Original design thinking* = Rhetorical thinking

* “Design thinking” has unfortunately become an overused buzzword, adopted by Silicon Valley digerati and strategy fashionistas to refer to solving problems in a “designerly” way. I hope to clarify the confusion, focused on the canon of design thought at Carnegie Mellon in the mid/late 90’s – early/mid 2010’s.

Proposed and advocated by Richard Buchanan — as drawn from Classical rhetoric and his studies with Richard McKeon at University of Chicago, with a lineage going back to John Dewey — the humanist, strategic view of design thought is essentially about communication and interaction among people, ideas, values, and cultures towards a deliberated resolution of “truth”.

What is rhetoric? It has unfortunately acquired an unsavory meaning, commonly seen as contrived double-talk or sly deception through verbal sleight-of-hand, associated with sneaky salesmen and unscrupulous politicians. However, rhetoric was originally an art of persuasive communication, dating back 2,000 years, first formalized by Aristotle, as a situated art (a set of disciplined, systematic connnections to ideas and methods, all operating in the background of one’s mind guiding their attitudes and behaviors). So rhetoric really offers strategies to shape people’s actions and thoughts via language.

Going further, a rhetorical act involves communication between a speaker and an audience given a particular set of circumstances and a focus of discussion, or topic. (ah, that notion of topos again, a place for exploration and truth-seeking) Thus the core elements that define a rhetorical moment or situation are: speaker, audience, context, and subject matter. There should also be a purpose, or goal for the speaker to accomplish. And naturally there is a method, or set of articulated techniques that shape the delivery and presentation of the speech to the audience, to elicit a variety of responses. This involves appeals made by the speaker to the audience’s sense of logic, emotion, and trusting the speaker as well, per their sense of character and judgment.

Unpacking this a bit more, a well-formed rhetorical act, or speech has three vital elements that constitute the argument put forth to the audience to interpret and respond:

the rhetorical stance

Logos: the logical, rational reasoning behind the argument, based on facts, evidence, data

Pathos: appeals to the audience’s emotions and sympathies

Ethos: a presentational style, conveying the speaker’s voice, tone, and character as deemed to be trustworthy/credible (or note) by the audience

Giving the argument’s overall shape is a sense of purpose or goal, guided by the context or place in which the argument is being made, and of course the various methods employed.

So how does this all connect to design thinking? What are the qualities shared between rhetorical thinking and design thinking as advocated by Buchanan?

  1. Focus on human-centric communication, recognizing the totality of the human being that is addressed with the “speech” (or designed artifact, in this case), not mere one-dimensional users or tools to be exploited for narrow goals. Strongly socially-focused, either at the individual or collective levels.
  2. A situational perspective, taking into account the variety of elements and circumstances that shape the communication and color the audience’s (or customer’s) perception: context, activity, task, goals, other people in the situation, other artifacts that arise, etc. It’s not just the speech act (or design) alone in a vacuum but the holistic view of all the interrelated pieces impacting each other.
  3. An integrative approach, not a piecemeal or episodic way of dealing with problems. Looking at how the logical structure, emotional value, and human factors fluidly influence/inform each other. Each builds upon each other and should be viewed together, resulting in a fully formed solution.
  4. Conversation is key. Dialogue and debate arise through communication and interaction with the audience. There are no absolute answers necessarily. Iteration and evolution towards some commonly/consensually agreed resolution is the mainstay.
  5. There is a necessary, effective sharing across other disciplines, leveraging knowledge and experience from other fields, ideas, or values as appropriate to make the positive effect upon the audience. So, multi-disciplinarity is a core aspect as well.

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