design thinking* = rhetorical thinking

* Design thinking has unfortunately become an overused buzzword these days, adopted by web 2.0 digerati, strategy fashionistas, and pop culture trend-setters to refer to solving problems in a “designerly” way (or some flavor thereof). Here I hope to clarify the confusion, focused on the CMU-style of design thought.

Proposed and advocated by Dick Buchanan, as drawn from Classical rhetoric, the humanist, strategic view of design thought is essentially about communication and interaction, among people, ideas, values, and cultures towards some resolution of “truth”.

What is rhetoric? It has unfortunately acquired a dirty meaning these days, commonly thought of as sneaky double-talk and sly deception through verbal sleight-of-hand, associated with used-car salesmen and politicians. However, rhetoric was an art of persuasive communication, dating back 2,000 years, first formalized by Aristotle. As a situated art (set of disciplined systematic connnections to ideas and methods, all operating in the background of one’s mind guiding her attitues and behaviors), rhetoric offers strategies to shape people’s actions and thoughts with 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, her sense of character and judgment.

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

the rhetorical stance

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

Pathos: appeals to the audience’s emotions, sympathies, etc.

Ethos: a presentational style, conveying the speaker’s voice, tone, and character as deemed to be trustworthy/credible or not by the audience

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

So how does this relate back to design thinking? What are the qualities shared between rhetorical thinking and design thinking as advocated by CMU/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 POV, taking into account the variety of elements and circumstances that shape the communication and color the audience’s (or customers’) 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 vaccuum but the total 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 impact each other. Each builds upon each other and should be viewed together, resulting in a full, whole 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 strong sense of pulling from other disciplines, leveraging knowlege and experience from other fields, ideas, values as appropriate to make the positive effect upon the audience. So, multi-disciplinarity is a core aspect as well.

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