $24.95
ISBN:  9781847886361.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Nigel Cross, Emeritus Professor of Design Studies at The Open University, has written Design Thinking:  Understanding How Designers Think and Work, a brilliant little book that contains a large amount of information.  Little is not meant to be a pejorative comment about the quality of the book but rather descriptive of its actual size:  a mere 6.25 in. x 7.5 in x .5 in.  But the information Prof. Cross manages to pack into that small space speaks to the very skills he discusses about great design:  Extremely well-organized and compellingly written and argued, Design Thinking makes for good reading and will be useful for teaching, particularly those “interested . . . develop[ing] their understanding of how designers think and work” (1).

The book is divided into eight chapters, each with a subsection all noted and numbered in the Table of Contents, making them easy to find.  Cross, an expert in design methodology and epistemology, is interested in “reveal[ing] and articulat[ing] the apparently mysterious . . . cognitive and creative abilities of designers” (1).  To that end he employs interview- and experiment-based research methods and an interdisciplinary approach to design to arrive at his findings.

Chapter 1, “Design Ability,” by far the lengthiest chapter of the book, lays out underlying principles about design thinking and details the methods by which he approaches his research in the area.  While artists may not be surprised that design is described as an “exploratory process” (8) that uses “abductive” reasoning (10) and “aspects of emergence” (11) or that it requires “external representation” in order to design (12), or that “successful designers are optimists” in the way they can “turn an event from a crisis to an opportunity” (13), it may surprise the engineering students I teach each semester that all design is a “social process of interaction and negotiation” (20) and “proceeds as ‘a reflective conversation with the situation,’”––and that they share these qualities of design thinking with my multimedia design students.  Of interest to artists is the idea that research into design thinking has resulted in the “growth of respect for the inherent, natural intelligence that is manifested in design ability” that is grounded in “technical rationality” (29).

The next two chapters follow through on the interview-based research approach promised in the first chapter.  The first, “Designing to Win,” with the Formula One racing car designer Gordon Murray and the second, ”Designing to Please,” with product designer (of sewing machines as well as the front bodywork of the High Speed Train for British Rail), Kenneth Grange.  Chapter 4 provides an analysis of the design thinking found in the Chapters 2 and 3, looking at the common features shared by the two men.  We see that both Murray and Grange, for example, take “a broad ‘systems’ approach to the problem,” “fram[ed] the problem in a distinctive and . . . personal way,” and “design[ed] from first principles” (75).

Chapter 5, “Designing to Use,” introduces experiment-based research methods, looking specifically at “design thinking in action” (79).  This method asks subjects to work through a design and provide a “verbal account . . . of their own cognitive activities” (80).  Here Cross follows Victor Scheinman as the engineer designs a device that will allow a backpack to be carried on a mountain bike. Chapter 6, “Designing Together,” continues with this method, this time with a team of three as they take on the same design problem as Scheinman was given.  Chapter 7 follows the organizational strategy introduced previously by comparing the design thinking utilized by the designers featured in Chapters 5 and 6.  What emerges from his findings is a recapitulation of the notion of the “creative leap” (127).  Cross sees it, instead, as an “accumulat[ion of] a lot of prior concepts, examples and discussion,” a “formulation of an ‘apposite’ proposal” that is, then, “explored and possibly reframed” and resulting in “a resolution between the design requirements and the design structure of a potential new product.”  For Cross, a creative leap is actually “more like building a ‘creative bridge’ between the problem space and the solution space” (129) than a leap across two unknown territories.

Chapter 8, “Design Expertise,” concludes with a summary of Cross’s findings:  that design thinking consists of “multifaceted cognitive skills” and is a “form of natural intelligence in its own right.” It is more than problem solving, he says; rather, it requires “intense, reflective interaction with representations of problems and solutions” and “an ability to shift easily and rapidly between . . . doing and thinking” (135-6).  Cross also shows that “education is not only about the development of knowledge but also about developing ways of thinking and acting” (140).  We learn that mastery takes “sustained involvement” as well as “motivation, concentration, and willingness of work hard” (141).

“Everyone is capable of designing,” Cross tells us (1).  For that reason––and the fact that the book provides insights into design and is enjoyable to read––I recommend it for everyone.  I, for one, will be using it in my undergraduate multimedia design course in the fall and add it as a resource for my faculty. 

Last Updated 3 July 2011

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