Design is for doers. It is active, intuitive, creative, stylish, artifact-oriented. It is not cerebral, analytical, reflective, iterative, problem-oriented. If you need to engage with a designer make sure all the planning and heavy thinking is done first and then find a hot young creative super nova to sprinkle design dust on what’s 90% there and make it look good. That’s what designers do, right? They give the work its final super-styled aesthetic gloss, with a pinch of strategy to taste. Design is the secret sauce poured on once the product, package, plan, content and message are ready for the table.
If you’re nodding, even moderately, you don’t want to read further.
Design has been stigmatized and marginalized and trivialized by this characterization forever, it seems, and design oracles (I’m not one) have been writing about it forever, it seems. Design has been a collaborator and confidante of business for decades, since Lowey, Teague, Dreyfuss, Rand, Vignelli, Chermayeff, Glaser et al. walked the halls of America’s corporate suites. But so much of the collaboration has been framed as stylistic vs. substantive, even when the design is acknowledged as ground-breaking, trend setting. The look gets lauded but there’s hardly a mention of any process that brought the look to life. Yes, there is a process. It’s called Design Thinking.
David Kelly, founder of Ideo and the d-school at Stanford, in an interview with Fast Company, recalled writing proposals with various phases of the process—understanding, observation, brainstorming, prototyping—priced separately. He told the article’s author, Linda Tischler, that clients would say, “Don’t do that early fooling around. Start with phase three.” What’s with all that analytical, thinking stuff? In a meeting Kelly had with Ideo’s CEO Tim Brown in 2003, Kelly had an epiphany: They would stop calling Ideo’s approach design and call it design thinking.
It’s ironic that much of corporate America, always in pursuit of perspectives that will guarantee replicable success from management efficiency experts, behavioral scientists and six sigma to today’s algorithms on steroids, has not embraced this process that begets insight, creativity and innovation.
For those who are unfamiliar, let me sketch out this Design Thinking thing. It is a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. It is taught in design schools world-wide and used by designers and consultancies across all design disciplines—architecture, interior, fashion, product, graphics, landscape, urban and web. It’s a process with six steps, generally. Some practitioners have fewer steps because they consolidate; some have more steps because they split steps into several parts.
Here are the basics:
- Define the Problem. This is the big kahuna; defining the right problem to solve which is not always the problem the client presents that is presented.
- Discover. Dig in and learn about the problem – the history, the theory and the practice. Observation is critical here, starting with where people are, how they really behave and what they really do vs. what they or someone else says they do.
- Frame the problem. Tee it up in a way that invites creative solutions, a lot of them, even seemingly impossible and counterintuitive ones.
- Design and Refine and Repeat As Needed. Design is an iterative process. Ideas are roughed out, visualized, prototyped and through these on-going ‘what ifs’ improved and realized. Great notions are not born great. The basic idea may be transformational but there is a lot of fuzz on it. It should be de-fuzzed and burnished before it gets exposed to the literalists among us.
- Choose and Execute. Remember design is not about the fun of designing forever. It’s about solving a problem. After a diligent creative exploration filled with sketches, models, tangents, sidebars and dead ends, pick a winner, and maybe a back-up, and execute. Use more refined visualizations, prototypes and models to make the case.
- Evaluate. Did it work? Why or why not? Design Thinking recycles failure in all of its steps. The time and permission to fail are at the heart of Design Thinking. It is, of course, a delicate balance in the world of commerce but eliminating failure in the interest of efficiency is the shortest path to incrementalism and imitative, uninspiring non-answers
Design Thinking is a process that helps leapfrog the ordinary and deliver better results. Think about it.
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