Design Thinking, in Theory


One of our biggest challenges at Fat Pencil Studio is simply explaining what we do. It’s not so hard to show off what we make: 3d models, diagrams, animations, maps, infographics, to name a few. However, these things are just the end result of a design process that we use to create visual stories. That process is where the real value of our work lies, but how should we explain it? Can we give it a name?

One option is "design thinking," a buzzy term that inspires some and irritates others. On the one hand, designers are tired of being thought of as purveyors of things merely pretty, and so shading what we do with innovative intellectual mystique is appealing. On the other hand, to suggest that "design thinking" is some hot new enterprise is to denigrate what designers have always done: creatively solve problems of both form and function. My favorite design quote, after all, comes from iconic graphic designer Saul Bass, who wasn't trying to disrupt anything, or raise his profile on LinkedIn. He puts it beautifully: "Design is thinking made visual."

So while the concept of design thinking is as old as design itself, it's also true that the rigorous process of visually organizing information hasn't been adopted in many professional fields until recently. And that's one of the things that makes our work so exciting. We get to see the power of design thinking over and over again when we show our clients their own information in a visual format. Being able to see the facts/issues/places at hand allows them to engage with the information in a deeper way, and communicate with greater precision and insight. It allows them to get answers to questions they had, and shows them new questions that hadn't yet been asked. Tim Brown, CEO of global design firm IDEO, calls it "building to think."

In other words, the purpose of building a model/diagram/prototype/animation/etc. is to be able to think creatively about a problem you’re trying to solve. These visual tools offer new perspectives, allow broader participation for stakeholders, and ultimately lead to better decisions and more persuasive exhibits. After reading this far, are you still wondering how design thinking could possibly benefit your work? Stay tuned for specific examples in a post next month. In the meantime, please keep in mind that Fat Pencil Studio offers a wide range of visual tools to help you proceed with confidence in your work to sell projects, win cases, and share ideas.

Ady Leverette was a designer and a principal at Fat Pencil Studio between 2011 and 2018.