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What is design thinking? More than a methodology or framework, design thinking combines the problem-solving roots of design with deep empathy for the user. The design thinking-based framework popularized by the Stanford d.school can help your team take on the thorniest challenges with insightful solutions.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to put design thinking into practice in your organization.
This article originally appeared as part of Design for Europe and was written by Bas Leurs and Isobel Roberts from Nesta.
What comes to mind when you think of design? For many people, the word conjures up thoughts of creativity, products, architecture, graphics, or simply the way something looks or functions.
These are all valid responses, and in some ways capture what we might class as traditional forms of design. Today the practice of design regularly extends beyond these boundaries to encompass broader techniques, methods and approaches. When we talk about design in the field of innovation our focus is more on what we might call ‘strategic design’.
As the diagram below illustrates, design can function at multiple levels and in different ways. Design professor Richard Buchanan captured his thinking into these ‘four orders or design’ illustrating how design as a discipline has moved from the traditional concept of the visual or tangible artefact through to orchestrating interactions and experiences, and to transforming systems.
This model demonstrates the scope and role design can play. Designing a symbol or a logo is of course a skill, but is generally perceived to be relatively straightforward. Designing for a system or service however, is much more complex and multifaceted. At this end of the spectrum, design can be extremely complex. It can involve many actors and stakeholders, often with varying or and often conflicting interests or objectives. Design thinking in that sense often refers to the mindset and skills needed to work with the complexity around interactions and systems.
Everybody designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.
Herbert Simon, 1969
As the quote from Herbert Simon describes, designing isn’t just for professionals. It is a fundamental human activity and capability, and humankind has in fact been designing since it began inventing and using tools thousands of years ago. Planning your day in an efficient way or rearranging your furniture to allow for better flow are examples of modern everyday activities that involve design skills.
Design is also about change, and that can be good or bad. But the importance here is that design should be about improving situations as design should be is ultimately about making things better. This approach can be applied to policymaking and public service provision too – you create policies and services because you want to create a preferred situation, a future state, that is better than the current state.
When we talk about design in the field of innovation, our focus is on designing solutions for – and often with – others to achieve that a desired future state (i.e. strategic objective). The concept of “fit” is key in this process. Design is ultimately about generating a fit across a number of different elements:
This diagram is of course an oversimplified representation and lacks the richness and complexity that surrounds these elements in reality, but it is still useful helpful for understanding key relations around “fit”. These three key relations are:
This idea of ‘fit’ can also be expanded to other areas that involve design activity, such as policymaking. Take for example the problem of growing childhood obesity. A government might tax sugar-sweetened drinks as a policy intervention to tackle this issue. But how does this fit with the motivations and everyday routines of children? Will it change their behaviour? And how does it fit with government processes? How will it be enforced this policy, and what departments will need to collaborate on it? How much manpower will it take?
Bear in mind that design doesn’t pursue to generate a perfect fit across all three dimensions, rather it aims create a fit that’s good enough. In order to do that, there are four principles that help generate this fit and that anyone can learn and use:
One of the core principles of design is empathy; that by putting yourself in the shoes of your users and learning as much about them as you can, you are more likely to create solutions that hit the mark for them.
Assessing whether a solution is good enough to address the problem should be tested through a trial and error process. This is the essence of prototyping. By building prototypes, any assumptions on what might work are tested at an early stage, and this often leads to a revised definition of the problem, or an improvement in the design of the solution.
Particularly in emerging design disciplines such as social design and service design, design catalyses change by bringing people together and enabling collaboration. Professional designers, or design thinkers, can often help play a coordinating role here by bringing internal and external stakeholders together to deliver an integrated offer.
Through visualisation, complex information can be made comprehensible to support decision-making. Visual thinking is the universal language of design that helps to drives experimentation, build common ground across stakeholders and share user insights.
These approaches might feel unfamiliar, but remember that design is something that everybody has the capacity to do.
A couple of weeks ago management consultancy McKinsey published their research into the value of design called “The business value of design.” The research proves that investing in design is a good business idea. They managed to prove that companies that thoroughly invest in design, perform, on average, twice as well as businesses that don’t. Good news for all designers out there! Selling design services just became twice as easy!
Or did it? Around me, I also hear a lot of designers complain about the report. Maybe the report isn’t helping designers at all? Maybe it is even counterproductive? Most discussions focus on the way design brings value to companies. McKinsey takes an almost purely financial approach to the value of design. They basically state that business value equals profit. That might just be a clear example of 20th-century thinking. In the scientific management model, aligning assets to create the most efficient operation and thus the most profit is the way to organize and think about business. Of course, businesses need to make money. As Peter Drucker said:
“Making money for a company is like oxygen for a person; if you don’t have enough of it you’re out of the game.” — Peter Drucker
With a lot of people, this creates some confusion about the purpose of a company. Profitability is a performance requirement for business, but it is not a purpose. Peter Senge states:
“Companies who take profit as their purpose are like people who think life is about breathing. They are missing something.” — Peter Senge
McKinsey is missing something in their vision on the business value of design. Designers are more purpose-driven than money-driven. People who go after a career in design are typically not in it for the money. If they were in it for the money, they would have attended a business school, not an art school. Designers want to create beauty, make the world a better place, bring value to users, make their lives better. Business people want to buy low and sell high. Apart from the fact that this is a short-term business strategy, more and more people, especially those about to enter the workforce, are driven by purpose, not money. So not only for designers but for more and more other people purpose is what creates commitment, engagement and finally business performance.
