It would seem that conceptual thinking is inseparable from design, but I find that many design students just cannot grasp the idea of abstraction. Can this be taught? Is the capacity for conceptual thought just part of a person’s DNA? In searching online for insights, I found these observations.
1. This definition from the Eleven Seconds blog:
conceptual thinking is simply the ability to effortlessly walk up and down the ladder of abstraction
and the slightly murkier:
To make their thinking useful, abstract thinkers need to be able to convert something abstract into something concrete, and vice versa. This ability is what I call conceptual thinking. A conceptual thinker starts in the concrete, then walks up the hierarchy of abstractions. At some level they make connections between the abstract representation of the concrete thought and another abstract representation. If need be, they can then walk that abstract thought back into another, very different concrete thought. The idea is that a local search (i.e. making connections) in the abstract space is easier than a local search in the concrete space. And so that person can either communicate more effectively, or solve the problem more effortlessly.
The example given of moving from the concrete to the abstract is seeing the concrete problem as an example of a more generic class or category of problems. Pattern recognition leads to relationships between ideas and eventually back to the concrete.
2. Discussion about conceptual thinking in the world of business tends to focus on the growing need for such thinkers in business (critical for the flexibility and innovation demanded by the global economy) and on the fact that these people are “hard to come by.”
3. And, finally, a way of thinking about the skills needed in each stage of an innovation process, again from business – Managing for Innovation. In this example, innovation managers are encouraged to recruit specific types of people for four stages in the innovation process. The first stage involves the conceptual thinkers.
- Creating stage – people who are skilled at exploring alternatives and discussing concepts, and who focus on the future.
- Advancing stage – more linear thinkers who are capable of organizing a sequential process to move a new idea toward implementation; skilled at organizing a team.
- Refining stage – those who challenge concepts and “poke holes” in order to test new ideas.
- Implementing stage – people who pay attention to details, follow an orderly process, and are not particularly concerned about the origins of the idea.
The reality is that some design students are comfortable in the creating stage, and others are better suited to stages 2 and 3. I am not sure that the implementers stay in the major, even though they may later find employment in firms that carry out the implementation stage.