Design Thinking in Planning Practice

PAS Memo — September-October 2021

By Thomas Fisher


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Planning and design have a lot in common. Both fields have a focus on possible futures as well as present and past situations. Both seek to improve the human condition and the environments in which we live. And both are as old as humanity itself: we would not have survived as a species without the ability to plan or design when confronted with changing circumstances.

Planning has deeper roots in the social sciences and stronger ties to the inductive methods of science: gathering and assessing data about a situation, drawing generalizable conclusions from that data, and implementing strategies and putting in place systems in response. Design typically involves a different logic, what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called abduction, which makes connections among disparate and seemingly unrelated phenomena in a pragmatic search for a new way of understanding a situation or a better solution to a problem.

Yet abduction also involves a rigorous process that can bring creativity and agility to traditional planning practice: design thinking. The process demands listening to diverse voices, observing what people do as much as what they say, reframing problems as opportunities in disguise, generating a lot of ideas to come up with some valuable new ones, and prototyping and testing the best of them to see which work well within the constraints of a situation. But design, like planning, also requires a degree of improvisation, with a lot of judgement in terms of what to do when, combined with a willingness to fail and to learn from those failures.

This PAS Memo explains design thinking and explores how this process can contribute to planning practice, offering communities an effective set of tools to achieve their goals and to leverage assets that they might not have even realized they had. It shares a series of case studies from a diverse group of planners and designers who are staff members or affiliates at the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota. The Memo concludes with guidance to help planners begin using design thinking methods in their own practices and communities.


Date Published
Sept. 1, 2021
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Author

Thomas Fisher
Thomas Fisher is the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design and Director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.