When I was in my design school, I remember one particular typography class taught by a professor who was a well-known typographer in South Korea. I was very looking forward to his lecture because of his reputation, but in the class, the first thing he asked us to do was rather disappointing: tracing letters by hand! We even had to do two typefaces (serif and sans-serif), traced the lines and filling in the body of the letters. Alphabet by alphabet. How tedious and boring the process was to me. I was wondering what this activity had to do with design education when we could just produce typography artwork on a computer.

But during the long hours of practice, I began to notice something: the irregularity of the inherit space and weight of each letter and how that irregularity made perfect sense when the letters were put together. Borrowing what Steve Jobs said on his calligraphy class experience, this process taught me about the varying space between letter combinations and what makes great typography great. It was beautifully, artistically subtle.

I had never thought about the importance of traditional design training until after my conversation with Dr. Jung Joo Lee, an assistant professor in industry design at the National University of Singapore. She brilliantly illustrated what kind of training makes a designer a designer. We also had a chance to clarify design terms that are often used interchangeably, such as ‘designer’ and ‘design-thinker’ and ‘user experience design’ and ‘service design.’

My favorite part of the conversation was understanding ‘synthetic thinking’, which is a unique capability of designers and supports my view on Why you need designers to drive innovation.

Here is the summary of the conversation as part of the 2nd edition of the Designful Leaders series.

[Jin] You teach service design at National University of Singapore. How would you define ‘service design’, and how does it differ from User Experience (UX) design?

[Jung Joo] There is no single definition of ‘service design’, but my take on service design is:

In narrow definition is: designing users’ journey of experiencing the services. For example for a banking industry, such as opening an account in a branch, receiving letters, using online banking, etc. The entire journey involves the multiple touch points, and it needs to be designed to be consistent and pleasant. However what service design differs from UX Design is that service design doesn’t end at designing for users’ experiences. It should also have an understanding of organization such as resources and culture, which should be able to provide conditions to enable those intended services to work. In service design, the backbones are designing for customer experiences, understanding of the organization, and alignment of the two elements.

In a broader definition, it has to do with how we define ‘service.’ In a boarder term, ’Service’ is a platform for value co-creation. Here, it doesn’t matter whether it’s digital or physical but is a system, network, and relationship. For example, Airbnb created a new platform which didn’t exist in the past by having their service logic. In the platform, both the service provider and service users come to the platform with their resources and create values together. Creating this kind of infrastructural platform is the broader definition of service design.

Service design student work example

It sounds to me that the broader definition of ‘service design’ closely relates to innovation.

Yes, it might lead to business innovation or social innovation, which can be sometimes disruptive.

I so agree with the importance of ‘designing organization’ to provide conditions to design or to sustain the desired experience. Do you have a good example of an organization who uses service design in that sense?

In 2014, we did a project with Singapore Ministry of Manpower to revamp their service center. The service center had lots of visitors every day. 80% of visitors could have solved their problem through self-help channels. However, they came to the service center for everything because things weren’t so clear to them. That resulted in a struggle with human resources in the service center. So when we provided design solutions- a hotline service, for example – we also made sure to provide with a blueprint that describes how the front line people and corresponding departments should communicate together, which is beyond what users see but the internal work and communication process.

Design capability mapping tool during a project work

As a design educator, what kind of designers do you aim to cultivate?

I would like to cultivate ‘design strategists.’

A design strategist is a person who can use design skills and their knowledge to innovate organizations. Not only the front-end service offering, but the way Organisations work and innovate.

What can distinguish a design strategist from a strategist is the use of design knowledge, such as having an empathic understanding of not only users but also various stakeholders, an ability to frame the right problem and translate that into a new design opportunity. A good ‘problem framing’ skill is critical as nowadays business problems are wicked. The answers are not apparent. Even the problem may not exist. Based on the understanding of users, stakeholders and phenomena, designers can frame alternative future scenarios. That’s where I believe designers’ synthetic thinking and creativity come into play.

I would like to understand more about ‘synthetic thinking,’ a unique ability of designers, which makes us believe that designers can help business innovate. Could you elaborate on how synthetic thinking works?

It’s not THE only thing that helps organizations innovate. It should work with other analytic, scientific disciplines. What we can say is the synthetic thinking is one of the weapons of designers, what they are trained with and specialized in.

Let me try to explain this synthetic thinking clearly.

When an artist sees a phenomenon, he gains inspiration. When a scientist sees a phenomenon, she wants to know why. But when a designer sees a phenomenon, they connect it with other experiences. 

