The Design Table: Thinking Together

The Design Table

The Design Table is a metaphor for describing the type of collaborations explored in this research. For the term collaboration, literally meaning working together, can imply varying degrees of interaction at different stages of the creation process.

The figurative design table can be defined as the space in which multiple domains of expertise meet for thinking together, through face-to-face interactions at the early stages of a project where knowledge integration must happen in a non-hierarchical manner.
This concept builds on Gillian and Bill Hollins’ ‘design circles’ (1991), and is characterised by the following attributes:


1. Across disciplinary domains and fields of expertise

The need for undertaking a holistic approach to tackle the complexities inherent to the challenges faced by our society is being increasingly recognised by academics and practitioners (Brown and Katz, 2009, p. 29; Long, 2001, p. 278; McCALLIN and Bamford, 2007; Neumeier, 2009).

Back in the 70’s, researchers already noted that intra-group conformity at work can lead to defective decision making (Janis, 1972), and the value of team diversity in terms of “personality, training, background and attitudes” (Williams & O’Reilly, 1998) and minority dissent (De Dreu, C. K. W. and West, M. A., 2001) for:

  • avoiding groupthink – rapidly reaching consensus for lacking dissenting opinions (Morris, 1975)
  • avoiding polarization towards extreme viewpoints (Smith, Tindale & Dugoni, 1996).
  • exposing assumptions (Schwenk, 1990)
  • provoking divergent thinking (De Bono, 1970; Nemeth, 1986; Runco, 1994; Nemeth & Staw, 1989)
  • and increasing the team’s understanding of the different approaches to the issue (Nemeth, 1986; Moscovici, 1980; Crano & Chen, 1998).

Therefore, multi-disciplinary teams of people not only provide specialised knowledge on a wide range of aspects relevant in the conceptual development of solutions, but also present the advantages that diversity brings to decision making.

2. Thinking Together

As with Deana D. Pennington’s ‘Collective Thinking’ (2008), the emphasis is put on the integration of knowledge at the early stages of a project. The term thinking positions the value and application of this approach for unraveling the complexity of the context, building a shared understanding of the subject and developing feasible and innovative trajectories that holistically address the issues under scrutiny. The term together on the other hand, makes explicit the type of collaboration by characterising it as a collective and simultaneous activity.

2.1. Face-to-face

Researchers have acknowledged the limitations of distributed teams and virtual communications. Even although videoconferencing is considered the closest digital mean to face-to-face communication (Hambley, O’Neill, & Kline, 2007; Martins et al., 2004), it still cannot fully replace a shared space for thinking.

It is apparent that relevant nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions can be easily missed (CHECK Additionally, Harvey, Milord, and Noveicevic (2004)), but even verbal communications have been proved to diminish in quality (Nam, Lyons, Hwang, and Kim, 2009). It could be argued that collaboration across disciplines is challenging enough when all information is available to its participants. Thus it seems sensible to begin by exploring these dynamics within an ideal scenario, and leaving for future research exploring how missing communication elements affect those interactions.

2.2. Non-hierarchical

Accountability must be spread throughout the team, moving towards more participative and democratic decision-making processes. Participation in decision making has been proven to improve the quality of the outcomes  (De Dreu and West, 2001),  “stimulate exchange and integration of information” (Stasser & Titus, 1987; Edmondson, 1999; Campion, Medsker and Higgs, 1993), facilitate flexibility towards change and increase commitment (King, Anderson & West, 1992).

This approach challenges linear and hierarchical design processes in which specifications are gathered in stages as the leading discipline prioritises certain aspects setting initial specifications, to later consider and incorporate the considered as secondary aspects.

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