— I have had many conversations with the inestimable Cheryl Heller about the meaning and purpose of “design thinking.” She’s a smart thinker and writer — not to mention the founder of the new Design for Social Innovation program at SVA. Where Design is Going, and How to be There is her manifesto for future designers, and it’s well worth a read.
I wasn’t at the recent Global Design Forum, but judging from the reviews, I didn’t miss much, even as the event itself apparently missed its moment to make a mark. Richard Eisermann has a good review, in which he bemoans the missed opportunity:
The Global Design Forum, held on 18 September in London, was billed as “one day to set the global agenda for design”. It fell well short of this lofty ambition. It was about design, yes, but it wasn’t particularly global and it certainly wasn’t a forum.
The tart observation above actually comes from a comment on Eisermann’s piece from Nico Macdonald. In it, he nails some of the topics I’ve been thinking about for years:
My contribution to the debate (and I was one of the few able to speaker from the floor in the limited time) was to observe that while design thinking had been originated by designers it has now been taken over by management consultants and other people in professional services, partly because it was a loose concept that was able to be adopted by others. I noted that speakers such as Tom Dixon were not able to properly interpret the data they presented. And Charles Leadbeater’s forecasting was so impressionistic he considered it could be done by talking to his 12-year-old-son.
In a context in which many designers find it so difficult to grapple with other domains I asked the speakers what’s one thing designers needed to do, or do better, to ‘step up to the plate’ and be taken seriously in the boardroom.
Suffice it to say, many of the designers at the event were not able to step up and answer him satisfactorily. And this, right here, seems to be the major obstacle facing the design industry and its continued quest to be integrated into the highest echelons of business. Just wishing it will not make it so.
— In The Problem With “Design Thinking,” my friend Saul Kaplan goes a little nuclear on his designer friends. I actually think the discussion around design thinking (to which, I confess, I have contributed more than makes me in any way comfortable) has moved on, though I still think examples of those who’ve figured out how to implement its ideas effectively are few and far between. This is an excerpt from Saul’s new book on business model innovation, just published, and which I’m looking forward to reading.
— My colleague Melissa Quinn puts the cat among the proverbial pigeons with her Fast Company piece about the Rotman Design Challenge, organized by the Rotman School of Management, part of the University of Toronto. Quinn highlights the continued gap between the rhetoric of those promising to teach “design thinking” (or “business thinking”) and what actually happens, and she has pointed words for both sides of the equation. The key, as she argues, is that the education system as a whole is outmoded, and we need no less than its meaningful reinvention so that both designers and MBAs can realize, appreciate and embrace the true value of the others’ craft, with real results.
While we think about design thinking as being something of a modern day phenomenon, it’s really as old as the hills. I’ve recently been combing through Doblin’s archives—and I came across a piece written in 1978 by the company founder Jay Doblin. In it, he lays out how the changing levels of design give different opportunities to innovate, and uses the redesign of a gas pump as an example. Check this out:
- LEVEL 1: The designer accepts the pump’s performance but shortens and cleans up its form.
- LEVEL 2: Performance improvements are made. Either money, gallonage, or fillip can be punched directly. Inserted credit card automatically bills the customer.
- LEVEL 3: Changes the basic mechanism. The station is like a parking lot where hoses are pulled from trap doors below ground. All the controls are on the nozzle.
- LEVEL 4: Involves products which are outside the company’s control. No liquid fuel is pumped; pressurized cartridges are inserted into the car. One cartridge fits all cars (like sealed beam headlamps), a one-price sale.
- LEVEL 5: The service performed is changed; there are no more gas stations. Fuel cartridges are bought anywhere, like beer.
- LEVEL 6: The service is eliminated; cars never need refueling, they run indefinitely on atomic power.
- LEVEL 7: Transportation is eliminated; all human contact is by telecommunications.
So, apart from making me wish I’d had the chance to meet Jay, what does this mean? Well, it means that 35 years ago, designers were thinking about increasing their scope from object to system, about how to elevate themselves from beyond providing the superficial aesthetic appeal of a product to considering its strategic consequences, even its point of existence. And honestly I think it’s telling and somewhat depressing that we’re still struggling with this whole discussion today.
