If you’re asked to clearly describe and provide examples for the differences between Critical Thinking and Design Thinking, here are some that should help you sound like you know what you’re talking about. However, keep in mind that there are always exceptions to each case…
Critical Thinking Examples
Critical Thinking (CT), also known as Analytical Thinking (AT), represents the activities performed to solve what can be considered a rote problem. The methods and processes for solving such problems are very limited, creating a confined or constrained thinking space to work in.
General Math Problems are probably one of the most obvious sets of Critical Thinking examples. From an early age, we are taught how to solve math problems through repeatable analytical rigor and, for most people, there is no creativity involved. We start with the data we know and we follow a repeatable analytical process for getting to the problem’s answer.
The Exception: For advanced mathematicians who are constantly looking for new answers to old Wicked Math Problems, there is a deeply emotional creativity that is involved in finding and applying possible options for getting to an answer. This deep emotional connection is one that also takes into account the views, experiences, and emotions of other mathematicians who play in the same space. To these mathematicians, Math is Art and they are creating; not just solving a problem that has been solved many times before.
Every time you work on solving a Puzzle (e.g. Physical puzzles, Crossword puzzles, and Word Search puzzles, etc.), you are engaging in Critical Thinking. You are following a rigorous and repeatable methodology for getting from an unsolved state to the puzzle’s final solved state.
The Exception: The exception is represented by puzzles that allow you to think up and create your own creative final state. We see this in toys like building blocks and the classic Lincoln Logs or Legos. Children spend endless hours using these puzzles to create, many with the intent of showing their creations off to others, in hopes of positive emotional reactions and feedback.
“Playing” Video Games
Most Video Games are designed by professionals who use Design Thinking to generate their products. However, did you ever stop to think that most video games are nothing more than interactive puzzles? A player’s challenge is to solve problems, accumulate points, crack codes, improve reaction times, or reach some next level, and we do these things using our Critical Thinking skills.
The Exception: The exception to most traditional video games are a new class of video games that drive the players to think up and create new entities within the game, with the help of or with the considerations of other players in mind. These games challenge their players to create new things that impress and entice reactions from other players.
Design Thinking Examples
In contrast to Critical Thinking, which is all about solving problems in a manner where repeatable analysis and rigor are key to the solution, Design Thinking includes Critical Thinking but also bleeds into the realms of emotional connection and human desire through creative processes.
Two categorical examples of Design Thinking include Functional Product and Functional Art.
A Functional Product is a product that solves one or more problems for the intended human consumer but which does little to take into account things such as Look-and-Feel or User Experience (UX) for that consumer.
The clearest examples of Function Product can be found in the first available product of a given product category/type. For example, the first car, the first airplane, the first computer, etc. While they may not be pretty to look at, they were intended to solve one or more problems that could not be easily solved by the technologies and products before them. Instead of focusing on the desires or emotional connections of the consumers, such products focus on just getting their intended jobs done. However, while there is little in the way of intended emotional connection for the consumer, there is a great deal of emotional connection for the creators, who take great pride in the problems they solve with the solutions they create and who often view such creations as a piece of themselves.
Unlike Functional Product, which is intended to solve one or more problems with little in the way of connecting with the consumer, Functional Art represents those creations or products that are created with the intent to specifically evoke some form of an emotional connection between the product and the consumer(s).
We regularly see examples of Functional Art in areas such as marketing advertisements and commercials. We also see examples of Functional Art in highly competitive consumer markets where the sellers of product will offer features and/or look-and-feel that are intended to create an emotional connection with the consumers and where there is almost always an example of at least one brand that attempts to set higher standards in its marketplace, such as in the areas of high-end fashion, luxury audio and video systems, luxury computing systems, luxury homes, and luxury vehicles (e.g. cars, boats, airplanes). Another area we see Functional Art is in construction Architecture and Engineering, where we see edifices such as buildings and bridges that are intended to go beyond minimal function in order to evoke emotions through aesthetics.
NOTE #1: It is important to understand that all Functional Art is also Functional Product but not all Functional Product is Functional Art.
NOTE #2: It is important to understand that Design Thinking cannot happen without Critical Thinking.
Learning and practicing Critical Thinking and Design Thinking
There are three (3) routes for learning and practicing, both Critical Thinking and Design Thinking…
The first is the informal route. If you are already out of school and in the midst of your career, there are many books, articles, and internet resources which you can look up, read, and practice with. It’s important to consider that your learning path may be unstructured and even erratic, without formal knowledge and understanding of the bigger picture. However, many of these resources have online Communities of Practice (CoPs) that allow you to easily access many other people who can help you with your learning and application of such concepts.
The second is the semi-formal route, which is to pursue Design Thinking certifications. Such certifications will make you knowledgeable in specific frameworks and specific areas of Critical Thinking and/or Design Thinking. While such certifications do help structure your learning, consider that the areas of Critical Thinking and Design Thinking are truly enormous and such certifications will only help you learn about very specific concepts in very specific and limited domains of practice. Such certifications are a great way to gain knowledge and experience in niche spaces.
The final route is that of formal education via fields of study that focus on teaching Critical Thinking and Design Thinking with the express and explicit purposes of helping you establish careers in which you can be formally paid to apply and practice such concepts. Such fields include but are not limited to: Engineering, Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science. It is important to consider that should you pursue such a formal learning and career path, the learning never stops and you will more than likely spend a great deal of your life pursuing, both, the informal route and semiformal route of learning, in order to continuously build and refine your skills.