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Aesthetics in Design Thinking

Both Design Thinking business discourse and research relies heavily on the problem-solution dichotomy for explaining what design is. The emphasis is given to go beyond the common-sense notion of design as form shaping and open new spaces for design in science and business.

The aesthetics of form shaping is not entirely rejected in this turn, but reduced to an aspect of the so-called solution, among others. In this view, the aesthetical sensibility becomes a secondary skill in design thinking, under the unique problem solving approach. Such a view makes it easier to generalize a design process and avoid the prejudice of more “serious” areas such as science and business.

I believe this is like throwing away the baby with the dirty water. Aesthetical sensibility is the key to design problem solving. Here is why.

Design thinking proponenets argues that design problems don’t have a right or wrong answer because there are no general criteria for assessment. Each design process happens in a context where there is specific criteria, but this criteria is not always clear, since it depends on subjective judgments. Then, there are multiple solutions to a single problem and both problem and criteria can be revised when a solution comes out. Bruce Lawson explains this as a circular process in which problem and solutions are constantly analyzed, synthesized and evaluated.

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How do designers judge among all these possibilities of problems and solutions? Here comes the aesthetical sensibility. The aesthetic judgment is not only about visual form, but also, and primarily, about attitude. The aestheticization of politics, wherein design played a crucial role, ethics became intertwined with aesthetics in the everyday life. That’s why great designers are so admired; they become proficient at doing admirable ethical-aesthetical judgment that others wants to buy for themselves.

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What would be of Apple without the ethical-aesthetical leadership of Steve Jobs?

Jack Schulze, a design practioner, wrote an interesting comment about his work:

Some people (they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

The industrial culture demands innovation, yet not every novelty is accepted. Designers must be aware of trends but not stick completely to it. Designer’s role in the society is to update the material culture to be in tune with current social dynamics. For a more profound discussion on that, I suggest Cameron Tonkiwise critics on design thinking.

there is an expertise to designing which involves reading people’s taste regimes for their practice style potentials, or vice versa. A crucial part of designing is being sensitive to overlapping tastes, the habitus that enables those overlaps, and so the practice dispositions of people with such habitus. Designers are concerned with style, because style is a translator of people’s structured choices into action propensities.

Of course this claim adds complexity to design thinking, but if we frame this discussion as a cultural literacy issue, it may add extra fun to it.

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