How do you teach someone synthesis?
This might be the hardest question we get asked. It’s possible, but designers, educators, and scholars still have a lot to learn and discover about how to do it best.
Long seen as the nearly magical, black-box aspect of design, there are many guiding mindsets and specific techniques to try (like clustering data). Practicing and honing this craft is essential to mastering it, and there are no shortcuts. Why does creative synthesis produce such novel problem framings and therefore opportunity to innovate? We’d love to see much more scientific research explore this space and discover some answers. Have new research to suggest? Share it here.
Commentary from the d.school
A scholar’s perspective
We believe innovation is deeply dependent upon learning, and according to David Kolb, learning shifts from concrete to abstract; from analysis to synthesis. To cover all these kinds of learning, design thinking toggles between thinking and doing, as well as present observation and future imagination. When we work with students, they have to be willing to act on an insight and not simply write it off as a wonderful abstraction. They learn to ask, ‘That's interesting, what concrete ideas does it lead to?’
Synthesis is about putting insights together in a new way that bridges present observation with future imagination. In other words, we want to put the pieces back together in a new way that both conforms to what we've seen so far—the real needs—but creates value in a new way, and then solves a problem we had never before addressed. This process of synthesis is at the heart of innovation.
Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis
Jon Kolko in MIT Design Issues, 2010
Synthesis: looks like magic, works like logic
Kolko dives into the whys and hows of synthesis. He explains how synthesis supports complex problem solving. Synthesis is the result of actions that the designer takes to prioritize insights in a sea of data and connect existing ideas. He outlines ways to do so: reframe the context and pick a point of view to solve for, map concepts through language and visuals, and lastly, combine insights by looking for patterns or connections.
Concept Clustering in Design Teams: A Comparison of Human and Machine Clustering
Chengwei Zhang, Youngwook Paul Kwon, Julia Kramer, Euiyoung Kim and Alice M. Agogino in Journal of Mechanical Design, 2017
Could designers one day use AI to help cluster ideas?
Clustering is a critical tool in design and there may be new ways to enhance it. Using machine learning, this study tests clustering on over 1000 concepts, and compares it to student teams in a product development class. We might see natural language processing as a way to associate ideas, especially where creating many concepts is very important. The paper suggests that machine concept clustering may help to generate more ideas, thus creating divergence from the outset.
Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking
Sara L Beckman, Michael Barry in California Management Review, 2007
At its heart, design is really a way of learning
This article overlaps design process with Kolb's Learning Styles & Experiential Learning Model, and suggests that innovation can be seen as a process of learning. This point of view hints that innovation helps build teams of individuals who have disparate learning styles—like assimilators and divergent thinkers. It also shows that shifting modes— moving from concrete observations to high-level abstractions and back, alongside a purposeful shift from analysis to synthesis—helps innovative teams to discover new problem spaces.
Creative synthesis: Exploring the process of extraordinary group creativity
Sarah Harvey in Academy of Management Review, 2014
A group effort: How building on each other’s ideas is good for synthesis and for great ideas
This article explores group processes that create exceptional ideas. How members integrate ideas--what the author labels as “creative synthesis”-- may help develop breakthrough concepts. While other studies might focus on content, this article describes how the foundation for extraordinary ideas may be the spaces and opportunities that provide shared understanding between members. How to start? Foster collective attention at the group level, bring ideas to life, and finally, build on similarities between ideas.
Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development
David Kolb, Pearson Education, Inc., 1984
Why learning by doing works so well
Kolb’s model on experiential learning inspired decades of research and teaching. Learners move through four stages of a cycle: feeling (concrete experience), watching (reflective observation), thinking (abstract conceptualization), and finally, doing (experimentation in new situations). He suggests that we learn concepts effectively through this “action-reflection” sequence.
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