Overlooking the fact that the Peter Thiel teaching at Stanford is the same Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids $100,000 to drop out of college and start a business, this is a great recap of Thiel’s first course at Stanford. Student Blake Masters took detailed notes, and there are some real gems (not, it should be noted, necessarily captured verbatim). The above comment shows the recognition of a workforce that can integrate inputs from diverse source, while this quote should also be borne in mind by all would-be entrepreneurs:
Channeling Tolstoy’s intro to Anna Karenina, all successful companies are different; they figured out the 0 to 1 problem in different ways. But all failed companies are the same; they botched the 0 to 1 problem.
I was also fascinated by Thiel’s interpretation of “the problem with big business,” which comes down to a question of scale and design:
North of 100 people in a company, employees don’t all know each other. Politics become important. Incentives change. Signaling that work is being done may become more important than actually doing work. These costs are almost always underestimated. Yet they are so prevalent that professional investors should and do seriously reconsider before investing in companies that have more than one office. Severe coordination problems may stem from something as seemingly trivial or innocuous as a company having a multi-floor office.
Thiel also gets into why people should ever embark on a startup in the first place, and it’s not, he advises, in order to merely copy what already exists. You can learn a lot if you shot for the moon and miss. But:
If you try to do Groupon for Madagascar and it fails, it’s not clear where exactly you are. But it’s not good.
And then finally, he details some questions all entrepreneurs should pose to themselves. I say we’d all probably benefit from taking a conscious look at where we are:
First, what is valuable? Second, what can I do? And third, what is nobody else doing?
Good, short interview with Apple’s head design honcho, Sir Jonathan Ive, in London’s Evening Standard. Also loved his thoughtful insight into the design process:
“Sometimes things can irritate you so you become aware of a problem, which is a very pragmatic approach and the least challenging. What is more difficult is when you are intrigued by an opportunity. That, I think, really exercises the skills of a designer. It’s not a problem you’re aware of, nobody has articulated a need. But you start asking questions: what if we do this, combine it with that, would that be useful? This creates opportunities that could replace entire categories of device rather than tactically responding to an individual problem. That’s the real challenge and very exciting.”
[Story via Hiroshi Wald]
Writer and “optimistic doomer”, John Thackara is always good value. Here, he chats about the crisis (and opportunities) facing the design industry with Rob Huisman of the Association of Dutch Designers. I particularly liked his breakdown/definition of social innovation, a phrase that has become so ubiquitous as to become meaningless:
- Use design skills to address social problems such as obesity, crime, looking after older people.
- Develop services with a social need, such as ride-sharing or health applications on iphone. These services are social rather than commercial.
- Create a new kind of society in which we get food, shelter, move around, look after our children in different, less costly ways.
Thackara confesses on multiple occasions that he hasn’t quite figured out the economics of this type of work for designers, which is clearly an issue. But he’s also clear on one point: designers can’t wait for people to come to them. See the work you want to do, he advises, and go and offer your services, explaining to would-be clients what you bring to the table and why they should bother to have you around. Right on.
[Story via Adrian Shaughnessy.]
Most designers would allow that Bob Gill is a pioneer of the industry, particularly in the realm of communications design. The founder of esteemed consultancy, Pentagram, Gill has a new book out from Laurence King (my own some time publisher). Fast Company has an excerpt from Bob Gill, So Far.
Most designers, truth be known, would likely consider his statement above to be a bit harsh, or, at least, no longer quite as true as it perhaps used to be. I for one like to think that designers have matured as the industry has evolved and that designers have become more adept at explaining their process and its connection to problem solving. Nonetheless, Gill’s is an opinion that’s worth bearing in mind (not least because the last sentence, in particular, is still many non-designers’ opinion of the discipline). I also liked Gill’s common sense (but so often overlooked) advice:
The more you research the subject, the more likely you are to discover something really interesting, or better yet, something original, something that no one has ever noticed before.
A great project from two RCA students, looking at design and dementia, and exploring how it might be possible to rethink dining and bedroom environments in care homes. This video really shows the depth and insight that a design-based approach can bring to seemingly intractable problems. Alissa Walker has a nice write up of the project over at Fast Company Design, while details of the full research project can be found at the site for the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, which specializes in taking on this type of initiative, and where one of these students, Gregor Timlin, currently works as a senior associate.
