Scientists should think like designers – Design thinking and the sciences

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Joseph, one of our team writers, has delivered yet another thought-provoking, inspiring article to help scientists elevate their thinking by thinking like designers. We hope you enjoy the read and challenge your thinking because of it!

Design thinking

I see design all around us, whether it be intentional or accidental, natural or human-made. Design is not limited to gizmos and gadgets, but also systems of organisation and interactions between them, the power structure when you envisage a countries parliament or a CEOs boardroom. None of these are free from the influence of design and this is shown in the Westminster system – a widely exported version of the UKs Parliament and is essentially a process for managing democracy.  

Communication unconsciously utilises design: we highly regard individuals who have the ability to create patterns of language which communicates technical, emotional and spatial information. The formation, structure and material content of communication and also its quality is subject to the influence of design; therefore, in our own way, we have a major influence over the language we create. This is because everything from your laptop screen (or any other device you are reading this on), to the experiments conducted in the worlds research institutions, and the words typed on this page is the subject of, at one point or another, a design methodology.

Photo by Leon from unsplash.

Personal

Focusing in on academia, the processes of curiosity demand the highest quality of design as it is essential in order to create data outcomes which can withstand criticism. Therefore, the ways we create experiments, communicate visions and translate data into the real world is influenced by the ability for academics to use good design techniques at every point in the process.

As a second-year biomedical science student, I have learnt to criticise papers that haven’t been kind to the readers or left room for doubt. For me this raised the question: where does poor experimental/ paper design end and bad science begin? Was it the language, experiment, graphical abstract, spelling, use of overly technical language? – these are all things we pick out of each other’s work and rightly so – but could the creators of the science improve their work by employing a form of design methodology? I think they probably could!

Photo by Christa Dodoo from unsplash.

Definitions and uses

I recently discovered the term design thinking. This is the process by which problems are solved by prioritizing the users of the systems needs above all else. It relies on observing, with empathy, how people interact with their environments, and employs an iterative, hands-on approach to creating innovative solutions (Graham Tuttle, 2021). As you can see, from the reference, I borrowed this definition from the WeWork website and modified it to give a more universal definition.

Now design thinking is cool because not only is it applicable to designing products, but also systems of government and everything in between. Therefore, it could, in theory, also be used to design good science and inform good practices within academic communities.

Fundamentally, design thinking is a way of designing around the human experience. There are some great books out there such as Tim Browns ‘Change By Design’ which I highly recommend keeping on hand for reference. This methodology is applicable to academics because it sets out a creative framework with certain guidelines to assure quality communication and quality development, which gives room for experimenting with ideas – all contributing to a quality end product. The obvious application of this in the sciences is in an idea that results in a human interacting product or service. More interestingly, design thinking can be applied within institutions and between scientific peers. This is because it promotes the use of prototypes, rough drawings, mimes and roleplay with a specific focus on quality communication and quality of understanding within the team – and this is a critical precursor to spectacular innovation.

Photo by Daniele Franchi from unsplash.

A new way to think

Thinking like a designer encourages a process called ‘Blue sky thinking’ – where members of the group innovate without the limitations of existing technology or the stiflings of ones own thoughts. This enables free reign when tackling novel problems. Design thinking is powerful because in the ideation stages, before the processes of creation has begun, we are provided with a framework that increases the potency of a group of scientists and their highly reactive mixture of energetic ideas.

Final thoughts

I believe a take-home message of how to apply what is such a broad methodology into each of our behaviours starts with the two following questions:

  • Have I thought about the users and those who will interact with the idea, with regards to what I have planned or will create?
  • Have I collaborated, communicated, innovated and iterated to the best of my ability and used as many mediums as possible to communicate and plan?

Try to think about how colleagues and peers would engage with your ideas – are they accessible? Do they promote innovation and creativity? By asking yourself these two questions throughout the lifetime of a project, I hope you will reap some of the benefits of thinking like a designer.

Please comment some of your thoughts below – do you already employ these ideas? Let us know in the box or by sending us an email.

Thank you for reading.

By Joseph Myatt

Edited by Jessica Griffith

Joseph Myatt

Joseph Myatt, one of our writers, is a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at UWE, Founder and entrepreneur at WRENt.

His main field of interest/ research through university and into masters/ PhD is in relation to torpor and improving our understanding of inducing, maintaining and managing torpor and its applications within space flight and medicinal benefits.

From the editor: We love articles that challenge us, especially how we think and Joes article has done just that. Thank you for taking the time to read this and we hope you find ways to employ the nuggets you have just been given to elevate your own scientific practice (this is for students and professionals!).

We always welcome new articles and so hope you will also consider either joining our team or writing an article for us to be featured on our blog. If so and/ or you have any other queries, please get in touch via and also be sure to follow us on social media!

Enjoy the lovely summer weather (for the most part) and see you next time!

References

Featured image: Photo by Daria Nepriakhina from unsplash.

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