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QUARTERLY OF THE INDUSTRIAL DESIGNERS SOCIETY OF AMERICA SUMMER 2018

Design for ________


DE SI G N DE F I NED

From Design Thinking to Integral Design

A BRIDGE NOT TOO FAR


T
his piece is not about today’s abundance of design able and describes the entire elephant from various perspec-
thinking prescriptions to help businesses be more tives. The blind men then learn that they were all partially
successful by using design. Nor does it dwell on the correct and partially wrong. The moral is that while one’s
practice of design as we have known it. subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of
The full potential of design—to delight and enrich cus- truth, regardless of how objective it may appear.
tomers while helping businesses be more successful—is This is what seems to be happening with design think-
layered like an onion. Therefore, greater breadth and depth ing as well. We see at least three possible reasons. First, the
are needed to understand and explain it more comprehen- strategic use of design in business is in vogue, arguably due
sively. In this brief article, we offer a framework that might to the huge successes of organizations using design, such
just be up to the task of integrating the whole of design. as innovators like Apple and Airbnb and design adopters
like Amazon and Pepsico. Second, social media has made
Subjective Objectivity everyone a critic in a globally competitive context. Therefore,
To date, attempts to fully explain design can be compared products and services have to be better and better to suc-
to the story of the six blind men and the elephant. This ceed. And third, nobody wants to miss out on achieving the
ancient Indian parable broadly goes: greater success that using design seems to promise. Hence,
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called a general thesis drives modern teaching and consulting
an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none were approaches to design. This is especially so in design thinking
familiar with its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said, programs, which promise clients methodologies that will help
“We must inspect and know it by touch.” So they sought it their companies be more successful.
out, found it and groped about it. One person whose hand So design thinking can be thought of as the new
landed on the trunk said, “This being is elephant in the room, a concept many
like a snake.” For another whose hand describe according to their own percep-
reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of tions, but that few call out as an incomplete
fan. As for another person whose hand description of the essential methodology of
was upon its leg, the elephant was like design. But design is a two-way conversa-
a tree trunk. The blind man who placed tion and demands orginal, innovative and
his hand upon its side said, “It is a wall.” even provocative interactions with custom-
Another who felt its tail described it as
a rope. The last felt its tusk stating the
elephant was like a spear. The four quadrants (I, IT, WE and ITS)
In some versions, the blind men stop I is the interior of the individual;
talking and start listening and collaborate IT is the exterior of the individual;
in order to “see” the full elephant. In WE is the interior of the collective; and
another, a sighted man enters the par- ITS corresponds to the exterior of the collective.

8 IDSA.ORG
was influenced by Wilber’s integral theory, helping the
design firm balance the individual and collective dimensions
of product design both internally and externally. The experi-
ences from using this approach in combination with the
body of Design-in Tech work at Ideafarms are what led us to
the idea of interpreting design through the AQAL framework.
And as such, we think the potential of reducing the blur
between design being, design doing, design thinking and
design results makes sense going forward.
© 2018. Jeff Smith & Sunil Malhotra We have begun prototyping integral design using
Wilber’s quadrants (left). And we are optimistic about the
ers, in addition to a good understanding of and response possibilities to further describe, correlate, and develop fun-
to their needs and wants. And originality, innovation and damental design disciplines and detailed levels of skills.
provocation are not known to proliferate from using typical This way of laying out design makes it easy to under-
customer research methodologies, however design oriented stand the current popularity of its left-brain-oriented quad-
they may claim to be. rants on the right side of the framework (pun unintended).
This is because quantifiable and objective dimensions of
Integral Design Framework reality are almost always more easily accepted by business
We believe that describing design from philosopher Ken leaders. Here we find that design thinking maps well as the
Wilber’s integral reality perspective provides us with a holis- process or system that seems to most drive measurable
tic vantage point to further explain design. results-oriented behavior.
Ken Wilber is an American writer on transpersonal The other dimensions are equally, if not more, sig-
psychology who has proposed a four-quadrant grid to nificant in ensuring that design does not get relegated to
synthesize all human knowledge and experience. All being a mostly quantitative activity and that character and
Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) is his basic framework (see personality do not get diminished. These dimensions, in
diagram on page 8). It models human knowledge and contrast, come from informed points of view combined with
experience along the interior-exterior and individual-collec- interdisciplinary collaboration, both of which reside in the
tive axes as a comprehensive approach to reality. opposing left quadrants.
As the theory goes, everything in the human experi- Once the definition of the disciplines in each quadrant is
ence happens within these four dimensions of reality. Our clear, the next step is to also include design sub-disciplines
aspiration in using this framework is that it leads to a more and skills. And as we do, we imagine the integral design
definitive and holistic approach for all who seek to leverage framework can bridge the left and the right, the top and
design more fully. the bottom, and the corners to corners. In short, we aim to
Much of the design journey of LUNAR’s first 30 years connect all aspects of design successfully to one to another.
—Jeff Smith, Co-founder, Smith+Furbershaw,
designsmith@gmail.com and Sunil Malhotra, Co-founder
and CEO, Ideafarms, sunil.malhotra@ideafarms.com

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