John Paul Stephens on Aesthetics in Design Thinking

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[We’re pleased to welcome John Paul Stephens of Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Stephens recently collaborated with Brodie J. Boland, also of Case Western Reserve University, on their paper entitled “The Aesthetic Knowledge Problem of Problem-Solving With Design Thinking” from Journal of Management Inquiry.]

  • What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

JMI_72ppiRGB_powerpointIn attending the 2010 “Convergence: Managing + Designing” workshop at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, we were struck with a particular question. Isn’t “managing as designing” (or “design thinking” for some folks) simply all about aesthetics? If so, what does this mean for managers and their organizations?

  • Were there findings that were surprising to you?

In researching for this essay, we were struck by the mix of opinions and research on how well managers and organizational systems could rely on “design” and using non-rational forms of problem-solving. More recent thinking has suggested that organizations today really need to incorporate novel, less-familiar ways of defining and generating solutions for problems.

But there are also arguments that the management education and the reward systems in organizations are all set up to focus on rationally getting to the bottom-line through selecting from pre-determined options. Also, even though design thinking seems to be a pretty popular way to approach problems in organizations these days, it still hasn’t been defined clearly, and is still limited to only a few key adopters. We tried to take in all perspectives saying that 1) we agree that new ways of seeing problems and their impacts are needed 2) using art-based forms of defining problems and generating solutions provides insight into things that are usually hard to see and talk about 3) this relies on aesthetic knowledge – or the ‘feel’ of a problem for the people involved – and therefore on engaging our bodily senses and 4) not very many organizations are set up to draw on this kind of knowledge based in what we see, hear, touch, smell, and even taste.

  • How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

We hope that our research into this provides a more concise and meaningful definition of design thinking. We believe that at its core, design thinking is about generating and using aesthetic knowledge to define a problem and generate appropriate solutions to it. This means that when designers try to translate their practice for managers, they need to be up front about how important the body and its senses are for problem-solving. This also means that managers and the entire organizational system need to acknowledge where the body gets devalued or is made invisible at work. If an organization wants to adopt design thinking, then it needs to lay a lot of ground work to do so successfully. For organizational researchers, this means that it is important to focus on the body when trying to study complex problem-solving and decision-making. At some level, we all study what is meaningful for the human beings who make up organizations, and how people use their bodies will always be an important aspect of that meaning-making.

You can read “The Aesthetic Knowledge Problem of Problem-Solving With Design Thinking” from Journal of Management Inquiry for free for the next two weeks by clicking here. Want to know about all the latest research like this from Journal of Management Inquiry? Click here to sign up for e-alerts!

jps136John Paul Stephens is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. He pursues research on the felt experience of organizing, in terms of the emotional characteristics of high-quality relationships at work and the aesthetic experience of coordinating as a group. He received his PhD in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan.

picture-40800Brodie J. Boland is a management consultant based in Toronto. His research interests are primarily in the areas of institutional change, social movements, and ecological sustainability. He earned his PhD in organizational behavior from Case Western Reserve University.

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2 Responses to “John Paul Stephens on Aesthetics in Design Thinking”

  1. sdeklerk76 Says:

    Reblogged this on saslearningjourney and commented:
    Very interesting ideas

  2. This Year in Review: The Top 5 Management INK Posts from 2015 | Management INK Says:

    […] 2. John Paul Stephens on Aesthetics in Design Thinking […]

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