Detailing design thinking: Evidence and application

Presented by: Julia K. Day, PhD, and Bryan D. Orthel, PhD

Relevance / Problem / Context
“Design thinking” draws from vibrant research into how individuals process and produce solutions to complex problems. The depth of this research, while often ignored in interior design, provides important background for recognizing how design students are taught to think. Interior design educators need to understand the unique actions they are teaching in order to successfully communicate what design is. This research project evaluated student learning on construction detailing exercises for evidence of design thinking.

Literature supports the idea that design thinking can be developed in a variety of ways (e.g., Dym et al., 2005; Kimbell, 2011). For instance, construction detailing exercises in non-studio courses challenge students with small-scale wicked problems. Rittel and Webber (1973) outlined the characteristics of wicked problems, which include problems with no stopping point, no singularly correct answer, and essentially unique parameters. Detailing exercises, which typically require conceptualization of aesthetics, construction, materiality, and performance, reflect this definition. The detailing process models a designer’s reliance on tacit and explicit knowledge in fluidly developing and recognizing ideas (Schön, 2009). Ultimately, construction detailing can assist students in understanding how they are thinking about solutions to design problems.

Many theories of design thinking exist (Kimbell, 2011). This research project is framed in the context of Buchanan’s (1992) work, which posits that design thinking is not simply a way of reasoning or a set of skills, but rather is a much broader theory speaking to what designers do and how they do it.

For this research project, detailing assignments provided “places of inventions...where one discovers the dimensions of design thinking by a reconsideration of problems and solutions” (Buchanan, 1992, p.10).

The student work analyzed was produced in three construction methods and materials courses and a detailing-related studio, taught at two universities. Different individuals taught the courses, but relied on similar course content and instructional resources (e.g. lecture slides, textbook, assignments). Process and final work product from approximately 330 students were examined using a grounded theory methodology. The grounded theory approach, which reveals patterns and emergent themes, enabled evaluation for evidence of student use and / or development of design thinking attributes.

The researchers started with awareness of design thinking characteristics drawn from literature. Data were coded and analyzed for the presence of reflection / re-representation, iterative development, and repositioning / abductive logic. Coded data were cross-compared for thematic and content similarities.

Data analyses revealed that students initially struggled with framing and re-framing the given detailing problems (i.e. looking at problems in a new way). Students were intentionally asked to revise or repeat certain detailing exercises. The “forced” revision / re-representation oftentimes resulted in demonstration of basic principles of design thinking. Independent reflection or re-representation occurred, but infrequently. The detailing process helped students practice design thinking. The negotiation of unfamiliar subject matter and (seemingly) complex detailing problems required abductive thinking. However, students struggled to reposition and transfer what they had learned to other contexts.

Advancement of design knowledge
These outcomes challenge design educators to reconsider how and where we teach design thinking. By using skill-based assignments to model the complexities of design thinking, we can potentially enrich and interrelate the learning experience for students. Diversified exposure to design thinking increases the student’s likelihood to understand how they solve problems and how this way of thinking can be applied beyon


  • Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2),11- 21.
  • Dym, C.L., Agogino, A.M., Eris, O., Frey, D.D., & Leifer, L.J. (2005). Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning.  Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 103-120.  doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00832.x
  • Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.
  • Rittel, H.W.J., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.  Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730
  • Schön, D.A. (2009). Designing:  Rules, types, and worlds.  In H. Clark & D. Brody (Eds.), Design studies:  A reader (pp. 110-114). New York City, NY: Berg.