In the year 1202, a mathematician named Leonardo of Pisa published a book that changed the world. To many he is known as Fibonacci, and he’s famous because this sequence of numbers0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so onbears his name. The Fibonacci series, as it is known, is an algorithm or proportion found in nature, from the bracts of pinecones to DNA molecules, in which the first number of the sequence is 0, the second number is 1, and each subsequent number is equal to the sum of the previous two. Although Fibonacci is best known for this series of numbers, it is his lesser-appreciated book Liber Abaci, in which the numbers appeared as the answer to an algebraic word problem, that many consider a keystone contribution to the advancement of humankind.
In 1180, at the age of 10, Fibonacci left his home in Pisa to join his father, who directed a Mediterranean trading post in Algeria . As was customary, Fibonacci became his father’s apprentice and began a study of accounting. However, because his father’s trading business was located in North Africa, his education was not based entirely on the praxis of medieval European mathematics, which at the time used Roman numerals, but also on a system used by the Moorish merchants his father did business with. It was in this world, miles from his birthplace, where the young Fibonacci was first introduced to the concept of a decimal point and 10 strange symbols that looked like these: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. At the age of 32, after years assisting his father and mastering this system of mathematics, Fibonacci returned to Pisa and published Liber Abaci, or “Book of Calculation.” It was his attempt to formally introduce the use of this more useful and usable Hindu-Arabic system to Europe.
Fibonacci did not invent modern arithmetic, nor was he the first to write about it. Hindu-Arabic numerals were already known to some European intellectuals through the writings of al-Khwarizmi, a ninth-century Arab mathematician . Fibonacci’s genius lies in his ability to teach and explain this new system in a way that professional and scientific men of his day could understand and apply to their daily lives. His book was not the typical esoteric treaty on numbers, as many mathematical texts tended to be in those daysmath for mathematicians . Instead, Liber Abaci was a thorough and cleverly designed manuscript that demonstrated how to employ this new system to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use algebra to solve problems familiar to his 13th-century readers, problems such as how to calculate a profit margin, change money, or measure something. He was the original, the first in a long line of abacists, who propagated this new way of thinking throughout Europe, enabling people to run businesses more efficiently, advance the practice of scientific measurement, and create whole new industries that extend all the way to our modern age .
Imagine Copernicus or Galileo trying to quantify the effects of temperature, velocity, or the workings of the solar system with Roman numerals. Everything, from early economic theory to modern-day computer science, would be nothing more than conjecture without the scaffolding of arithmetic to support it. It has led to an era of exponential growth in many facets of our life and our development as an intellectual and practical species. But it was the early years of The Industrial Age (18401950) and the tremendous increase in urban populations and factory work that proved to be the cultural tipping point. A very real need for math literacy emerged for millions of the working class eager to participate and succeed in this new world. As a result, by 1900 mathematics officially joined reading and writing to form the core of curriculums in industrialized countries around the world. And there is little doubt that this systemic commitment to math literacy helped bring about The Information Age (1950present), and with it the technological growth and improved quality of life that define this era.
A New Mind Shift
As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century and what many consider the end of The Information Age, a recent flurry of books, articles, and initiatives seem to indicate that a new, pervasive mind shift is afoot. It’s called design, and like arithmetic, which was once a peripheral human aptitude until the industrial age forced it to be important for everyone, recent global changes and the heralding of a new age are positioning design as the next human literacy.
There are many names for this next age. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, calls it the “conceptual age.” Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Business and author of The Design of Business, refers to it as the “creative age.” A.G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, makes numerous references to “innovation culture” in his book The Game Changer. Still others are referring to it as the “connected age.” Whatever future historians decide to name these times, one thing Pink, Martin, Lafely, and many others agree on is that the recent radical shift to a globally connected economy, and the abundance, outsourcing, automation competition, and complexity it is heralding, are creating the need for a new kind of human and new kinds of organizations especially competent in design.
It’s important to acknowledge (and I will discuss later) that talk and practice of universal design methods and design thinking have been on the rise for almost a half-century . But as you read this next paragraph, note how the three quotes it comprises flow. It is as if Pink, Martin, and Lafelyrecent contributors to the “design dialog”had written it together.
