# 45: Out of the Box, Networks & Co. — Redesigning Key Words

Cross, Nigel (2011). Design Thinking, 27.

Story behind the Passage

Today is Monday and Mondays can be quite shitty sometimes. Of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I know this. So, today, I am choosing to make my Monday shitty because I label my day this way. In objective terms, my Monday has been quite productive so far. Still, there is one major reason why this Monday — and probably many Mondays in the near future — has a shitty taste to it. This morning when I turned on the news, one of the reports centered on the “Querdenker” movement (lateral thinkers) in Germany. If you have heard of this movement, you know why I am in such a bad mood…

I even hesitated to even spell the name here and that exactly is the problem I want to address today. How is it possible that words that had such a good ‘reputation’ in the past, suddenly gain such a bad flavor? And I know, words are not people and they do not hire personal branding consultants to take care of their image. Still, I am choosing to personify words here to point to the analogy. A word that had a positive connotation in the past and now represents an evil right-wing sect has suffered much reputation loss. And, of course, just like the people who sometimes end up losing their good reputation without personal fault, the words themselves are not to blame.

It is the people who turn good into evil.

It is the people who misuse language.

It is the people who ruin the reputation of words that once connoted hope.

I am getting really upset about the fact that this evil thing has now happened to “Querdenken” and I have no idea if the term will ever be used again in a more positive light. It is already like a ‘word non grata,’ haram, bad. It has fully been coopted by stupid right-wing activists. I used to feel “proud” in a way when people called me “Querdenker,” I identified with it somehow. It reflected how I think and act — against the grain and full of creativity. Today, it stands for Corona deniers and people who do not respect human rights. It is so sad.

But there are many more words that have suffered a similar fate. Sometimes it also happens the opposite way, i.e., that the connotation shifts from negative to positive. This morning, I talked to a colleague of mine who mentioned as a side note in the conversation that he does not consider himself a good “networker.” I did not let this pass because, from my perspective, he is a good networker. He then defined what the concept means to him. And it turned out that the really deep networking between people is something he embraces but he rejects the new connotation of social networking or networking at big social events (well, at least this practice has been abandoned for the time being…).

I assured him that I can personally give him three examples of how his type of networking has already created much value for me personally and that I think it remains a great source of value. Still, with respect to the image of words and their “reputation” in the public, this episode told me that networking has indeed gained much fame in the digital word. And it has a positive connotation in general, no doubt. Still, it also means that for my colleague, it has lost much of its “traditional” appeal.

As you can see above, I have not chosen a book on networking or Querdenken today. Instead, I chose a passage from Nigel Cross’ book Design Thinking because it does have a strong connection to my thoughts on the ruined reputation of words. The book came out in 2011, several years before most business people in Germany and around the globe discovered the topic of design as “hot.” I bought the book when doing research on the origins of design thinking for a conference paper I presented in the U.K. on higher education management. That must have been in 2015. But the topic itself kept fascinating me for much longer. And I still think that learning about the history of design, particularly about the way designers think, is a key to understanding innovation and the values behind it — for the advancement of business and society.

My Learnings

“Design initiates novel forms.” To underline this: I am not an expert on design history or design thinking. Still, as a creative person, I think one can immediately grasp the concept. No matter how little you know about the practice of design, its many forms, and the science around it — you know it is about building stuff. And building stuff involves creativity, i.e., making something derived from imagination. And since this imagination can only be individual at the core, it makes perfect sense that “novel forms” emerge.

That much on the theory. In practice, this means that design is done by people. And this is also how Cross defines the concept at the start:

“Everyone can — and does — design. We all design when we plan for something new to happen, whether that might be a new version of a recipe, a new arrangement of the living room furniture, or a new layout of a personal web page. The evidence from different cultures around the world, and from designs created by children as well as by adults, suggests that everyone is capable of designing. So design is something inherent within human cognition; is a key part of what makes us human.” — Cross 3

Right now, especially in times of a pandemic that forces people to come up with solutions quickly instead of wasting time with long planning, the true meaning of innovation, of designing novel solutions, is really unfolding on a larger scale. And to me, designers have always embodied this creative and at the same time pragmatic type. To me, designers are different from artists in the sense that they actively and willingly engage with real-life challenges and then make use of their creative imagination. Designers have to be “Querdenker” and they have always been celebrated for this quality. This does not mean that artists are not lateral thinkers, of course, but the clearly pragmatic determination marks the difference — at least from my perspective.

And now — the name has been misused and dumped into the gutter of an entire nation. It is a shame.

“A speculative design cannot be determined logically, because the mode of reasoning involved is essentially abductive.” There is inductive and deductive reasoning as you may recall from your philosophy of science classes — if you ever took any. If not, that is o.k., I will only explain what abductive is because that is usually something that even the scientifically sophisticated audience did not learn in the introductory courses. Design is abductive because you kind of infer the reason for a problem based on a form of thinking that is neither completely opposed to logic, nor does it meet the scientific criteria for logic. In other words, there is much intuition involved, this super-human ability that no algorithm can explain yet.

Again, I am writing about this with my mind framed by the current social and political developments. This is always the case for writers which is why writing still exists. But somehow, I need to underline this here. These current circumstances are not just dictated by the pandemic, they are also driven by the process of digitalization. And that means that everything is going to persist and gain value that incorporates the inexplicable — unique human capacities. And creativity — however “vague” this term might be — is one of them. Designers, understood in this broad sense of problem-solving creators, are therefore beacons for building the future of our economy and of our society at large. Not only do they inspire solutions, they inspire others to always think of alternative answers to the mainstream bla bla at hand — they are “Querdenker” in the most positive sense of the term.

I truly hope that the image of the term has not been ruined forever. People in Germany are already speculating if the word will be chosen as the taboo word of the year. If it will, it will not make it easier for the word to ever be “redesigned” in the sense of being resurrected from the grave. Until then, I do hope that the real “Querdenker” without any affiliation with right-wing populists will continue doing what they are great at, what they are born to do: challenge the given, question everything, design new and original solutions.

I will. No matter what label you give me.

Reflection Questions

1) Are there concepts/labels that you liked to use in the past but now consider inappropriate?

2) Are you an out-of-the-box thinker? Think of examples when you used unconventional methods to solve problems.

3) How does/could the concept of design apply to your job/role/function?



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store