22 November 2019

A lesson in design thinking from Leonardo da Vinci

What if Leonardo da Vinci was the first design thinker? …

Everyone’s Intelligence, one man’s vision

What if Leonardo da Vinci was the first design thinker? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death, and rediscover his notebooks, dense with sketches, it is a question worth asking. But what exactly is design thinking? It is a revolutionary method of developing products and services, invented in the late 1990s by an American firm in Palo Alto, and diametrically opposed to the traditional process of R&D departments in which complex projects are developed in a vacuum and then imposed on a market that never asked for them… It consists of three phases: the inspiration phase, involving complete immersion in and observation of the end user’s world; the ideation phase, a period of creativity and exploration, still with potential users in mind; and the implementation phase, during which the product is finalized. These three phases must combine “user expectations, technological feasibility and economic viability” according to the authoritative definition.

The importance attributed to an iterative and exploratory approach and the priority given to hybridised ideas and concepts bring to mind the incredible productivity of the Italian master. We know that he was a painter, sculptor, architect, town planner, astronomer, anatomist, botanist, engineer … Above all, he was a man with a completely different approach to exploring the world, developing new uses in a visionary way. And this brings him extraordinarily close to design thinking and to our current Renaissance.

Since their time, an unbeatable superhuman has come onto the scene, known as collective intelligence !

The Italian Renaissance was an exceptional period during which there were no hard barriers between the humanities and the performing arts, as we can see with Palladio, a simple stonemason who became an inspired architect. In the greatest, all rivers converged in the ocean of Art and Beauty, reconciling the hand and the eye, technique and inspiration. We too have entered an age of a new relationship between body and mind, the individual and society. The digital revolution is a new Renaissance, a Renaissance squared. The triumph of the code represents a more profound upheaval than the advent of printing; the mixing of cultures and the genius of cities goes much further than the encounter between Antiquity and the urban modernity of 16th century Italy. This does not mean we should be off seeking individual geniuses like Michelangelo, Raphael or da Vinci, capable of imagining everything on their own. Since their time, an unbeatable superhuman has come onto the scene, known as collective intelligence. And that is today’s demigod. There will not be another Pic de la Mirandole, and Steve Jobs’ cult status should not dazzle us into forgetting the talent around him, starting with Jonathan Ive, the genius designer of the iPod, the iMac and the iPhone. Our Renaissance goes beyond the abilities of a single human; the solitary genius is just one useful ingredient. Today we don’t need a providential individual, but a collective of lookouts, whose vision, in fact, will be as coherent as that of one individual. More than ever, we need a holistic vision, and to abandon excessive specialization.

This is where da Vinci’s intuition about usage is invaluable. He operated like a connected multitude, like an army of lookouts and sensors, too busy watching to stop and concentrate on any one of the innumerable ideas that he merely sketched, He wasn’t an application, however amazing that might be, but a one-man collective platform, He was the king of ideation and prototypes: in his notebooks, text is overrun by sketches, which he considered the best aids to comprehension, closer to sensorial experience, faster and lighter than words. Throughout, one senses an extraordinary intuition at work, a way of incorporating reality: da Vinci developed this skill by drawing plants, towns, tendons, cats, canons … In each case, what interested him was seeing and showing how things worked, and how they could be used in an innovative way: picturing a two-tiered road system, with consideration given to lighting and air flow; inventing an atlas of the human body in 3-D “as if man himself was standing before you”; designing water management for times of excess or shortfall; designing an aeroplane, a helicopter or a parachute … We’re talking about a new relationship between man and the elements he has developed, new “user experiences”, even if they remained in the domain of the imagination.

Throughout, one senses an extraordinary intuition at work.

We can learn a lesson from this: Apple’s success can be explained by the fact that, rather than proposing rigid machines, it offers services, connectivity, ergonomics, emotions, via tool customization and an App Store with no limits, open to all developers. The latest Sodebo Ultim’ 3 trimaran, the pinnacle of sailing design, was not designed by a naval architect, but by a collaborative design team that alone was able to come up with the idea of placing the cockpit before the mast and not behind. The boat will be tested from some time to come by its two users: Thomas Coville and the sea itself … The connected multitude and crowdfunding are indispensable, but there must always be a catalyst, an end user with a holistic understanding of future uses. May the spirit of de Vinci stay with us!

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