“The wealth of nations and the well-being of individuals now depend on having artists in the room. In a world enriched by abundance but disrupted by automation and outsourcing of white-collar work, everyone, regardless of profession, must cultivate an artistic sensibility…. Today we must all be designers.” . “When it comes to innovation, business has much to learn from the world of design. I’ve said before that business people don’t need to understand designers better; they need to be designersto think and work like designers and to embed design-shop characteristics in their organizations” . “Good design is a catalyst for creating total experiences that transcend functional benefits alone and delight consumers. It is a catalyst for moving a business from being technology-centered or product-myopic to one that is more consumer-experience-centered” .
These views are echoed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a U.S. government-sponsored consortium of state and privately run organizations dedicated to education reform. Central to its framework for 21st century learning is the call for “innovation skills.” In its words, “Learning and innovation skills are what separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century and those who are not. They include: creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration” . President Obama himself, in a recent speech at the National Academy of Sciences to launch National Lab Day, said, we need to be “encouraging young people to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”
In a recent talk on design thinking, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, showed a slide that read, “Design is too important to be left to designers” . Now, think about that for a moment. My guess is that you will find this statement to be accurate, ridiculous, or alarming, depending on how you interpret it and what your definition of design is. What Brown means is that design will have its greatest impact when it is no longer perceived to be in the hands of people who are professional designers (e.g., industrial, graphic, interface, fashion) and it is put back into the hands of everyone. Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman, authors of The Design Way, echo this sentiment: “The process of design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business it is to create or lead something… anyone whose job it is to imagine something that does not yet exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence.”
If you call yourself a designer, take heed. For Brown, Pink, Martin, Lafely, Stolterman, Nelson, myself, and many others , design is foundational. I’ll go a step further and say that design is like reading, writing, and arithmetic: something everyone should do, everyone can and should be taught to do, and many are starting to do. Such beliefs have the very real potential to disrupt not only the design professions but also education and work itself.
Brown shares a story in his new book, Change by Design, about nurses at Kaiser Permanente who applied design thinking (e.g., human-centered design methods such as contextual inquiry, ideation, rapid prototyping, and usability testing) to improve the patient experience. The nurses’ solution, which involved a new protocol and a simple software tool, ultimately led to a 50 percent increase in overall job efficiency, increased patient confidence, and increased job satisfaction for their peers. Compare this with a small but growing number of design consultancies like ZIBA and Cooper that offer design education for non-designers, or MAYA Design’s recent decision to spin off LUMA Institute, a venture 100 percent dedicated to teaching companies how to embed design thinking into their work culture. You might wonder why these consultancies would teach self-proclaimed non-designers (their clients) how to “fish for themselves.” Wouldn’t this create less demand for consulting services, and threaten business? “In one sense it can be seen as a threat,” says Mickey McManus, CEO of MAYA Design. “But there are two things that outweigh that. For one, the world is exploding exponentially with ever more powerful and complex things; even if there were a thousand MAYA’s, there would still be no shortage of hard, wicked problems to solve and overwhelmingly poor products, services, and environments to fix. Secondly, the workshops have raised appreciation for the business value of design and what good designers can do. In many cases this has translated into more productive consulting relationships, where companies resolve the low-hanging fruit themselves, and call us in to help tackle the really big challenges.”  Alan Cooper, whose company (Cooper) has been offering design-related workshops since 2002 concurs, “In the new economy, when it comes to IP, its highest yield comes in sharing it, not protecting or exercising it. This has been true for us with regard to our educational arm, Cooper U, and teaching our methods to our clients and in some cases our competition. There is no downside to giving it away for two reasons. For one, there are more starry-eyed engineers out there building incredibly hard-to-use things than there are competent designers trying to make things comprehensible and pleasurable for human beings. My job is like sweeping sand off the beach: It’s a never-ending task. Second, teaching design turned out to be good for our reputation, and this ultimately helped our business. The product managers, software engineers, and interaction designers we taught would return from our design boot camps with some basic tools to tackle internal design problems. But when they realized they needed help, they would bring us in as consultants. In retrospect, this surprised us.”
What Does It Mean to be “Design Literate”?
Just as ways to count and calculate have existed since the dawn of civilization, well before Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci, so too have the practice and intent of design. Methods for producing fire, the loom, and irrigation systems are just a few great designs from our ancient world. With regard to math and design, what we are talking about here is the emergence of a better way to do it and the mass proliferation of these better practices.
