Design thinking

While the notion of classical design is relatively well understood, other terms of art have gained currency in more recent years, namely human-centered design and design thinking, which can be more difficult to nuance. At Fraîche, we use all three.

What is design?

Who's to say? In 1971, Victor Papanek said that design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order—that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.

More recently, design scholar Susan Yelavich has said that design has never been a discrete practice—that it's part of a continuum—while industrial designer Tucker Viemeister has said that design is the intention between form and function. Design research avant-gardist Dominique Sciamma has said that a human project culture, open to all disciplines and their bearers, working together to create the conditions for successful life experiences for everyone, today and tomorrow, is the real definition of design.

According to the International Council of Design, design is a discipline of study and practice focused on the interaction between a person and the man-made environment—taking into account aesthetic, functional, contextual, cultural, and societal considerations. As a formalized discipline, design is a modern construct:

"The field of design is made up not only of practitioners but also educators, authors, journalists, critics, and researchers, yielding a rich theoretical canon… Today designers work on business strategy, they create virtual environments, they craft digital interfaces, they design service systems, and new branches of design are evolving continuously… Designers are trained to analyze problems holistically, searching to understand not only the immediate or obvious problem but the system that created it… Designers strive to ‘do more with less.’ They maximize economy (of materials, of investment, of energy, etc.) through creativity and ingenuity; this idea is central to design."

International Council of Design (2024)

Fraîche approach

At Fraîche, we stand on the shoulders of these (and other) giants. Our years of experience have informed our point-of-view around three points along the design continuum.

Classical Design

Giving form to an idea through application of aesthetic practice in the creation of artifacts. Classical design is rooted in craft. It has a reverence for materials. Its main objective is beauty, coherence, harmony.

Human-Centered Design

Using specific processes, tools, and methods to prioritize good usability and experience. Human-centered design is rooted in process. It has a reverence for methods. Its main objective is delight, responsiveness, fit.

Design Thinking

Encouraging innovative solutions to problems through iterative experimentation. Design thinking is rooted in strategy. It has a reverence for mindsets. Its main objective is novelty, freshness, departure.

Adapting to the problem

While these practices are each quite flexible and extensible in terms of their application, we at Fraîche often think of them, loosely, as outcome excellence, process excellence, and a design frame of mind. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For us, it's important to remember one thing:

"The best design processes are those that adapt to the problem you want to solve–and not the other way around."

Marc Stickdorn, Markus Hormess, Adam Lawrence & Jakob Schneider

This Is Service Design Doing: Applying Service Design Thinking in the Real World (2018, O'Reilly Media)

Enduring relevance of human-centered design

Has human-centered design peaked? Is it responsible for the polycrisis we as a species now face? Did we center human hubris at the expense of the planet?

Well, yes.

But we at Fraîche take note that the flaw in prior attempts rests with the desires being centered, not the method itself. From the mid-twentieth century to roughly the pandemic era, human wants and needs were largely misguided, rooted in a deep misunderstanding about our place in a broader system of life and the now-obvious limits of endless growth. Humanity experienced a kind of prolonged mass oblivion that allowed too many of us to carry on in self-orbiting, unaware ways—both collectively and individually.


But times are changing. Contemporary thought is finally catching up to climate and capitalist realities. We are becoming less blind, more attuned—reconciled to the changes that must be made and the work that must be done. Whereas the humans centered in, say, the 1990s or mid-2000s might have demanded unreasonable responses to unwarranted wants, we are becoming the kind of humans who fervently wish for the natural world—including each other—to thrive.

"Can't we give ourselves one more chance?"

Queen & David Bowie

Under Pressure, Under Pressure (1981, EMI Records)

Success of both planet and people has finally rotated into the realm of core human desire, so we must give ourselves credit for becoming the kinds of humans with the kinds of desires that are still worth centering. To discard the method is to willfully circumvent the inner work required. When humans want and need the right things, human-centered design is more relevant than ever.

"The scary fact is that many of our dreams have come true. We wanted a more efficient technology and we got pesticides in the soil. We wanted cars and television sets and appliances and each of us thought he was the only one wanting that. Our dreams have come true at the expense of Lake Michigan. That doesn't mean that the dreams were all wrong. It means that there was an error somewhere in the wish and we have to fix it."

Charles Eames

An Eames Anthology (1971, Yale University Press)

Why design thinking? Why not design doing?

At Fraîche, we know how to give form to an idea. We also know that design is bigger than form-giving. In the words of design innovator, Manuel Lima:

"Design is not production. Being a designer is about engaging deeply in and thinking critically about a problem. It’s about asking the right questions… We should seek to open new ground and create added value not just for business but for humans, other animals, and our environment… We need to unshackle ourselves from a vision-deprived production echo-chamber."

Manuel Lima

The New Designer (2023, The MIT Press)

In short, we believe design thinking rose to prominence in the first place because, at the time of its emergence, the world was littered with thoughtless design—production-geared, form-obsessed, aesthetically proud artifact manufacturing—both physical and digital. Doing was more important than thinking, to thinking’s near exclusion. Design scholar Cameron Tonkinwise has said that the consequence of only knowing how without knowing why led to the agile proliferation of unanticipated consequences.

The intellectual posture mandated by design thinking served as an inescapable reminder that, for better or worse, not all design emanates from thinking per se—let alone critical thinking. But it should. While we at Fraîche value the instinctual, visceral worth associated with form-giving and ‘design doing,’ we also view it as an often downstream aspect of a far longer process—the painstaking process of developing an informed, designerly point of view. At Fraîche, we think first—and we aren’t ashamed to say it.

"Because, as we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. And it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about."

John Cleese

Lecture on creativity (originally delivered to Video Arts in 1991)

Overlapping design disciplines

Without a doubt, classical design, human-centered design, and design thinking are marked by significant overlap. They inform each other in countless ways, and the boundaries can be fuzzy, gray, and remarkably porous. After all—there is not much delight in a beautiful design that is not fit for purpose; there is not much point in a fresh departure if the solution is aesthetically discordant; and so on.

It’s hard to know which practice to deploy and when. Sir Jony Ive has said that there must be acceptance and engagement with the fact that the creative process is fabulously unpredictable.

The ambiguous nature of design calls for deployment of the right approach at the right time. What does that mean? It means that our classical design instincts keep us attentive to the pursuit of impeccable outcomes. Our human-centered design methods ensure empathy is infused throughout the process as we flex in response to needs. And our overarching design-thinking disposition allows us to embrace ambiguity, learn fast from failure, bias toward making, and iterate with creative confidence.

Optimism as an obligation

Above all, design thinking precludes creative leaders from abdicating responsibility for hope. As designers, optimism is our obligation, even in the face of great challenges. That’s mostly what design thinking is about. As creative pioneer Bruce Mau once said:

"We designers don't have the luxury of cynicism. Cynicism is for other people. As a designer, you have the responsibility to find solutions. You just don't have the luxury of saying everything's gonna be bad. It's just not part of our culture."

Bruce Mau

Monocle on Design interview, July 2020


Indeed, optimism is a dare—a provocation to move, an inducement to act. When the default intellectual stance is always, “yes, possibility exists here,” then invariably there is work to be done, action to be taken. We must roll up our sleeves to coax fresh actuality out of what we know to be inherent possibility. We believe things are possible, and we make them so. In short, that’s Fraîche Design Thinking.

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