I used to think that design thinking follows the divergent-convergent thinking model. Same for any kind of creative thinking where you are not following a script or a standard operating procedure.

Diagram of divergent thinking and convergent thinking

After all, you should brainstorm for more ideas first before settling on one if you want a project to be successful. And your first ideas are most likely not going to be your best ideas. Moreover, more ideas mean that you might be able to combine a few of them to come up with an even better solution to your problem.

So I think that the divergent-convergent model is a pretty good guide to follow.

But it’s not going to be helpful if you take it as a literal 2 step process.

Creative thinking is never that straightforward. If you are a project manager, you can’t simply divide your project into 2 equal halves. And you can’t expect that your people go through the 2 kinds of thinking one after the other.

Perhaps we like simple, linear models such as this because time is linear. You have a deadline for a project. And so you divide the time you have into portions that allow you to manage and keep track of your progress.

But we have to remember that you can go back to divergent thinking after you start on the convergent thinking phase. If you find that the ideas that you’ve generated are not good enough for you to converge on a solution, you have to go back and come up with more ideas.

Therefore, I think another model that we can use to represent the design and creative process is the spiral model.

The spiral model

Diagram of the spiral model

The goal of any project is to converge on a solution or end-product. You have a product, process, report, spreadsheet, or even an email to deliver. It might be something small. Or it could be something on a much larger scale.

From the moment you start your project, the clock starts ticking. You need to move towards the end goal.

Most of the time, you start somewhere with a hunch. You think that this is a general direction you should be moving towards.

For example, in writing an essay, you first have to pick a topic. So the first step would be to choose a general topic. Then as you do your research, you become more aware of the various themes about that topic. This process is what I would call circling around. Like how eagles circle around in the air. You need time to survey the nuances surrounding your chosen topic. Once you have a better understanding, then you can start to move in closer towards the target (i.e. the essay itself).

So you can see that the spiral gradually becomes smaller and converges at the end. That’s because you have to refine your ideas to present a final product. You can’t just present all your half-baked ideas to your bosses or clients.

But the spiral does not get smaller incrementally all the time.

Sometimes you have to backtrack. If you think in terms of divergent vs convergent thinking, that means going back to divergent thinking. Or it means having many cycles of divergent and convergent thinking within the spiral.

Maybe because you need to brainstorm more. Or you need to go back to do more research. Or maybe fresh problems cropped up along the way. And you need to spend more time solving those problems.

Or maybe you find that the topic you’ve chosen is over-researched and too popular. So you have to choose another topic.

This means you have to widen the spiral.

Whatever it is, using the spiral model adds another dimension to thinking about design and creative thinking.

Because the problem of using the divergent-convergent thinking model alone is that it is two-dimensional. And we live in a three-dimensional world. Well, four if you want to consider the time dimension.

Of course, the spiral model is also another simplification of a complex process. Any model for design and creative thinking doesn’t really paint the full picture.

But our brains need models because they help us to understand complex processes.

So hopefully, the spiral model helps to add another dimension to your thinking. Because the creative process is about embracing both the wide circling around your ideas and the swooping in towards your final product. And also embracing the dance between the two.

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