Designing for better business: leadership, design thinking and action.

Improving competitiveness in a global market is now an everyday concern of CEO’s, senior executives and managers in major cities around the world. Whether you are a startup, an SME or a large corporate, staying ahead of competition through providing products and services that customers actually need should be your raison d’étre. Over the past 10 years, one method of ensuring that businesses provide innovative products and services is that of Design Thinking. 

With it’s origins in post-war Germany with a more recent Californian makeover, Design Thinking has become the go-to innovation method for progressive companies. In this article, I explore what Design Thinking is and how it can be properly employed in your company.

An introduction to Design Thinking

Design Thinking first came to prominence following IDEO CEO & President Tim Brown’s seminal essay in the Harvard Business Review in 2008 called Design Thinking. Brown was not the first to articulate design as a process but he can be widely applauded for his argument for the application of a design process to the development of products, services and processes which is human-centred, creative, iterative and practical. Brown’s model of Design Thinking has two dimensions.

Firstly, there are modes of thinking which distinguish design thinkers from others: design thinkers are empathetic, integrative thinkers, optimistic, experimental and collaborative. For Brown, design thinkers do not have to be designers, but they should have these characteristics. Integrative thinkers are those that rely on both thinking analytically whilst able to reconcile often contradictory external contexts and ideas. Empathetic thinkers see the world from multiple (human) perspectives, considering different client, stakeholders and end-user perspectives but in a deeply engaged way.

Secondly, a design process for Design Thinking has a number of phases (or “spaces” as Brown prefers to call them) which can be described as (1) inspiration, (2) ideation and  (3) implementation. Projects ‘loop’ through these spaces more than once in (1) and (2) before final development and production.

Brown’s article makes some suggestions about how to make Design Thinking part of the innovation process:

  1. Begin at the beginning: embed design thinkers into your innovation process from the start; don’t leave it until part way through a project;
  2. Be human-centred in your approach: focus on human behaviour, needs and preferences. Observe human interactions directly – you can uncover insights from this;
  3. Try early and often: build and test prototypes as early as the first week. Develop metrics to measure progress and rapidly experiment;
  4. Seek outside help: expand your innovation ecosystem by engaging customers and consumers in a co-creation process of development.

So, with Design Thinking seen as both a way of thinking and a process applied to the development of new products and services we might believe this is all we need for successful innovation. However, Brown highlights the often forgotten idea that we should not just think of individual artifacts or services but entire systems.  Citing Thomas Edison’s prolific invention of devices and of electric generation and distribution, and Dr G. Venkataswamy’s Aravind Eye Care System in India, Brown suggests that design thinkers’ deep understanding of human needs coupled with the principles of design allow them to build a systems view of the world and it is this that drives breakthrough innovation.

Design Thinking goes global

Tim Brown’s article in the Harvard Business Review is seen as a watershed moment in design. As I have suggested earlier, in post-war Germany, Dieter Rams was fulfilling the promise of design at Braun to develop functional, useable and desirable products in a mastery of manufacturing, aesthetics and human-centred design. Other companies, like IBM and Olivetti have/had design embedded into their research and development activities since the mid-1950’s. Thomas J. Watson Jnr.’s  “good design is good business” mantra continues to live on in IBM’s Design ethos and studios. However, it is the work of Brown’s company IDEO and it’s founder, David Kelley, who have done most to bring the field of Design into public consciousness.

Kelley is the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (otherwise known as the The has become the defacto Bauhaus (pre-war Germany) or Ulm School (Rams’ early employer in the 60’s) of the 21st Century, although it’s attention has been on design as a tool for innovation rather than merely a means to craft products (things). Hasso Plattner himself – as founder of global software giant SAP – has been an advocate for design and his work has continued through his endowment and continued funding of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam and leadership in Design Thinking. HPI in Stanford and Potsdam describe Design Thinking as both an iterative process and a mindset. The HPI model of the process is articulated thus:

Understand > Observe > Define Point of View > Ideate > Prototype > Test

Like Brown’s simplified Inspiration, Ideation, Implementation, the HPI model of Design Thinking recognises the iterative and cyclical nature of design (and designing) where each phase (or space) can be revisited in a constant loop of refinement and development.

