Part to Whole: Inverting the top-down approach to design thinking: Teaching Tips

By Jonathan Hanahan, Assistant Professor of Design at Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts, Washington University in St. Louis

Design is increasingly a bridge to all forms of culture. For a long time, design was an add on to more accepted professions; designers help hide the messiness and project a clear and controlled message. But increasingly that one-way dictation model is breaking down. Design is no longer the last step in a process but now often the first. This means that “Design Thinking” is being applied to increasingly complex problems. To tame these problems––climate change, political uncertainty, etc.––smart people are rightfully turning to creative problem solvers for advice and direction. A lot of times this leads to the cliché of design thinking, or walls of post-it notes, mind maps, and wide-reaching solutions.

As an architecture student, a professor of mine often defined good architecture in two ways: 1) The building is complex on the exterior but has simple spaces on the interior, or 2) the building has a simple exterior, but complex spatial configurations inside. Complexity everywhere creates chaos and simplicity everywhere is boring. This model has always stuck with me. While I have shifted my research and practice away from the built environment it is still largely focused on creating spaces, particularly ones where people interact.

At Wash U we have so many smart and inspired students who want to solve the world’s biggest problems. But more often than not, attempts to solve big problems with big ideas leads to thin and underwhelming solutions. Addressing complexity with complexity only breeds chaos of watered-down results and missed opportunities. Inverting the design thinking model to be a bottom-up approach has defined my teaching practice in the Sam Fox School for the past several years.

Chairs > Buildings:

Complex problems require simple solutions. Rather than the wall of post-its I ask students to think about the individual post-it. How can it be a smart and nimble unit that when replicated can build a complex web of ideas? This is akin to thinking about architecture by designing chairs not buildings. A chair serves a single purpose. The design of a chair is focused on perfectly crafting all the details associated with that purpose––comfort, elegance, efficiency, aesthetics, cost, lifespan, etc. The beauty of the chair is its replicability. Many copies of the same chair can be arranged in an infinite array of spatial configurations to create customized results––a lecture hall, a circle of friends, an intimate dialogue. Rather than focusing on the big factors, the classroom is a space to focus on the intimate details of the unit and how that unit might connect to others. It is a two-way dialogue, not the original one-way dictation.

A Coach and a Team:

I am admittedly a former jock. Team sports contributed a great deal to how I understand the world and to this day I crave that team environment. When I am not on campus, I am likely racing bikes in criteriums with the Cannonball-Hub Racing Team.

What we learn from team sports is that everyone brings something to the group and the whole is a sum of its parts. No one is or should be an expert in anything. This is easily forgotten in the context of an art or design studio where work is often individual and isolated, and assumptions are that in order to be good, you must master every aspect of your individual project. Even though students are often working on individual projects, the beauty of working in code is it is shareable. I approach the classroom as a team, everyone brings something special to the table and we try to capitalize on individual strength collectively. While one student may be strong visually but struggle with the technical production of digital work, others may occupy a counter position. The class works on individual projects collectively. They share aspects of their projects with each other, borrow code and re-mix it, and trade insight and expertise with one other. Each student builds an individual project by bundling or hacking together components from their teammates in a unique way. This allows me to be the coach; to steer the ship and motivate the group. I find that this approach builds comradery in the classroom that I rarely experienced as a student. Studio time is like practice: hard and focused but also fun and satisfying. The greatest lesson that this perspective brings to students is to learn the social skills to ask for help, find solutions elsewhere, and connect the dots.

Why > What: What it Does vs. What it Is

Lastly, design is built on a foundation of aesthetics. We idealize the object, the final product, or the concrete artifact at the end of the process. Complex problems often have many paths and processes and potential end points. This requires a shift in the way we evaluate work. Rather than focusing on the artifact, my goal is to evaluate the process that lead to its formulation. What the solution does should far outweigh what it is or what it looks like. This emphasizes the solution as not the end of a process but actually the middle. It is a tool to be used, not a thing to be looked at. Speculative designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby define this as “a compass rather than a map.” While a map is fixed and leads, a compass is adaptive and guides. A compass establishes a relationship with its user in which the user can ask questions, challenge, or ignore directions, while a map is binary in its relationship with a user- it is all or nothing.

These are just a few strategies that I hope address the growing complexity of the world we are preparing students to enter into. By inverting the top-down model of the past, I hope to give students tools to be nimble, adaptive, and entrepreneurial in their approach to solving today and tomorrow’s complex problems.

Read more about Professor Hanahan and his work at Sam Fox School in our recent blog post.