Design thinking: a new twist on traditional design
Thinking like a designer ceased to find itself confined to the drawing board some time ago. Companies large and small - even restaurants - are turning to design thinking to galvanize innovation and collaborative creativity.
One ordinary afternoon, an English gentleman sat below a tree, drinking in the view, when an apple fell to the ground. Why do apples always follow a perpendicular trajectory? he wondered. The story of how Newton formulated the law of gravity is inspiring, not least because such an enormous scientific advancement is based on a single, brilliant idea developed through scientific reasoning, data prioritization and analysis. Design thinking changes the focus by placing human beings, their needs and their experience at the center of the design process.
Design thinking is a methodology that uses designers´ sensibility and methods to align people´s emotions with business opportunities. "Thinking like a designer can transform the way products, services and even strategies are designed," according to the author of Change by design and CEO at IDEO, Tim Brown. In other words: understanding people more than the product.
The origins of design thinking date back to the 1960s, when industrial designers began to diverge from scientific methodologies. Around the same time, Scandinavian designers had begun to export their collaborative model, which introduced multidisciplinary teams, to the rest of the world. During the 1980s, this type of participative design continued to evolve, lending an ever growing importance to the user experience.
Then came the 1990s. In 1991, David Kelley, Bill Moggridge and Mike Nuttall merged their companies to form IDEO, although the collaboration between them had begun several years before. IDEO is widely credited as the pioneering design firm in pushing design thinking into the mainstream. Among their first projects they highlight the design of the first Apple mouse – before the collaboration had even officially spawned IDEO – and the first laptop computer.
Over the years, the creative thought processes behind design thinking reached more and more organizations, and today many companies employ these techniques. Apple, Google, Procter & Gamble and Samsung, to name just a few, use design thinking methods to identify potential customer needs and transform their ideas into products and services. That is to say, these companies turn traditional process on their head and no longer offer a product in hopes that consumers will accept it, but instead empathize with their needs and design products based on this analysis.
In his article Design Thinking, published in Harvard Business Review in 2008, Brown divides the method into three continually overlapping phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation. He also underscores iterations as another key element of the design thinking process: trial and error can drive further development in any of these phases, as many times as necessary.
And if this leads to the need to understand consumer´s emotions, the result is a five step method which serves as a platform for innovation. Although some experts include additional steps, like brainstorming, the most widely adopted, basic framework can be summarized as: empathizing with people, defining needs, generating ideas, building a prototype and testing.
The innovation professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and co-founder of Pracademy, Federico Lozano, highlights two ideas from this methodology: the human being as the central element, and interaction. "Everything begins and ends with empathy; we become anthropological explorers in search of needs [to fulfill]," he explains.
Design thinking uses designers´ sensibility and methods to align people´s emotions with business opportunities
Design Thinking Techniques
Design thinking uses traditional design methods (visualization, storytelling, brainstorming) and applies them to different realms, from marketing to corporate and industrial project management. "Traditional design tools help highly analytical, logical and structured people, like, for example, business managers and engineers, to use their creative hemisphere," Lozano explains. The Hasso Plattner Design School at Stanford University (US) offers a wide range of open resources which explain and drill down into each tool and concept.
Creative thought and design have expanded quickly on a global scale, and have even penetrated fields like gastronomy. The industrial designer Luki Huber, for example, worked with the creative team at Ferran Adriá´s restaurant El Bulli between 2002 and 2005. Huber introduced design thinking techniques into the gastronomical world, primarily to enhance and foster creative teamwork. This collaboration gave birth to the term "Manual Thinking".
Huber´s proposal is an interactive, visual map which allows ideas to be classified into groups. This method gathers and organizes the information relating to a particular situation in order to generate a general vision of a situation which facilitates decision-making. Thought becomes visual, and visual becomes thought. "Ten people think better than five," says the head chef at the restaurant Niqqei in Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Spain), Marcos Tavío, who is developing a new concept for gastronomical space through Manual Thinking. "This tool makes all ideas count; no idea is discarded until the end and can always be re-incorporated later in the process."
The concept of every idea counting highlighted by Tavío is one of the unique characteristics of thinking like a designer. The psychologist and researcher at Yale University (US) Irvin Janis describes the effect of group thinking as the annulment of critical thinking and the imposition of the stronger over the weaker, but in design thinking, all thinkers are proactive and their ideas bear the same importance.
One Tool, One Thousand Sectors
Gastronomy, healthcare, industry, textile, hospitality...from the contract with Apple to design IDEO´s first computer mouse and still today, the use of design has penetrated myriad sectors. The serial entrepreneur and co-founder of the online automated publishing platform Bubok, Ángel M. Herrera, used this methodology during the conception phase of his project. "Bubok was born out of a community of storytellers, with more than 20.000 writers, which led to the founding of a publishing house and from there arose the need: Why not make your dreams of publishing come true?" he recalls.
And design thinking has also transitioned from just a methodology to a product in its own right. Knowledge-exchange communities, publishing platforms, training boot camps, workshops, master´s degree programs and almost anything the mind can imagine have sprung up around design thinking.
Ultimately, design thinking engenders innovative solutions designed to meet real user needs, above and beyond the evident: a unique opportunity to improve collective creativity and learn to tackle any problem, no matter how complex. Success is not guaranteed, but design thinking certainly represents a step in the right direction.
By María C. Sánchez