Designers connect different observations or experiences. What happens there in this process is ‘what-if.’ Designers might identify the relations between different phenomena, which leads to an opportunity for innovation.

Metamorphosis training example by Yeo Hui Ci, NUS Design Student

This is a fascinating analogy. I can definitely relate to that as a designer. We designers constantly try to connect different things whether we do it consciously or unconsciously. Do you think this synthetic way of thinking is something you are born with, or is it something design educators can teach?

Both. Some might be gifted with this way of thinking. But synthetic thinking can be definitely trained. What I personally believe, or rather my hypothesis is that synthetic thinking can be trained through traditional design education, which is observing the environment whether it’s physical surroundings, objects, people’s flow, or things happening, and capturing patterns, something interesting,

First-year design students do lots of sketching. You experienced it too right? That’s often called 1-1-1 practice – 100 sketches, 100 ideation, 100 modeling, really tedious never-ending job, which most students don’t see why they are doing this at the moment of doing.

Yeah, I remember my typography class when I was as a design student. We had to trace all the letters by hand! From our conversation, I now understand why this kind activity was needed to develop design sensitivity and how it helped me understand the indescribable logic of typography.

Being able to externalize what the students see with their hands through that sort of repetitive practices, it really helps to increase the sensitivity to observe things and abstract the core elements of what one is observing. This trains their ability of abstraction.

Also at the same, because they can externalize their thoughts visually, it informs the way they observe.

Yes! That’s correct. That’s what I meant by ‘traditional design training; observing, sketching, metamorphosis kind of exercise. I believe traditional design training really helps design students develop the sensitivity to observe, and capability to abstract and capture the ‘essence.’ Understanding the essence enables them to see the relations between things and grab the core of the problems. That’s where synthetic thinking training comes into play.

I teach Service Design and User Experience Design, which are new fields of design, requiring a new set of skills. But I do believe in the importance of traditional design education for building designer’s unique sensitivity, which will be applied to any emerging fields of design.

Talking about design training brings to me the next topic: ‘Design Thinkers’ vs ‘Designers.’ Who is better positioned to solve wicked problems? Designers who went through traditional design training, or people with domain knowledge who learned the design methodology?

That’s a very interesting question. In academia, this certainly is a frequently discussed topic. Some schalors and practitioners raised their concern that design thinking narrows down the deep, broad aspects of design into a methodological level, like mechanically engineered toolkits or that sorts. There are articles by design gurus such as Don Norman on the myth of design thinking – It’s just myth, perhaps useful, but never existed. Some others assert to look at design doing, not just thinking.

Coming back to your question, there is no one answer, it really has to do with the organization’s resources, needs, vision, strategy, legacy and human dynamics. But in the ideal scenario, if the company wants to drive innovation, we need to understand that the role of ‘designers’ and the role of ‘design-thinker’ with domain knowledge are different. They are meant to work together.

So you are of the view that having designers in-house is a necessity. How do you feel about the approach of training people in the organization with design thinking methodology instead of hiring designers?

It has to do with what the organization wants to achieve in the end. If the organization truly wants to drive innovation through design, the training should not be done just through one-off workshops. Of course, you can train people in the organization, but not through ‘workshops’ or one-off programs.

What they could do to cultivate true ‘design thinkers,’ is a long-term collaboration with design expertise. So that the internal staff can be involved in the project for a course of a longer period – like 1 or 2 years. That way they can really immerse themselves in the process of design, the methods and ways of thinking. The way most design thinking programs are packaged like ‘workshop series’ works best when you want to cultivate the collaboration between design-thinkers and designers, either internal or external.

What’s your vision as a design educator?

As a design educator, teaching students in universities is a big part of my job. But also helping organization embed design capabilities is another important part of education I’m doing. One vision I have is that more organizations recognize the potential of design in innovating the way they used to work, which has been proven to have limitations especially dealing with complex social challenges such as climate change, poverty or chronic disease. And most importantly, I would like design students to be able to see the potential of design while they are going though the design education. Sometimes design students themselves strain themselves as to what kind jobs they can have, and what kind of impact they can have in the business and in the society.

About Prof. Jung Joo (JJ) Lee
Assistant Professor, Division of Industrial Design, National University of Singapore (NUS)
Director, Service Design Lab Singapore

JJ Joined in NUS in August 2014, teaching and researching Service Design and Human-Centered Design. Her current work focuses on helping organizations equip with design capabilities. She has been collaborating with various government organizations in Singapore to design for public services and policies in a more human-centered way.