An interview on design thinking
Earlier this month, I was contacted by Yisi Lu, a Masters student in MSc Marketing & Strategy at Warwick Business School. For her dissertation, Yisi is considering design thinking and, in particular, its role in education. She asked me some very interesting questions and I would love to share my answers with you today.
To explain a little of my own interest in design thinking…
I tend to live with one foot firmly in both business and design. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my graduate studies first began at Coventry University where I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design. While I love design, I gradually realised that what really interested me was the strategic management and business of design. In 2001, I therefore transferred to Warwick Business School to study their BSc Hons in Management Sciences (now known as Management).
Both business and design remain my passions. Much of my spare time is spent reading technical and design blogs. An A3 pad is a firm fixture in my note-taking armoury and something with which clients will be familiar. I was privileged to attend the 2012 Design Summit earlier this year. I’m a strong advocate of the collaboration between the Design Council and WBS. And, on a lighter note, Debbie will happily recount times that she has lost me in a store only to find me looking at the construction of their shelves!
All in all, Debbie and I work hard to integrate design and business throughout our approach to consultancy. We believe that, particularly in this day and age, the two are firmly intertwined and an integrated approach offers much greater value than one or other alone.
What do you think is the essence of “design thinking” and how does it lead to better education?
For me, there is not one single thing that defines or is design thinking. Certainly, design thinking is about creation and it always involves a symbiotic relationship between problem and solution. However, part of the essence of design thinking is its synthesis of a multitude of elements; you could say that design thinking is many or all of the following things…
A solutions-based process. Creative. Iterative. Agile. Responsive. Holistic. Needs focused. User focused. Visual. It employs feedback loops, prototyping and testing. It involves creative synthesis. Design thinking holds all elements and ideas in creative tension before a solution emerges. It is about broadening out and narrowing down; zooming in and zooming out. Design thinking ‘stores’ work and solutions visually whilst they are in process to ensure that previous iterations can be referred back to, learned from, revised and improved. People who employ design thinking are not afraid of failure or mistakes—they will often do something deliberately ‘wrong’ to find what could be right; they accept that solutions rarely emerge ‘right first time’. Design thinking explores the whole system and encourages people to step outside of the ‘problem’ in order to discover whether the broader environment is the real source of the issue. It encourages people to look at the bigger picture. It handles complexity without drowning; synthesizes knowledge and understanding; and looks for patterns and links between non-related elements. It frequently employs ideas from other sources, cultures and disciplines. Design thinking is playful and curious. It actively involves people and stakeholders; it is a collaborative process that looks both out and in. Design thinking always demands a clear brief.
With regard to education, design thinking moves people away from a narrow view that is based on their existing knowledge and personal opinions, toward a more expansive, curious, multidisciplinary perspective. It allows people to create and form ideas and solutions in a more creative and flexible way. Design thinking encourages students to look at the world differently. It helps them to understand that, with a defined brief, it is almost always possible to discover an effective solution, even if that solution takes time and numerous ‘failed’ attempts. It moves students away from a linear, analytical, detail-oriented approach toward a more creative, open perspective—away from believing “We first need to know everything about this problem to find an answer” to asking “How do we create a solution, even in the midst of ambiguity?” For me, this is more representative of situations within real-life organisations: often problems and solutions emerge together; the implementation of interventions informs both a further understanding of the problem and its solution; more often than not problems and solutions are continually being worked on in parallel. Design thinking enables students to better listen and engage with those around them. It teaches them to be creative in thought: by learning how to visually represent thoughts and ideas, students add another dimension to their problem solving approach. Many problems, models and ideas are not linear and do not lend themselves to being defined with the lined notepaper approach. Similarly, complex situations often involve many interdependent problems that cannot be solved individually. Use of visual tools enables a shared understanding to be created; it draws people together to debate and create solutions or outcomes that otherwise would remain opaque and poorly understood.
If I had to sum it up more succinctly, design thinking in education is about equipping students with an array of tools that enable them to deal much more effectively with complex situations; teaching them to embrace curiosity and failure; and opening their minds to new ways of thinking and doing.
What do you think is the nature of a design thinking process?
There are many potential processes and theories that could be used to define the nature of the design thinking process; however, to get to hung up on defining the process itself is to miss the point.
A design thinking process is about creation. Making and doing. Testing and breaking. Seeing and responding.
Designers have done it for centuries. It starts with an idea, a brief, a desired outcome. The designer then starts to create and, in order to do so, they must pull together ideas and get a better understanding of the challenges that stand in their way. They must implement ideas to see if they work and, also, to discover if they and others like them.
The designer is happy with uncertainty because the process of creation is often messy, unpredictable and, at times, frustrating. However, they drive through towards their goal. They like an idea but then find it doesn’t work. They do more research; they look at other options; they push boundaries. The designer turns around and examines those problems that stand in their way—they look at them from a different perspective; they need to find out if the problems vanish or change when viewed from a different standpoint.
During the process, the designer will sometimes work on their own; at other times, they will open up the process to others—to users, to staff, to colleagues, to the people around them.
Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, the designer will arrive at a solution, the end outcome. The solution may be an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Sometimes, a single moment of insight may finally bring the answer.
And yet, however good the outcome, however great, it could be better. The designer may need materials or technology to catch up with what is in their mind’s eye—their ideas are not yet possible with today’s tools. Or, they may learn everything they should do or should have done differently once their completed piece ends up in the marketplace.
All in all, the design thinking process is about a journey from start to finish; from problem to solution; from idea to implementation. But this journey is not linear. It is iterative, recursive and looping. It could take hours or it could take years. But it is always a journey toward a desired objective, travelled with grit, determination and an open mind.