The original headline of Can Innovation Really Be Reduced to a Process?, just published in Fast Company, was “The Real Problems with Design Thinking.” It’s a topic I’ve been agonizing over for weeks, and just one more element in a discussion that looks like it’ll run and run. I’m pretty happy with how the piece turned out, and the conclusion seems to have struck a chord with a few readers:
Perhaps some designers will welcome the passing of the design thinking baton to executives. Perhaps they’ll be relieved to see design thinking shaking out as a useful problem-solving approach for executives to use when appropriate. But to me, this shift emphasizes the need for leaders of both business and design to further clarify understanding of who does what, when. Design should neither be aggrandized nor trivialized. But it feels like it could play an infinitely more significant role if only those involved could figure out more convincing ways to articulate its value. For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative. Given the real need for innovation in every part of culture and society, that seems like the biggest problem of all.
Let me know what you think!
(Great picture of post-it notes in a Seoul noodle shop c/o Watchsmart.)
(Story via Irene Au.)
In The Case for Competitive Collaboration, Teague creative director Tad Toulis outlines his thesis that competitive collaboration is the means by which robust business of the future will be built. He’s not referring to the “whimsical, feel-good stuff that dissipates at the first sign of trouble” but an “all out, skin in the game style of cooperation that requires real commitment from both parties.” And he has some suggestions for thinking about the design process. Some key quotes:
If you find design problems getting easier—you are most likely repeating yourself.
Love this careful warning that with experience can come laziness or the willingness to fall back on the tried and tested. This doesn’t just apply to designers, and the ability to challenge oneself to do more, better, different every single time is a key skill in today’s marketplace.
Making is an inextricable part of good design exploration. PowerPoint is an abstraction of an abstraction. Things don’t fail quickly in abstract.
A good reminder for why designers are there in the first place. Not to aestheticize existing ideas, but to come up with new ones. That process involves trying, learning and trying again.
Schedules and meetings chew up a lot of ‘finding’ time. The design process needs distraction, a chance to open the windows and let in fresh air. When this isn’t allowed for, ideas become stilted, growing into outsized caricatures of their former selves.
This is key. Protecting the creative process, impenetrable to so many, is critical. Managers should remember that while design may be an imprecise science, it is not unpredictable, and they must have faith that their creative teams will deliver. (If they don’t, well, everyone might as well pack up and go home.)
Remember it’s not personal—it’s about doing what it takes to move the needle in earnest.
A great note on which to sign off.
A nice series of posts over at the blog of Storytree, a new service aiming to allow people to “capture the stories that matter.” Storytree is in part funded by the Designer Fund, the interesting new setup which has built a strong community of design world luminaries and actively looks for startups with designers as part of the founding team.
In The Designer-Driven Startup: Why, Storytree CEO Matt Sullivan (at least, I think it’s by him; the blog posts aren’t signed) discusses how a design-focused business is different from either old-school “business-driven” companies or the newer-school “hacker-driven” companies currently populating the Valley. The problem, he writes, is one of focus. Hackers design for themselves, because that’s all they know. Designers, meanwhile, are trained to figure out how to build for others. This might seem like an inconsequential nuance, but this has a huge impact when building products of scale.
Meanwhile, in The Designer-Driven Startup: How, he goes on to detail the company’s design approach: figure out who the audience is; figure out what they want; figure out what to make that gives them that. It’s an interesting insight into how designers might think about leading a company. The next post in the series will about challenges they face. Looking forward to it.
Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, comes across enormously well in this video interview with Braden Kelly of Blogging Innovation. Cook details the internal innovation process at Intuit, including training and education at all levels. For instance, a two day offsite saw the company’s top 18 leaders elbow deep in work that Intuit teams have to do on a daily basis. “I find it hard for leaders to lead to a destination they have not yet been,” he says, somewhat Yoda-ishly.
From 5:45, Cook also has some great advice for those looking to learn from customers. The tendency, he says, is to want to interview them directly. That totally misses the point. You can’t ask most customers what they want; you have to learn from observing their behaviors, a key part of the design-based innovation process. “See with your eyes. Shut up. Say nothing. Watch for an hour, or two, or three,” he advises.
(Video via Michael Dila.)