3 ideas that modern design thinkers can learn from the Renaissance

The Design Thinking (DT) approach to problem-solving is a widely used tenet across industries. Its fingerprints are everywhere, from disruptive startups to everyday products.

But in recent years, Design Thinking has come under heavy criticism. Some like Natasha Jen and Bruce Nussbaum, claim that it now lacks the critical approach that its inventors aimed for. Nussbaum goes as far as to say that Design Thinking has started to, “ossify and actually do harm.”

This article is not aimed at unravelling the critique, but rather an attempt at inspiring modern designers to revisit the fundamentals of Design Thinking, by taking inspiration from another age.

All periods of prominent breakthroughs in history have a key common theme: the need to solve for human needs.

One such period is the Renaissance, where it could be argued that design thinking took shape.

Here are three qualities from the Renaissance that we think can serve as inspiration for design thinkers today:

1. Humanism

At its core, humanism was the guiding light to the whole reawakening of human intellect. Coming out of the Dark Ages in Europe, where divine intervention reigned supreme, the Renaissance focused all scrutiny and study on how much “man” could achieve individually.

Although DT is designed to solve problems, it often falters to stay grounded to real world issues. “Generating marketable alternative solutions” – as one author puts it. In the process, the innovative problem solving required to make a solution viable, is often lost. This brings us to the second point

Researchers have noted that cultural and political conditions present in Florence helped to kick-off the Renaissance period, and make the city an important contributor to the movement. Pic Credit: Unsplash

2. Innovation

The Renaissance was a great age of exploration and pushing of boundaries in every discipline. A pioneering spirit and the need to innovate were some outstanding features that were common among the great thinkers of the time.

Present day Design Thinking could be having an identity crisis where its popularity is credited to be the reason why it’s thought to be no longer innovative. Specifically, its criticism lies in the fancy frameworks and solutions it develops – which may sound like it’s getting the job done.

But innovation doesn’t just lie in working with structured systems, but also those that are fuzzy and make you uncomfortable. Embracing the abstract also means pushing the limits of a discipline’s thinking.

3. Scrutiny

A lot of the defining work during the period was based on questioning why things were the way they were. Scrutiny in turn led people down the road to discovery.

For Design Thinking, the criticism stems from there not being enough self-scrutiny in the process. One belief is that other disciplines are latching on to design thinking for their needs to demonstrate how cutting-edge their solutions are. But more honest scrutiny needs to be incorporated as part of the problem-solving process. Through this, designers should be able to assess if Design Thinking is truly being applied to a problem.

To be a design thinker, one has to be comfortable with ambiguity. This is what also influenced the great thinkers of the Renaissance, forcing them to ask the necessary questions. Much like the Florentian innovators, perhaps modern-day Design Thinking can do the same, and greatly benefit itself from revisiting its own founding principles. Till then, modern designers need to reign in their expectations and consider that the correct type of skillsets take time to mature and master – which is a topic for another time.