But what does it mean to be design literate? To understand this, let’s first return to mathematics. For the most part I think we can agree on what is meant by being math literate as opposed to being an expert in math or a mathematician. We are talking about basic analytical skills in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, measurement, and statistics, which we find ourselves using on a daily basis to solve problems at home, school, and work and without which we would have a difficult time getting by. We are not talking about mastery of specialized forms of math that professionals such as cryptanalysts or actuaries might use, like calculus, Bayesian probability, and differential equations. We are talking about basic skills that are well within the full range of everyone’s cognitive capabilities and serve our everyday needs.
Similarly, I think we can use this same line of reasoning to clarify what is meant by being design literate, as opposed to being an expert in design or a design professional. We are talking about basic skills in inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching, and prototyping. We are not talking about mastery of more specialized forms of knowledge that a graphic or industrial designer might employ, such as typography, color theory, or CAD, but basic skills that are well within the full range of everyone’s cognitive and kinesthetic capabilities and serve our everyday needs.
Another way to approach what it means to be design literate is to ask the question in a slightly different way. Something like this: If an individual, team, or organization is good at design, what, exactly, are they good at? To date, Figure 1 is the best way that my colleagues and I have come up with to answer this question. It is our attempt to define the praxis of design thinking. We use it to identify what competencies we aim to develop in people and what methods we should teach in order to foster these competencies. It bears resemblance to other design-method taxonomies for sure. And those of you who are familiar with systems thinking, pattern language, and ethnography will be the first to acknowledge that many of the methods outlined have been present in the fields of system engineering, the applied arts, and anthropology for years. Architects and designers such as Christopher Alexander, Bryan Lawson, John Chris Jones, as well as scientists like Buckminster Fuller and Nobel Laureate Herb Simon have been writing about universal principals and people-centered methods of design for more than 45 years and in my mind are design’s equivalents to Fibonacci.
In Conclusion. In Abduction
One could chalk up this recent focus on design thinking and creativity to hypethe latest business trend to take hold of us. It’s certainly easy to dismiss, given monikers like “the industrial religion of our times” , and assertions that it “can transform your life, and maybe even save the world” . To be clear, there exists very little in the form of undisputable ROI for getting everyone to be more design-like. But before you dismiss it, consider that (a) as I mentioned before, “design thinking” is not new, but a reemergence of thought originated by Alexander, Jones, Simon, et al, back in the 1960s; (b) there have emerged global, economic, and social conditions that may do for design what the industrial age did for math; and (c) while in short supply, ROI for company-wide initiatives that foster design competency do exist and is being talked about by some very successful and very large organizations like P&G, General Dynamics, and Emerson Process Management . These companies are indicative of the now famous design index study conducted from 1994 to 2004 by the UK Design Council. The study, which set out to establish if there was a clear business advantage for companies who invested in design, clearly showed that design-led businesses outperformed their design-lacking counterparts and the FTSE index by a full 200 percent .
I do believe basic competency in design lies at the root of what it means to innovate; it’s a very important and strategic activity individuals and organizations attempt every day. And I do believe that individuals, teams, and whole organizations can develop a level of design competency and apply it to the making of anything, whether that “thing” is a product, program, process, place, policy, or perfume. The practice of design is broadly applicable and once mastered can help anyone and any organization “make things better.” Like basic mathematics, it is not rocket science, but well within the full range of everyone’s cognitive and kinesthetic capabilities and will help the rocket scientist, product manager, entrepreneur, filmmaker, and industrial designer alike harness the power and complexity inherent in 21st-century life and work.
