Two modes of design thinking

Design, whatever the domain, includes two different modes of thinking. In one, the designer generates ideas freely, often responding only loosely to any given need or problem. In the other, the designer takes some previously articulated design ideas, and attempts to improve them.

The first mode is expansive, and most successful when critical judgment is suspended; the second is reductive, and calls for focus and analysis. The first tends to complicate a design and make it less coherent as new ideas are introduced that have yet to find their place; the second brings order and clarity.

An experienced design oscillates between these modes at all times. Finding a flaw during a careful and focused analysis of a design, she might decide to take a step back and brainstorm some ideas for how to overcome it.

Two distinct phases of design

In the early stages of a design, a standard approach is to separate these modes of thinking into distinct design phases. In the first, divergent phase, the goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible, postponing judgment and critical analysis; then, in the second, convergent phase, the goal is to coalesce a ragtag collection of ideas into a coherent design. One rationale for this is that the expansive thinking of the divergent phase is fragile and easily inhibited when criticisms are raised.

Some misconceptions

The rising popularity of design thinking, and enthusiasm for divergent design in particular, has led to some common misconceptions.

Design is primarily divergent

Perhaps the most pervasive misconception is one that is rarely articulated explicitly, but is often implied. It is that the fundamental nature of design is divergent, and that designers spend most of their time “ideating,” playfully generating wild and whacky ideas. In practice, however, most design work is convergent, and the essential qualities of a great design often come from working through fine details. Just watch Jony Ive talk about the design of the Macintosh laptop, and the emphasis he places on getting exactly the right curvature on the corners.

When creativity happens

Related to this misconception is the assumption that creativity happens mostly during the divergent phase: some people even seem to equate creativity with ideation. But as Barbara Boden explains in a widely cited article, there are different kinds of creativity. She calls one of the kinds of creativity combinational creativity, which involves producing unfamiliar combinations of existing ideas and making associations between ideas that were previously only indirectly linked. This kind of creativity arises more often in convergent design, when existing ideas have been articulated and the designer is exploring how they might be coalesced.

Where simplicity comes from

Because convergent design involves smoothing off rough edges and eliminating needless complications, it’s easy to imagine that it’s the only source of simplicity in design work. But even if it’s the primary source of simplicity, it’s not the only one.

Divergent design may produce a collection of ideas that are all too complicated to be refillable into a simple solution, in a case of “you can’t get there from here.” And during convergent design itself, a complexity problem may be resolved only by stepping beyond the immediate constraints of the current design and engaging in some expansive design thinking to generate a new idea and get out of a rut. This is like what happens in a gradient-descent search when the algorithm gets stuck in a local minimum and one option for finding a better solution is to take a random jump to a different location.