What do you think is the best way for universities to teach design? (Should design schools create more business-focused creatives, or should business schools foster creative thinking in their MBAs?)
Ultimately, design thinking is about creation—of ideas, of products, of solutions, of outcomes. And yet, much of the university or business school approach is about the opposite—breaking things down, taking them apart, analysing, critiquing. Always the critic, never the creator.
I am a strong advocate of critical thinking and would never negate its value. However, while theoretical and case-based learning are a vital part of the business school education, I have noticed that students are often not very good at creating. There is a disconnect between their role and that of others—creating is left to ‘the creatives’. Students have rarely experienced the design process for themselves. Few students have ever created a brand; designed a website; designed or created a product, service or a building; created something out of nothing. And yet, in business, the only way that an organisation exists and survives is if it actually creates value; creates a product or a service; creates a market; creates demand. We teach students how to get the most out of what they have but never really to create something new. We leave that to chance, hoping that their innate creativity and drive will enable them to do this on their own. In this sense, we let both our students and their future employers down.
Design schools themselves are however often no better. They teach their students how to create but not how to truly exploit their creations. Creatives and designers can often be left floundering in a business world they do not really understand. They lack the management skills to bring their creations to life and to capitalise upon the value they know their creations contain. They do not know how to build a business structure around their creative process.
The obvious solution would be to bring business people and creatives together. However, with both failing to understand the other, tension begins to emerge. Designers and creatives are reluctant to relinquish business control for fear of what will happen to their creative direction; business people are unable to truly support a creative process they do not fully understand.
This is compounded by the fact that neither business nor design schools teach their students how to manage others in the creation/design process and how to get the best out of those who may ultimately work for them. Gerry McGovern (Design Director of Land Rover) has strong views on this and believes that nobody teaches either business people or designers how to manage other designers and creatives to get the best out of the creative process. Similarly, creatives are rarely taught how to manage their commercial employees to best capitalise upon their creative ideas.
So, in the middle exists this divide. With business people having little or no design, creative and visual literacy, and designers having little or no business literacy, there is a missed opportunity to create real value.
Thinking about organisational ambidexterity, it seems that we find ourselves in a situation in which design schools are teaching their students to explore, whilst business schools are teaching their students to exploit. In reality, as is the case in organisations, students must have the ability to do both—to explore and exploit—for real, long-term value to be released.
Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of both design schools and business schools to bridge this divide. Business schools should be embracing design thinking across their programmes, not only at MBA level, but also within their Undergraduate and Masters courses. Design schools should similarly be teaching their students (at all levels) about the commercialisation process and how to exploit the value within their creations.
What do you think is the future of design thinking?
I believe there is a strong future for design thinking. With the recent and continuing economic environment, along with the diminished reputations of those who helped create it, the analytical approach has been shown to have significant weaknesses when it comes to solving global issues and discovering appropriate answers. As a result, we are seeing a move toward different approaches, both in how to create real value and also in solving problems. The Singularity University is one such example of how to embrace a multidisciplinary, creative approach. Although design thinking is certainly not the only alternative approach, I believe it is gaining increasing awareness, in part through those higher educational establishments that teach it.
Interestingly, within consultancy, clients also seem to be realising the limitations of the analytical approach and are increasingly resistant to, and jaded by, consultancies that charge high fees, do a lot of analysis, but, at the end of the day, fail to deliver effective solutions and outcomes that create real, practical value where it matters, on the ground. As a result, clients seem to be particularly open to value-based pricing, where the outcomes are clear and the costs are fixed. We ourselves have found that such an approach is hugely effective in facilitating design thinking and a solutions-led approach. As the objectives are clearly defined (the brief), along with measures of success and the value that the outcomes will bring, there is a clarity that rarely exists otherwise. There is also significant flexibility to embrace the complexity and creativity needed to solve the trickiest problems, without worrying about day rates or utilisation. The end outcome: fair compensation for the consultant and a great outcome for the client.
Similarly, in our own experience, design thinking opens up solutions to a multitude of problems that seem intractable with traditional business approaches. Visual problem solving and creative thinking enables simplicity to emerge beyond complexity and solutions to be found.
Moreover, while scientific and theoretical breakthroughs will continue to drive change, many of the most influential breakthroughs of the last century have been design-oriented in nature. Think the automobile, the home computer, mobile phones, the iPod, iPad, and more. Design is literally changing our lives, the way we think and the way we live. Many of the most influential and successful businesses in the world today have, at their heart, design. Their success is not due to either design or business alone but a healthy symbiosis of the two. People are increasingly recognising the power of design and embracing its success. This year alone within Britain, the Design Council hosted the Design Summit 2012; The Founders Forum hosted the Creative Industries reception; the British Business Embassy hosted the Global Business Summit (focused on creative services); various UK Trade & Investment regions hosted Creative Services Summits; the Olympics showcased British creativity and design; and MADE Entrepreneur Festival is focusing on businesses made in Britain, many of which are creative. There seems to be an increasing move toward supporting creative and design-led businesses and design thinking is fundamental to this future.
That said, for design thinking to be truly embraced in academia, I believe there needs to be a change in attitudes. Design thinking by its very nature is often very accessible and can be easily embraced by the populace. It also tends to dislike words. Historically, academia has tended to shun that which appears simplistic, even if at its heart it is rooted in research and grounded in experience. Similarly, design itself has not traditionally had a strong relationship with peer-reviewed journals nor has it taught or encouraged a critical, scientific approach. Gradually both sides of this situation are changing and multidisciplinary approaches are being embraced but such change will need to continue if there is to be a true meeting of minds between business and design.