Thinking And Designing Are The Same Thing.

A few weeks back, I attended the Typo conference in Berlin. My first Typo was a great experience with loads of great talks, a few old friends and a bunch of new faces.

First of all, I want to let you know that some of the bigger presentations on the conference’s site are available on their site. I especially recommend Jonathan Barnbrook’s conversation “Design and Politics” and Maria Giudice’s “Rise of the DEO”. You can also watch all talks of the years before for free.

One of the smaller presentations especially caught my attention. It ties back to what I am writing about here. The talk by Christine Dixon was titled “To hell with mediocrity – adventure beckons!”.


How does thinking relate do design?

Catherine Dixon asked the question, if the design practise is leaving something valuable behind by focusing too much on planning and strategy. She wondered, if the emphasis of planning and methodology could create a growing disjoint of strategy and the hands-on work.

We are flooded with new articles on Design Thinking and methodologies on a daily basis. The term originated from non-design fields, that tried to use design processes to form new approaches to problem solving. In recent years designers have tried to reclaim Design Thinking. They are communicating methods openly to their clients. Some of us try to sell them as something novel, but designers have been working like this for decades.

On closer inspection, the term “Design Thinking” is completely redundant. More than anything, design means understanding problems and goals and planning to solve them. These are all mental activities. To design is to think. Does that mean it should just be Thinking Thinking? Of course not. Design has special properties, that set it apart from practices like management and engineering.

All Design is concerned with surfaces and form. The term surface is not limited to aesthetic qualities. It describes every element by which a user can experience a designed “thing”. Also form is not limited to physical properties. It also takes the internal structure of an element into consideration – the system behind it.

That means Design is planning to solve problems through the surface and form of things. Here, I want to plug a book I am currently reading. It summarises a lot of reflection on Design and tries to form a first draft for a Philosophy of Design by Glenn Parsons.

Identify different kinds of knowledge.

I realised there could be some misconceptions, what the focus of my newsletter is. Because of that, I want to explain the goals and thinking behind this newsletter a bit more.

It has never been easier to learn skills or a craft than today. All it takes is commitment and time. Learning really concrete technical skills is the most easy part. You can learn any program or function with a simple search. It will guide you towards hundreds of blog posts and video tutorials.

But the more abstract knowledge gets, the harder it is to learn by consuming. Blogs become books, tutorials become courses and classes and so on. At the end of the list, the most abstract kind of knowledge is also the most important one: experience. Nobody dares to promise you, to teach ”experience”. You can only gather experience through deliberate practise, reflection and combining different knowledge yourself.

My goal with Thinking Design is to stress that kind of abstract knowledge. It may be harder to find, but it is the kind of knowledge that will settle in the deepest. Using thinking-tools and stealing methods from different fields of knowledge – like Philosophy, Linguistics or even Algebra – you can develop your own way of tackling problems. I am not concerned with the tactics you solve problems, but with the mindset and perspective you approach them with.

Don’t view thinking and doing as two things.

If designing is mostly thinking, how is it connected to the details of the craft? How is strategic thinking related to the spacing of uppercase letters? You have to think about the doing in design as thinking – and also consider the thinking as actual doing.

A strong concept with a great logic, that tackles the problem the right way, is exactly as well crafted as the perfect bezier curves of a logo drawing. A strong use of contrasts and whitespace can serve the user in the same way as a clear outlined message. They are two sides of a coin. You cannot neglect one for the other. Great design is great thinking. Great design is great craft. Great craft is great thinking.

This unity is what sets Design apart from any other practise. In a world full of Dribbble, endless TOP 10 font lists and assets for your next design project, it is important to stress this. Design can never be only form and surface. At the same time, Design Thinking methods and sprints and workshops won’t make you a great designer by themselves.

Catherine Dixon pointed it out perfectly in her talk: We have to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.


What do you think, are designing and thinking viewed too separated in our industry at the moment?

To answer, hit reply, or jump over to Twitter.

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Thinking Design

Learn to use critical thinking to make your work as a designer more impactful and valuable – both for your clients and yourself. Fresh articles delivered every Wednesday.

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