Why It Might Actually Be Just Like Rocket Science


Big design

If you’re working on sending say, a manned mission to Mars, you’re going to be thinking about, building, and integrating life support systems, medical systems, communication systems, scientific systems, propulsion systems, IT systems... You’re going to be thinking about human ergonomics, nutritional requirements... And the list goes on.

And you’ve got to weave all this complexity together into a coherent, functioning whole in such a way that it successfully accomplishes the mission.

This is what Tim Brown, the president of the design company IDEO calls ‘big design' - as opposed to the design of aesthetics, fonts and the like.

Now the notion of ‘design thinking’ isn’t new. And it has had its critics. Not least of all because it’s incredibly vague about what it actually is. Even Brown admits that he has yet to come up with a definition. A lot of talk about design thinking seems to focus on the input - multidisciplinary teams, rapid and frequent prototyping, etc.

It seems to me that design thinking (or at least ‘big design’ thinking) is ultimately about building complex, integrated systems for humans to use, inhabit, or interact with. Whether that’s a customer service product, a piece of software, a theme park, a video game, a piece of urban planning. Or even a manned mission to Mars.

As Brown has blogged: “Design has always broken complex systems down into small parts and formed individual components (products, services, buildings, applications) that come together to create system level behaviors.”

So design thinking thinks not just about products. But the relationship between people and products. Between products and other products. And between people and other people.

Design thinking and what we do

Now this may all be fantastically self-indulgent. But I do find this notion of design thinking interesting because the current definitions and perspectives on what we do really aren’t serving us very well.

They don’t adequately describe what we do. They miss out a lot of the things we’re interested in, or need to get interested in. And most importantly of all, they they don’t adequately inspire and guide us to approach challenges differently (or appropriately).

The inadequacy and irrelevance of the notion that we’re in the ‘messaging’ is a pet peeve of mine. Banging on about 'social' this and 'social' that isn’t much more helpful. We surely need a different and more useful conception of what we do all day.

According to Brown, the experiences we will be creating will be “complex combinations of products, services, space and information.” For him, design thinking is a way of giving form to them. In a world where everything is becoming connected to everything else (or can be connected), this feels like a valuable, perhaps even necessary, perspective.

So thinking of ourselves as designers of experiences might help us more be more deliberate and conscious in our innovation. It might encourages in us, new, additional behaviors. And it might get us asking different things of the stuff we make.

And rather than think of ourselves as making an ad, or a message - a singular isolated object or thing that is piped down to consumers - thinking of ourselves as designers (and our output as design) might get us thinking more about combinations, ecosystems and interactions. It might help shift some of our assumptions and thinking:

From silos to systems

How does it synthesize product, service, space and information?

How do the different elements of product, service, space and information create a coherent experience?

How does it connect to other products, services and platforms?

What other ecosystems is it a part of and does it contribute to?

From assuming passive audiences to active audiences

How is it incomplete without people’s participation?

How does it give people things to do?

How does it reward people’s participation?

From being brand-centered to user-centered

How is it built around the needs and desires of users, rather than around the needs and desires of a marketing department?

From focusing on audience attention to user experience

Is it easy to find?

What is it like to use?

Is it easy to navigate?

How does it engage the senses?

What happens when things go wrong?

From selling to solving

How does it actually solve a real world problem or issue?

How does it enhance a moment, an experience, a transaction, a life?

How does it provide people with access to what they are wanting?

How does it amplify people’s abilities?

How does it accelerate the satisfaction of needs and desires?

How does it make visible and connect like-minded people?

From creating campaigns to platforms

How does it create lasting value?

How does it encourage people to stay?

How will it keep people coming back?

From consumers are receivers to consumers as journeyers and experiencers

How does it start?

Where do people begin?

Where do people come from?

How does it unfold?

What is people’s path through the experience?

What are the on- and off-ramps?

What happens next?

Where do people land up?

From delivering entertainment and/or information to delivering entertainment and/or utility

How is it useful?

Does it provide personal, social, or emotional utility?

I’m not entirely sure. But “What are we designing?” feels like an interesting question to be asking. Or to have at the back of one’s mind.

Certainly it’s a whole lot more useful than “What is the message?” And probably has greater breadth and scope than all the “What’s the conversation?” that gets bandied about.

So perhaps we are all designers now.

And perhaps - despite what they say about our industry- what we do is actually just a tiny little bit exactly like rocket science.


Bret G. Drake, editor, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, ‘Reference Mission Version 3.0, Addendum to the Human Exploration of Mars: The Reference Mission of the NASA Mars Exploration Study Team,’ June 1998

Tim Brown, ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, June 2008

Tim Brown, interview with Design Taxi at http://designtaxi.com/article/101286/Design-Thinking-or-How-to-Make-Design-Big-Again