Design is the lens through which we will study the object of research, which is sustainable business models. The first element that we establish in this design approach is how design itself is a process. Then we distinguish the four levels or orders in which the design process can be applied. We further describe the design process in terms of three dimensions according to research on the subject. It is an iterative process, a divergent and convergent process and an integrative process. These levels and characteristics of the design process represent our theoretical framework and they play an instrumental role in the analysis of the results of our research.

Defining design as a process.

Defining design has often been a difficult task because it is comprised of many intangible elements such as intuition, imagination and creativity. Still today Herbert Simon is recognized as having provided a starting point when defining design. He stated that design was “moving from existing situations to preferred situations” (Simon 1969). This way of reasoning the designer’s approach can be linked to Simon’s “bounded rationality” applied in organizations (Simon 1987). Moreover, the process of design is a difficult undertaking because it deals with more elusive elements such as ambiguity and uncertainty. Although these human intangibles can be seen as barriers to scientific epistemologies, including heuristics enables design to confront and ultimately shape the reality of everyday life. Henceforth, design is to be understood as a process that leads to the creation of preferred situations.

This notion of a methodological process shifts the field of design past the necessity of creating an outcome in the form of a tangible product. By expanding on the different actions of the design process as well as on the different outcomes, Buchanan (1998) describes a design matrix. It has four levels called “orders”. First is communication which creates signs and words, second construction whichcreates things, third strategic planning whichcreates interaction and fourth systemic integration which creates thoughts.Buchanan then intersects these orders with human abilities, which are inventing, judging, deciding and evaluating. He proposes his matrix as an interpretative lens for investigating the “shifting debate about design in the contemporary world”. With this contemporary approach to design, some designers are moving past the tangible aspect of product design for broader outcomes in terms of services and organizations.

Four orders of design

Figure 3. Buchanan (1998)

Our focus narrows on the 4th level of strategy and organization. This level has recently been exemplified by the “design thinking” movement which has been influencing the field of management. Design thinking can be summarized as an approach to solve seemingly dialectical problems by using creativity and empathy for the user (Brown 2008). A graphic designer, Marty Neumier, describes such problems this way: “Problems you can’t manage your way out of.” Basically, a design approach entails combining the analytical approach taught by management schools and the situational understanding taught in social science schools (Bolland & Collopy 2004). The shortcoming of the expression “design thinking” is that it does not express the importance of action in the design process. By action we refer to learning tools and feedback mechanisms such as sketching and prototyping which are an inherent to the design process. The business model canvas is an example of such a learning tool. Nonetheless, we can affirm that design thinking was at the origin of the creation of material products, and that same process is now applied in solving many types of business problems.

In summary, Buchanan’s matrix illustrates the widening outreach of design into other fields such as management. In other words, design has evolved from creating symbolic forms, to harmonious functions, then meaningful interactions and now purposeful organizations. Design is a process that can lead to multiple levels of outcomes such as organizational business models. Next, we will review three characteristics of the design process in greater detail.

Design is an iterative process

The design process is described by Findeli as an ongoing loop linking thinking and acting as well as inspiration and expiration (2001). This further promotes the idea that the design process is not a systematic step-by-step sequence of pre-determined activities. In contrast, creativity works best when progressing in multiple back and forth motions between the problem and solutions spaces (Jones 1970). Any design method must permit multiple kinds of logical, ethical or creative thoughts to coexist within the iterative progress of the project (Findeli 2001).

Iteration is surely not exclusive to a design process. Just about any generative process has a form of iteration. In business the learning organization is an ongoing subject of interest in management (Senge 1997). The difference with the design process is that it purposely thrives on iteration loops to quickly evolve a project. Tom Kelly instilled the following mantra in the IDEO design consultancy: “fail often to succeed sooner” (Kelley and Littman, 2001 p.232). This philosophy is where design and management differ. Johne (1996) writes about how managers seek to “avoid mistakes with new products rather than using them as a means for exploiting market potentials”(p.177). Beyond learning from failure, the design process supports and frames the different iteration efforts as a means towards success or satisfaction (Simon 1987).

Design is both a divergent and convergent process

Research on the design process has been described most proficiently in the 1980’s under the name of “design methodology”. Many different researchers (Jones 1969, Cross 1981, Quarante 1984) proposed their interpretation of the process. In the end, the presence of divergence and convergence are central in all interpretations. Design methods are essentially a forward spiral of analysis-synthesis-realization steps. We chose to follow Jones’ terminology of creative space where divergence in the problem space meets convergence in the solution space. A good understanding of the problem space creates opportunities for generating new concepts which leads into the solution space. In other words, formulating the problem is part of designing preferred situations.

Three spaces of the design process

Figure 4. Adapted from Jones (1969).

Design is an integrative process

By rejecting a closed choice between two options, design creates new solutions starting from consensual forms of reasoning. This was coined as integrative thinking by Martin (2009). Creating a third way requires what the philosopher Pierce (1957) called an abductive approach to problem solving. The design process is focused on solving problems to answer needs. But whose needs? The organization or his client’s?An example of an integrative process comes from the early designers’ capacity to develop goods that accomplished a function and that were fit for an industrial production. But now that a certain mastery has been attained in the production and marketing of products, the focus has shifted to the individual user. The term user-centered was first proposed by Norman (2002) when he argued for redefining the goal of product design to first and foremost cater to the needs of the users. The debate as to whom design serves subsides, as the ideal situation is to answer the needs of all stakeholders (Friedman 1970). In sum, the integrative process that is design looks to create solutions that can answer potentially conflicting needs of multiple stakeholders.

Integrative thinking happens with more than stakeholder needs. It can also arise from Schon’s (1983) reflective practice. As the design process moves forward in a project, new information is discovered on the nature of the work performed in the current and previous stages. Schon recognizes this “talk-back” from the design activity as an indicator of a good design process: “In a good process of design, this conversation with the situation is reflective. In answer to the situation’s back-talk, the designer reflects-in-action on the construction of the problem, the strategies of action, or the model of the phenomena, which have been implicit in his moves.”(p.73)

In this paper, we choose to study sustainable business models through the lens of design as a process. Buchanan has already demonstrated how design can influences organizations. From this point on, we wish to establish a parallel with how the design process can contribute to creating sustainable business models. We join Esselinger (2011) who argues for this endeavour:

Designers are especially well suited to implement and promote [the sustainability-driven business model]. Designers have a responsibility to connect and coordinate human needs and

dreams with new opportunities and inspirations from science, technology, and business in order for products and their usage to be culturally relevant, economically productive, politically beneficial, and ecologically sustainable.” (p.401)

 In this section, we have demonstrated how design is a process and we have applied it to business models in following Buchanan’s orders. The 4th level of strategy and organization is rooted in the context of management and business problems. Although design thinking is not a theory to approach all types of organizational challenges, it is a process that sheds some new light on how organizations engage in dynamic self renewal. This process of “moving to preferred states” is applied in developing a business model for the organization. Design thinking can be used as an approach that provides a broader approach to problem solving, not just in terms of improving products but in terms of creating business model concepts. Moving from analysis in the problem space to synthesis in the solution space, all the while in successive iterations, the design process evolves to an integrative understanding of all the aspects of the situation. We now present the methods this research will follow.


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