It's time for another Design, Cognition, and Learning reflection post! As usual, more detailed notes and full citations are at

I'll skip the discussion on the Adams et al paper because it synthesizes so many of the other readings, and because I have way more thoughts on the rest, except to say that "Robin, you should really write a book on this -- not a scholarly-sounding one, but a book that normal folks will want to read, because they will."

The paper by Rauth et al comparing Stanford students (in California) to Potsdam students (just outside Berlin) was fascinating. I quote:

"...while Stanford teachers described design thinking more towards an open concept, Potsdam teachers were more likely to define it as a process or a set of rules students can stick to."

I wonder what various factors may have influenced the circumstances that led to that conclusion. It could be a happenstance of sampling, and that difference might not actually exist -- but if it does, what has made those professors think and teach the way they do? Cultural differences? Their own training? The (very slight) age difference between the institutions (Stanford's is older), the temperaments of the students they were teaching? I'd love a chance to see both schools in action someday, and stay there long enough to see a semester or a year in the life of each and compare their pedagogies. There are similarities, too: both institutions start training their new "design" students by walking them stepwise/linearly through the "design process" -- later on students learn to jump between stages as described in the Atman paper "A comparison of freshman and senior engineering design processes" from last week.

Jumping a bit to the book by Cross: he is good at setting up little thought experiments. You can almost hear an undercurrent of "hey, there's no perfect way of looking at this, and what I'm about to suggest is one of many views and can be counter-argued just as much as any of them, but c'mere and look at this with me for just a moment..." I get the sense that he would have been a good Zen master (or whoever writes koans) in another life.

Among the thought experiments Cross builds (with the delicacy of an origami expert; precise folds made of fragile paper) is the positioning of design as a "third culture" alongside the sciences and humanities, pointing out that "in most cases, it is easier to contrast the sciences and humanities (e.g. objectivity versus subjectivity, experiment versus analogy) than it is to identify the relevant comparable concepts in design." It's a restructuring of boundaries away from a familiar binary; Cross posits "design thinking" as something distinct from the activities of scientists and humanities practitioners (what's the right word here? "Humanitarians" isn't it.). I found that notion more useful in making me reconsider science and the humanities than in convincing me about anything regarding design, except for perhaps that none of the activities of design is particularly unique to that world. I mean, everyone refines problems. Everyone translates between the concrete and the abstract (once they reach a certain stage of Piagetian development, anyway).

Likewise, his "pretend for a moment that..." exploration of "what if we treated design as one of the multiple intelligences?" is a good thought experiment, and Cross acknowledges that the underpinnings of his argument falls apart quickly -- but they're supposed to. It''s a finger pointing to the moon.

When Cross defines what a designer actually does, his definition is pretty close to Lande & Leifer's. Cross says that a designer is someone who makes designs; they produce descriptions of exactly what an artifact will/should look like or be. This is contrasted to manufacturing, which is the actual making-of things. Lande & Leifer have those categories of "thinking types" in their framework along with two others:

  • future thinking - reset the problem, results in question
  • design thinking - solving a problem, results in idea
  • engineering thinking - making a solution, results in artifact
  • production thinking - remaking a solution, results in facsimiles of stuff

Again, I... see all sorts of ways this framework falls apart (manufacturing engineers need to reset the problem while they're solving it, and come up with ideas and artifacts all the time, and so forth -- boundaries blur as soon as you look at them), but will accept it as one way of setting up a view of the world, temporarily. And I think that's the thing; these are all supposed to be tools and models, not absolute definitions for all time. It's sort of like Nirvana's version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" compared to the Jingle Punks Hipster Orchestra arrangement done all in classical strings. One isn't "right" nor the other "wrong." They're different.

Lande & Leifer introduced a term that is currently maddening me, because I can't find it anywhere else and I think it could be cool to dig into it further. They talk about something called a situative zeitgeist as a catalyst for student learning, and describe it as "a close proximity to other groups in a shared design loft." I scratch my head, go "well, that sounds kinda like accidental learning to me, but..." and want to see more of what they're thinking about it, but can't find anything. I'm curious whether I can think about my own research on radical transparency as an attempt to enable a situative zeitgeist for more people in more places at more times. Reckon I should ask Amy about that.

Email sent. Onwards!