But even if you agree with this premise, the reality of design literacy is easier said than done. The seeds have been planted, but for the everyday practice of design to become as pervasive and central to our way of being and making as arithmetic, we need to make an overall shift in the way we think about design, innovation, education, and work itself. For starters, two very popular stereotypes need to be stamped out. The first is design as merely the act of arranging how something looks. The second is innovation as good ideas that suddenly turn on in our mind, like a lightbulb. This is no small task when one considers the extent to which these notions are embedded in the way we work, and the culture at large.  But they are necessary to challenge and change if we want the majority of leaders in business, government, and education (not the small minority we have now) supporting initiatives like corporate-wide HCD institutes, training whole divisions of engineers how to make low-fidelity prototypes and test them, and incorporating design thinking throughout K-12 curriculums. In addition the praxis of design needs to be more formally understood and clearly expressed. Design is rife with exploratory, integrative, and abductive reasoning methods, but they are no mystery. The habits of a virtuoso can be observed, codified, and taught to everyone and will do much to balance our education system’s primary emphasis on mastery (see Figure 2). In the end, I do think pervasive competency in the collaborative and iterative skills of “looking” and “making” to understand and advance our world, or as Simon put it, “turn existing situations into preferred ones” may prove to be another watershed moment in our history (see Figure 3). Once added to our current pervasive human competency of reading, writing, arithmetic and our capacity to be objective, analytical, and deductive, it may even prove to be profound.
You may wonder, and you have the right to, what’s all this fuss over design thinking and making everyone a designer? Industry and life have been getting along just fine without it. This is true and difficult to argue. Industry and society, particularly in the West, have been getting along just fine. But let me leave you with this. I would argue that most of those living in 1202 thought they were getting along just fine with Roman numerals. No one, not even Fibonacci, foresaw how this new way of solving problems would emerge into a pervasive literacy and become the source of such massive and fundamental changes. Truly, it was an evolution of the mind.
1. Burnett, C. “Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci) and Arabic Arithmetic.” MuslimHeritagecom, 2005; http://www.muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=472/
2. Interesting to note, alKhwarizmi is where the word and idea of algorithm comes from; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_ibn_Musa_al-Khwarizmi/
4. The Italian abacists of the 14th century were instrumental in teaching the merchants the “new” Hindu-Arabic decimal place-value system and the algorithms for using it; http://www.math.tamu.edu/~dallen/history/renaissc/renassc.html/
8. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. “Skills Framework”; http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=60&Itemid=120/
9. TED. “Tim Brown Urges Designers to Think Big.” Video, September 2009; http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_brown_urges_designers_to_think_big.html/
10. Other more notable individuals who have contributed to the dialog on design thinking include Richard Buchanan, John Rheinfrank, Shelley Evenson, David Kelly, Nigel Cross, Bruce Mau, and Hugh Dubberly.
11. Since the launch of MAYA’s education initiative in 2007, Fortune 100 companies such as General Dynamics have collectively put hundreds of their employees through HCD workshops and are already seeing an ROI.
12. Martin, R. “The Creative Age.” Rotman Magazine, Spring/Summer 2006. “Apply creativity to a business context, and you get innovationwhat The Economist calls ‘the industrial religion of our times.’”
14. For P&G see: Lafley’s The Game Changer. For GD see: http://www.luma-institute.com/workshops/testimonials. For Emerson see: http://www2.emerson-process.com/en-US/news/pr/Pages/909-HumanCenteredDesign.aspx/
15. Design Council (UK). Design Index “The Impact of Design on Stock Market Performance,” 2004; http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/About-Design/Research/Design-Index/
16. Consider the definition of a U.S. design patent as that which “covers the ornamental design for an object having practical utility,” or the use of the word “designer” as a prefix to market fashionable apparel like “designer sunglasses” and “designer jeans,” or the persistent image of glowing light bulbs hovering above one’s head to represent innovation.
Chris Pacione is the director of LUMA Institute where he leads a highly skilled, multidisciplinary team of practitioners and educators, who are passionate about helping organizations foster pervasive competency in design. Pacione is also an adjunct instructor in the School of Design at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). He is a frequent speaker, teacher, and writer on the topic of design and education both in the U.S. and Europe. In 1999 he co-founded BodyMedia, Inc., one of the early pioneers in wearable health monitoring, and was responsible for interaction design and customer marketing for the company until 2008. From 1995 to 1999, he was an assistant professor in the School of Design at CMU where he held the McCandless Chair and taught courses in HCI, interface design, information design, and drawing. During and prior to his tenure at CMU, Pacione worked as an interaction designer for the Engineering Design Research Center at CMU and Fitch Richardson Smith’s Exploratory Design Lab, where he collaborated on new product development projects for such clients as Intel, Motorola, Xerox, and Kodak. He has an undergraduate degree in design from CMU and a master’s degree in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He holds several IDEA Gold Medal Awards sponsored by BusinessWeek and the IDSA, and has been awarded numerous U.S. and EU patents for his work.
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