These models of Design Thinking – and the draw of HPI at Potsdam and Stanford – have spawned a global interest in design and design methods. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley have identified over 300 design methods on theDesignExchangethe LinkedIn’s Design Thinking group has over 110,000 members drawn from business, consulting and education and the likes of Deloitte and Accenture use Design Thinking to create a point-of-difference for their (management consulting) clients.  Type ‘design thinking’ into Google and you’ll get over 914 million results! Design Thinking is pervasive. Or is it?

A note of caution about Design Thinking

Because of Design Thinking’s widespread and growing interest, there has been a certain scepticism about it’s use. Lee Vinsel at Virginia Tech has written a scathing (and humourous) essay on Design Thinking Is Kind Of Like Syphilis  and Jon Kolko, founder of Austin Center for Design and partner at Modernist Studio, has written about The Divisiveness of Design ThinkingThis has happened for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Design Thinking (as a popular concept) has been misunderstood as a simple process – much like the use of agile or lean thinking. As we have explored above, Design Thinking is more like design thinking, insofar as it is a way of thinking that has persisted in the world of design for nearly a century. Speak to any designer emergent from a design or art school and you’ll find that ‘designerly way of knowing’ (see Cross, 2006). Designers and design consultants have always been able to design. They just weren’t very good at getting published in the Harvard Business Review or becoming University researchers and professors. Now, of course, design leaders (both educators and agency owners) have smartened up their ‘pitch’ to business and now orientate their consultancy offerings towards the strategic, human-centred, inclusive, processual nature of design with a focus on business problem-solving.

Secondly, companies exploring the promise of Design Thinking have – as Leanne Sobel and Lars Groeger at Macquarie University discovered – felt let-down by the fact that Design Thinking hasn’t delivered the innovation that they were looking for. In these instances, this is often because of the lack of real Design Thinking experience on the part of consultants brought in who have been found to be “design washing” (ibid). The result: disenchantment with Design Thinking and with design.

Employing design thinking in your company

The value of design in not only delivering innovation for new products and services but also in the improvement of existing products, services and processes is widely acknowledged. The UK’s Design Council and the Royal Society of Arts respectively have shown that design can deliver economic, social and cultural value to the communities that we live in. In 2014, the Design Council’s Design Leadership Programme report estimated that every £1 spent on design activity increased revenues by £20, every £1 spent delivered £4 profit and every £1 spent delivered over £5 in export revenue.

The RSA report From Design Thinking to Systems Change  acknowledges that one of the problems that innovators and changemakers (design thinkers) encounter is a barrier to innovation. Such a barrier takes the form of competing incentives, regulatory frameworks, procurement, market readiness, media backlash and cultural norms. All these potential barriers can bring a design-led initiative to a halt and – with it – a distrust for Design Thinking and all things ‘design’. For example, design-led company Airbnb has experienced both cultural and taxation barriers to growth during it’s evolution and growth. The company’s resilience is down to it’s founders commitment (and experience) in Design Thinking. The report’s mnemonic – think like a system, act like an entrepreneur – sticks well in the mind when considering a design thinking approach to innovation.

Design Thinking is not a silver bullet to fast growth or innovation. Neither is it a sales tool that you can deploy to show customers you are interested in what they say, only to sell them something they were going to get regardless. Design Thinking requires a deep and meaningful engagement: it requires commitment at every level of an organisation – from CEO to office manager; and requires expert design thinkers as champions who can correctly and confidently articulate design and a design process (there are many and Design Thinking is but one) that will drive innovation projects forward.

Not only is design thinking required but so to is design doing. Action does speak louder than words when it comes to iterating, prototyping, testing, developing and launching products, services and processes. Too many Design Thinking consultants have never designed a product or service in their life; they were never designers in the traditional sense and therefore unable to visualise, craft or build tangible ‘things’ that help to show the team around them that there is a positive outcome to all the ‘workshopping’, post-it notes and user interviews. Ultimately, it’s the design action we take that is the measure of the design thinking we put in beforehand.

If you are interested in exploring how you can become a leader in design thinking within your organisation, drop us an email at philip.ely [at] curtin [dot]

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