Design as a method is an approach that extends the ability to “give shape” to innovative technologies and services, and constitutes design as the shaping of relationships and organisational structures that inspire innovation. Collaborative creativity should be harnessed for innovation and change. In an increasingly complex world design becomes a strategy in organising societal and organisational needs, desires, and goals in human-centred ways.

The underlying theory is that design is a particular form of knowledge which cannot be studied and taught in scientific and humanistic subjects of education. The design theorist Nigel Cross proposes design as a “’third area’ of education” defining this area “by contrasting it with the other two – sciences and humanities” (1982, p. 221). And Tim Brown calls a “third way” and an “integrated approach” between the two pillars of “feeling, intuition, and inspiration” and “the rational and the analytical” (2009, p. 4). Design therefore poses an important alternative dimension in knowledge production, scholarship and training.

Management by design (MxD) is a university course which equips students with design as a method of managing organisations, innovation, and change processes. It is an alternative approach to organising and leadership, following the principles of design thinking. The novelty of this management approach, and this application of design evokes many questions, still. “It is difficult to explain to others what I am studying”, as one student put it. Explaining what MxD is, may be challenging to students amid traditional understandings of design and of management. However, the current openness of the concept of MxD bears the opportunity to define it, design it, and create it as something we want and need it to be, and it allows us to shape MxD as the thing that we think is best. The research project coming forward is a design project in which we explore MxD with students and with experienced designers as an approach to innovation, and in which we aspire to designing the ways we use this approach.

We are taking as our starting point the famous postulation that designers have particular ways of thinking and knowing in “designerly” ways (Cross, 1982, 2001). It is designers’ ways of thinking that can be used to tackle “ill-defined, ill-structured, or ‘wicked’” problems (Cross, 1982, p. 224, quoting Rittel and Webber, 1973). The nature of designers’ ways of thinking is illustrated as “solution-focused”, “constructive”, and able to use particular codes or “object languages” (Cross, 1982, p. 226).


Cross describes designers as being “solution-focused” and “problem-solve by synthesis” in contrast to scientists who “problem-solve by analysis” (pp. 223–226). It is less important to understand a problem analytically. It is more important to practically try out solutions that might fit. “A central feature of design activity […] is a process of ‘satisficing’ rather than optimizing; producing any one of what might well be a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically-optimum solution.” (p. 224)


Designers apply a “constructive” process of “pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition” (p. 224). By “pattern synthesis”, Cross means “a pattern (or some other ordering principle) [that] seemingly has to be imposed in order to make a solution possible” (p. 224). Designers therefore, instead of waiting for a solution to arise in contemplation, become active in constructing patterns (ordering principles) that are tentatively applied and tested for being a possible solution.

Codes, ordering principles and object languages

This process of constructing patterns can be compared to constructing and “learning an artificial ‘language’, a kind of code which transforms ’thoughts’ into ‘words’”. Cross describes designerly knowing as “embodied” in this code, difficult to “externalise”, and present as a “tacit knowledge – ie they know it in the same way that a skilled person ‘knows’ how to perform that skill” (p. 224).
Designers use “‘codes’ that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects”. Codes and ordering principles are also “the knowledge that resides in objects” (p. 225). ‘To know’ as a designer, means to be able to “read” and “write” codes (ordering principles) from and into objects. Designers are able to “understand what messages objects communicate, and they can create new objects which embody new messages.” In their dual function, Cross calls these codes and orders “object languages” (p. 226).

Designerly ways of knowing are described as the solution-focused construction of dual reading-writing codes that order and are ordered simultaneously.

Design as a dual reading-writing, ordering-ordered methodology

The ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ of codes, the simultaneous application of ordering principles, and being ordered by ordering principles, is the focus of our research project coming forward. We will be exploring and developing our approach to design. The objects, or artefacts, of design, which form into a methodology of language, are the object of our design project. There is a circular meaning here on purpose: As we use and explore design as a method, we reshape design as a method. As we use and explore the artefacts of design and how they configure things, we reconfigure design itself – our method of MxD.

The theoretical foundations of design thinking describe the tacit knowledge present in the thinking of the designer. Therefore it is important to investigate design thinking at these sites of designerly thinking and doing. Designerly thinking and doing needs to be explored in design practice (Zimmermann, Forlizzi and Shelley, 2007). Our sites of exploration will be design projects with design students, enhanced through the knowledge of experienced designers who work in innovation practice. This form of inquiry uses the research format of practice-based design research (Vaughan, 2017). The innovation of design, including any theory we derive from it, can only take place in and through the practice of design.


Brown, Tim. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Cross, Nigel. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.
Cross, Nigel. (2001). Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49–55.
Rittel, Horst W. J., & Webber, Melvin M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4(1), 155–169.
Zimmerman, John, Forlizzi, Jodi, & Evenson, Shelley. (2007). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. Paper presented at the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, San Jose, CA, USA.
Vaughan, Laurene (Ed.) (2017). Practice-based design research: Bloomsbury Publishing.