Thoughts on Design Thinking From a Designer

I’ll admit, when I first heard about Design Thinking, I thought it was a buzzword that is completely bullshit. Having empathy for our users and working together to solve a problem is nothing new. Yet people were raving about how this radically new approach was going to help produce better products and services. Companies were adopting this new approach, and institutions were capitalizing on it by creating and selling new programs, workshops and teaching lessons.

So when I watched the video of a talk by Natasha Jens, a design partner at Pentagram in NY, I understood where she was coming from. I think the reason why graphic designers like me and Natasha are having a harder time accepting this new paradigm is because we’re thinking about design in the traditional sense — like what we learned in art school where we do crits and talk about design principles and aesthetics. Designer’s use sketching or Photoshop as their tool–not post-its! For the longest time, I just didn’t get it.

What’s the big deal?

Apparently, adding the word thinking was a game changer. Now all of a sudden, this lowers the bar and enables even a layperson or anybody who is not a designer (CEO, developers, etc) to think creatively and tackle complex problems.

With a lowercase “d”.

I always believed that every one of us is a designer–even if you weren’t formally trained in art school. From the moment you wake up and decide what to wear, you are making decisions on color, textures, purpose, etc. Every kid grew up coloring with crayons, but somehow when they get to 4th grade, they start to form their own opinions and get conscious about what they put out there. But I think deep down, we’ve always had a creative soul.

Unfortunately, even to this day, most people associate design with the aesthetics. Make it look pretty! But that is only 1/3 of what designers do.

Design is about problem solving. It’s about inviting new ways of thinking. The end result may end up being an app or a chair, but that’s just the artifact that happens almost as a byproduct. How you got there, how it works, is what design is. Often times though, people think of design as the pretty layer, but it’s actually about the way it functions. It’s not the icing on the cake–it is the cake.

Good design practitioners get this. They know that the other 2/3 of what we do is about being good communicators and having the ability to rally an organization together around an idea.

But try explaining this to a non-designer, or a big enterprise company who does things old school. Try telling them that designers need a seat at the table early on when the project starts. Design should guide the requirements, not the other way around. When we propose this, we’d either get a push back and be told to come back later in the design phase, or they’d agree with it but since it’s such a large organization, it’s hard to move on it.

Enter Design Thinking. Putting these two simple terms and packaging it as a revolutionary new methodology has reframed the way we perceive design. It wasn’t about ‘making things look pretty’. It was about co-creation, using low-fidelity tools like whiteboarding and post-its. It was about designing WITH someone rather than FOR someone.

Before we go any further, let’s define what Design Thinking is. The concept of Design Thinking goes back to 1980s and popularized by Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO. He defines Design Thinking as:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

The 5 step diagram Stanford d.School uses:

Empathy is the foundation of the whole design thinking process–putting the customer at the heart of everything we do.

Following research, start to define the problem and put together a POV (point-of-view). Reframing the problem and looking at it from multiple viewpoints also helps.

Brainstorm new ideas and explore various options. During the ideation phase, it’s important to loop in key stakeholders and get everyone on the same page.

Seeing is believing. Making something tangible is the most efficient way to clearly communicate and be aligned. This can be a low fidelity prototype. Fail fast, and iterate.

Test a prototype with users and get feedback.

The above is not a one-size-fits-all process. And in reality, when you’re working in a company as a designer, you may not be following this linear process. Often times, you’d encounter tight deadlines and have to put out fires, or you may fall in the middle of the process.

It’s important to remember that you can do the steps in roughly any order, and often need to iterate through many of the phases multiple times.

Challenges & Misconceptions

I would like to point out though, that the current state of Design Thinking is not perfect and I think there are a few challenges and misconceptions.

Natasha points out that the Crit is missing from the Design Thinking process. Again, as a designer, I totally get what she is talking about. Design critiques and feedback is definitely a big part of the the design process. But I think the Crit can happen during the prototype and testing phase.

Some companies do weekly crits where they invite other departments and sync on what they’re working on. Other places I worked at call it design demos. It’s all the same thing: looking at a prototype or putting up printouts on the wall and discussing it with a wider forum.

Another thing that Natasha talks about is the over proliferation of the 3M post-its as being the go-to medium in Design Thinking.

by @jessedodds

Don’t be afraid to go beyond post-its, whiteboarding and sketches. The best innovation workshops are conducted in lab-like settings or places that look like a kitchen or a kindergarden’s classroom. There might be markers, scissors, glues, tape, etc. These low cost tools allow you to build prototypes quickly and creatively all the while having fun!

The process of design is messy. The end result is clean, but when working together, it’s going to get a little chaotic.

IDEO workshop

It is sad that even with extensive training, some people would just gather a few people to a 1hr meeting and put up some post-its on the wall as an exercise. When time is up, people leave for their next meeting and then they wonder what has changed.

Design Thinking is not a sprint, but more like a marathon. It’s an ongoing, living process. So applying Design Thinking in a 1–3 day workshop is not going to work.

Don’t think of this as something that can be done in 15min. In fact, you will get better results if it’s not a timed meeting. Just let the thought juices flow with no agenda. Also, it’s important to follow-up on the first meeting. There will be more than one.

Does it work?

Here are a few success stories: GE healthcare, AirBnb, IDEO + Bank of America, Golden Gate Regional Center. I’m sure there are lots more case studies. They all credit Design Thinking as their secret sauce to success.

With all of the stuff that’s going on in the world and technology moving at the pace that it does, and with the globalization of things, problems are starting to get quite complex. And so being able to routinely come up with good ideas and solve these problems are becoming more and more of a challenge. Companies are using Design Thinking as a way to tackle these problems.

IBM trained over 60,000 people and there are a growing number of institutions (ie. Stanford d.School, LUMA, Udemy, etc) teaching Design Thinking. So that means thousands of people are trained to be innovative thinkers and we should be seeing more disruptive innovation happening more frequently, right?

Obviously there won’t be a consistent churning of innovation, but I think if we focus on the key methods of Design Thinking like building with empathy, working collaboratively with multi-disciplinary teams, and iterating on prototypes, I think that’s a good start.

I still think Design Thinking is indeed a buzzword. I agree with Jared Spool in that there’s really nothing new–just a different way of framing things. But I like how this new concept has brought light to design as being more than just a pretty layer (even though that was always the case). It’s especially needed in large corporations with siloed departments as it really gets multiple minds in one room.

Design is a very hands on methodology. It’s more effective the closer you are to the actual work. The bigger the organization gets, the more disconnected they seem to be from the work. As a consequence it’s harder to spot problems and fix them. The more removed you are, the less you can be impactful, helpful and guide the decisions and outcome. Design Thinking serves as a way for everyone to try to get deep into the project.

Call it Design Thinking & Doing or Visual Thinking, or whatever. I just call it designing. But I’m excited to see more companies are putting design in the center of their organization. I think we’re all learning and trying to figure this out. No one recipe can fix all problems. But I think we’re getting somewhere.

Designer, Writer, Thinker @hannahKimBrooks