Role of intuition in design

The recent issue of Innovation, published by IDSA, features a fascinating debate pitting two design educators from very different institutions: Cranbook and IIT’s Institute of Design. The overall discussion hinges on “Design vs. Innovation” as its theme, and the differing viewpoints held by these spokespersons and their respective schools. This in fact serves as a follow-up to a debate done twenty years ago featuring Charles Owen (defender of scientific, rational methods approach from IIT/ID) and Michael McCoy (promoter of the experimentalist, visual semantics platform of Cranbrook). The debate of course continues into the 21st century, with many of the same issues, from the role of making, to teaching business leaders design, and the value of form vs. strategy.

But the one point that really got me excited is the question about the “role of intuition in design”. Hmmm! So what does each say?

Scott Klinker (Cranbrook), in referencing Charles Eames’ famous diagram of competing concerns, says “the designer can work with conviction at the overlap of these concerns. That is called informed intuition.” Continuing, Klinker says “Designers lead the public imagination with new proposals. Designers provide visions of what could be. Informed design experiments make sense of modern change and are risky, because they propose new behaviors, not just cater to observed, existing ones.”

So how about Jeremy Alexis (IIT/ID), what does he say? Disappointingly he ignores the question and does not suggest a role for intuition in ID’s rationalist methods-driven approach. Instead he delivers a sad, trite rant about “star designers” who only “design for themselves”, kinda like the Republicans’ tired old smear of Democrats as “tax and spend liberals”. Yawn. And since when was intuition suddenly equated to selfish egotism and celebrity vanity? Why the hostility against intuition? Wasn’t it Einstein who famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”? Hmm. Are you a Vulcan, Mr. Alexis?

Alexis explains, “When we create processes and methods that de-emphasize intuition, we will create fewer star designers. Instead we will create more designers that can operate in a competitive, profit-driven environment alongside marketing and finance. With more processes and methods, our work becomes easier to plan for and thus easier for mangers to accept.”

OK. So, from Alexis’ viewpoint it’s all about process management and making managers happy, rather than, oh I don’t know, maybe creating rewarding, engaging, memorable products & services and thus elevating customer appeal and repeat purchase, thereby driving up market share, brand value and profits? Would the ID’s heavily rationalist methods produce an iPhone, or a Wii, or Dyson or a Tivo? Doubtful. However, to be fair, the ID’s focus lately has been about training folks on re-inventing business processes and shaping new market strategies, rather than designing a new product per se. Tackling issues of social and environmental nature have also taken center-stage at the ID, which is commendable in many ways, deserving great applause!

And yet I still wonder why not a place for intuition in addressing such problems and more understanding of how to cultivate that admittedly mysterious sense for what is novel, poignant, delightful, or even whimsical. As I described earlier, I’m clearly more in Klinker’s camp, although sympathetic to Alexis’ point. It is undeniably a balance, but in my view there is a necessary role for intuition in that delicate phase just after exploratory research, during initial sketching/concepting, anticipating what’s next. While the design field overall is moving quickly towards addressing very complex problems, I still believe that one of the extraordinary qualities that we bring to the table as designers is a sense for that which is life enhancing and pleasurable and profound. And no method or formula can predictably produce that.

One Reply to “Role of intuition in design”

  1. Thanx for the reveiw of the interview. I still haven’t cracked open my copy.

    I find IIT’s position to be undefendable. Greatness comes from the infusion of soul into all that we do. Soul from the atheist point of view is about connectedness to humanity, to oneself and to the greater world around us. The way to do that is to never ignore our own passions and other underlying emotional connections to the work we are doing.

    Our humanity. Our emotion. that which we make a piece of ourselves manifest in the details is what makes us great.

    This is at the heart of the topic I’ll be speaking on in Malmo, Sweden this June @ the Business to Buttons conference ( The title of the talk is “‘What’s goin’ on’ to ‘We’re not gonna take it'”. I just love that title!

    In the end if you take our intuition out of the equation then you just end up with bad techno.

    — dave

Leave a Reply