“The best way to grow financial capital is through growing human capital.” — Bill O’Brien
In my experience, one of the things that design can help business with is purpose. Design (thinking) can make a huge contribution by empowering employees to become more creative. The prototyping mindset that design and design thinking can bring to the people working in the organization can help to find the right questions, gather relevant insights, validate choices, and unlock creativity. I have seen huge jumps in engagement and performance of teams when they see the connection of their work to relevant needs of the users. There is nothing more energizing than seeing how your work helps solve real user needs. The silo’s that need to be broken down in order to deliver the products and services that are designed make sure more people see their contribution and people are freed from the artificial bounds of departments. The involvement of all stakeholders in the design process makes everyone part of the creative process. All people are creative by nature and making them part of the creative process and freeing them from their silo unlocks this creativity and creates engagement. Not to mention that it’s a lot more fun.
The whole scientific management model of looking at the businesses and the world has brought us huge benefits. But this left-brain, compartmentalized, effective approach comes at a cost. It makes work less human. Companies that take design seriously, make work more human. They connect people more, they let people use both halves of their brain, they enable people to learn more, grow more. People in most organizations are so boxed in that they don’t see the whole, don’t see the purpose of their work anymore. They are working toward KPIs that are completely detached from reality. If you do design right and include all stakeholders in the creative process and unlock the creativity of employees, design can bring purpose. The purpose of an organization doesn’t have to be some lofty ideal of making the world a better place. On an operational level, bringing value to the clients and seeing how your actions contribute to that value is what brings motivation. Design can bring a sense of identity or pride in the quality of the products and services, but also a connection to value that is created.
Design can make the processes better. If people are able to find the right questions, are engaged and can test their solutions, the financial results will follow. Design can help with creating value, managing risk, and performance. These effects are all indirect. The only direct contribution to the bottom line that design can bring is the attractiveness of products and services, the beauty, that will allow the business to sell them for a premium or position themselves better in relation to the competition. Then design is an asset you can invest in. Then design is an investment of which you can track the ROI. Then design is an add-on, a department. Then you are talking about design the way McKinsey is talking about design in their report.
It’s not necessarily the best-designed solution that makes the most money. There are also other factors in play. Like the solution with the most marketing budget. Or the solution with the best distribution platform. Designers are driven by quality and not so much by profit. Quality should result in profit but that is not the only goal. And it’s certainly not enough to keep employees sustainably engaged. Design brings value in a lot more ways than direct measurable ones. If you try to measure the business value of design in a direct way, you create a narrative around design that doesn’t do it justice. If you try to measure the business value of design in a direct way, you miss all the indirect ways design adds value to a business. The bottom line is that design is not only the creation of beautiful surfaces but also a way to look at the world. Trying to measure that is like trying to measure the business value of the scientific management way of looking at the world. If you want to assess the value design can bring to an organization, you first have to be aware of the ripple effects on people, processes and organization that design can bring.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.
Design History Annual Conference 2019: The Cost of Design
Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
5-7 September 2019
‘The Cost of Design’ explores the complexities of the historic and contemporary relationship between design and economy. Design is both influenced by, and can shape, economic systems. Both ‘cost’ and ‘economy’ are to be understood beyond their financial implications. ‘Cost’ is en-visaged as the exchange of resources, meaning or value. The conference looks at how design sustains, accelerates or challenges dominant systems and examines the resulting social, cultur-al, economic or environmental consequences that arise. It examines the roles of design in rap-idly changing economies, examining the relationship between technological advances and the economy. ‘The Cost of Design’ also looks at design’s relationship to the political economy and the global/regional/local exchanges occurring within. Design practices can react to, resist, challenge or seek to influence economies that are viewed to negatively impact in some way. The ways in which design has been used to affect positive change within economic systems will also be examined.
The conference welcomes historic, contemporary and interdisciplinary approaches to the top-ic, and invites contributions from design historians, scholars, and academics in related fields, as well as design practitioners and educators, museum professionals and students.
Topics might include:
Technological and changing economies
· Impact of automation
· Digitisation of design culture
· Hybridisation of physical and virtual spaces
Political economies and global/local exchange
· Supply chains, manufacture and relocation vis-à-vis geopolitical and cultural borders
· Challenges to/persistence of dichotomies of North/South; East/West; Centre/Periphery
· Dynamics of transcultural (intra- or extra regional) design
· The relationship between design and soft power
· Appropriation and Copyright
Resistance, sharing economies and design
· Design for “post-growth” economies
· Political design in a national/regional/local context
· Artisanal/craft solutions
· Indigenous autonomy
· Designing for wellbeing, happiness and social values
Individual papers of 20 minutes, or proposals for full panels of three papers related to the top-ics listed above or theme of ‘The Cost of Design’ will be considered. Panel proposals must in-clude abstracts for all three papers, in addition to a short description of the panel theme.
All proposals will be double-blind reviewed and selected by the conference committee.
Submissions are due Monday, 25 February 2019 and should:
1. Be sent in the form of a Microsoft Word document (.doc, .docx)
2. Not exceed 300 words
3. Include the title of the paper
4. Include the author’s full name, title, position and institution
5. Include a brief professional biography (not exceeding 50 words)
Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org to the attention of the Academic Convener.
The Design History Society at https://www.designhistorysociety.org/
I first met Stephen Key in 2001. Two months later, I used a few recommendations of his — shared over the customary gin tonic — to help a friend double overseas sales in less than two weeks in New Zealand and Australia.
How? Licensing. It can be a beautifully elegant model.
Stephen is somewhat famous in inventing circles for two reasons. First, he consistently earns millions of dollars licensing his ideas to companies like Disney, Nestle, and Coca-Cola. Second, he is fast. It seldom takes him more than three weeks to go from idea to a signed deal. Continue reading