Critical thinking requires that you reflect on the information you use, the assumptions you have and the values that guide you in the choices you make. This reflection is a self-directed way of learning that starts with an examination of your thoughts so that your decisions are well-informed and thoughtful.
Your work, design vision, reasoning and even self, according to philosophical tradition, will improve when you make time for critical reflection. In the Aristotelian pursuit of excellence, reaching your potential as a rational human being requires that you critically reflect to avoid the biases, incomplete information, distortion and prejudices that affect your choices and ideas so that you can improve, learn and grow.
In addition to this classical background of critical thinking, present-day contexts define the goals of critical reflection in a world of rapidly changing and dynamic environments predicated on an abundance of information that is highly connected and quickly outdated. The strong focus on ongoing learning, where you “learn to learn” includes critical reflection for improvement and renewal by identifying what may be lacking, outworn, biased or distorted.
In the specific context of design (thinking), critical thinking incorporates reflection on the choices that are made, many of which are based on not only a scientific analysis of data but also the values of the design team. Software program developers, for example, have made a number of value-laden decisions in the case of the self-driving car. Whether the car, in case of an accident, should bump into two young people that cross the street, three elderly people on another lane or even sacrifice the driver itself. It is not possible to objectively ascertain the best decisions; instead your decision depends on your values, what you deem important and good. To experience the difficulty of moral dilemmas, why not play MIT’s experiment “The moral machine” at https://www.moralmachine.net/?
Where objectivity is required for scientific work, this detachment is impossible in design, where the subjective level of values and worldviews are harnessed with a singular pragmatic purpose ㇐ to improve a specific challenge in a specific context. You cannot make a neutral and distanced analysis when you empathize within a problem space and get in touch with the deeper motivations of users. The “preferable future” which is the aim of design, refers to Herbert Simon, one of the founding fathers of the design disciplines, who determined “Design can broadly be defined as deliberate action aimed at turning existing living conditions into preferred ones” (Simon, p. 111).
But the questions abound: What is preferable to the existing situation? And preferable to whom? And who decides? Design thinkers must think about the preferred situation that they are trying to create. And think for themselves, without allowing that their thinking be governed by stakeholders or senior managers, or the dominant beliefs in an organisation or society. When design really improves and innovates on a human basis, the designers apply critical thinking to determine the value of what they want to achieve with their work. Designers, as problem solvers and inventors of the future, have a responsibility. Designers must ward off distorted information, prejudices and assumptions to fully integrate critical thinking into the design process.
In this stage, take a step back from your intense involvement in developing solutions to your challenge. Reach a meta-level by asking these pivotal critical questions to discuss the assumptions, possible biases and prejudices, and preferred situation in your design work:
- Were the methods to collect the information sufficient? Is the information that your design vision is built upon sufficiently reliable?
- What are your possible biases and assumptions in the design vision? point-of-view? prototype?
- What values inform the design? What values are pivotal in the decisions you have made?
- What is the preferred situation that your work aims at?
The next step further is to try a variation of Edward de Bono’s famous “Six thinking hats” by wearing these hats in representation of different points of view, where each of the perspectives will contribute to the decision-making process and help you avoid possible pitfalls. In de Bono’s version, the six perspectives aim to look at the problem to make a decision based on 1. available data (white hat); 2. intuition, emotion (red hat); 3. negative outcomes, difficulties (black hat); 4. benefits, optimism (yellow hat); 5. creativity, alternative possibilities (green hat); and 6. process control, planning (blue hat).
In the version here adapted to five-person teams (teams need not be bigger than five persons; preferably four or five persons), the green hat of creativity is conflated into each of the remaining five perspectives:
Critically assessing available facts from data and methods (white)
Taking an intuitive, emotional approach to the design work (red)
Seeing only negative outcomes and difficulties of the decisions and vision (black)
Seeing only benefits of the decisions made and the design vision (red)
Taking a rational, planning approach to the design work (blue)
Partner up if there are more than five on your team; if less than five, leave one perspective out. The discussion can begin when each team member puts on their hat.
This pause for your first reflection, which occurs during the design work, is mainly aimed at improving the point-of-view and prototype(s) that your team is working on. At the end of the design work, another important opportunity for learning occurs when you have finished the activities and can reflect on them to discover what can still be improved in your toolkit of skills for solving complex challenges by asking the following questions:
- What surprised you? What can you learn from these surprises?
- What would you do differently next time? Why?
- Which of your skills and personal qualities are well-suited for solving complex problems? Which would you like to develop more?
- What did you learn on problem solving strategies and methods for dealing with complex challenges? Why did these (not) work? How did they differ from other strategies that you were already familiar with?
- In which situations would you want to apply things you have learned here?
If you have time, ask the earlier questions for reflection again:
- Is design just a neutral problem-solving activity?
- Can you identify the value-laden decisions that imply your personal involvement?
- If you can find the reflections of your own worldview, your values, and your assumptions throughout the design thinking process, what have you learned about yourself as a person and as designer?
Fill out the questionnaire on paper or digitally and, with your team, share two of the most remarkable findings. You may find tendencies that you will want to discuss further.