Design Thinking : A Simple Primer

“Design as differentiator. Design enables premium pricing. Design is more than aesthetics. Great Design Makes People Love Your Company. Design is not an after thought, not a veneer you add to the core product to make it look cool”.

We have all heard this before. Graphic and Industrial design firms have been around for sometime and it is now well accepted within the business community that good design enables product /brand /experience standout leading to superior business results. What is new is the concept of “Design Thinking”.

Design thinking as a concept is now gaining momentum and don’t be surprised if it becomes the next subject on which tomes are written (ala Innovation). The defining moment was perhaps an article by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO in the June’08 HBR issue. A clear signal that “Design thinking” is now or will soon be mainstream business thought.

As Bruce Nussbaum (Businessweek’s design expert) says… “The fact that the Harvard Business Review asked IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown to write about Design thinking in the current issue is as important as what he had to say in the piece. It marks the acceptance and legitimization of design/innovation as an important business process and strategic tool for managers”.

Here is an attempt to explain DESIGN THINKING simply,

What is Design thinking?

Thinking like designers ie using a designer’s approach to solving problems – the integrative way of thinking and problem-solving that can be applied to all components of business.

Its not (just) about: Using product design as a brand differentiation strategy or making “design” a priority within the organization.

“Rather than asking designers to make an already developed idea more attractive to consumers, companies are asking “designers” to create ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires. The former role is tactical, and results in limited value creation; the latter is strategic, and leads to dramatic new forms of value” ( HBR article extract)

Why the noise? Why is it being talked about?

Design thinking is an Innovation enabler. It (is supposed to) delivers transformative innovation faster and more efficiently. We all know the importance of  transformative “Innovation” as a business driver in today’s environment.

How is it different from current approaches to problem solving and strategy creation?

It marries creative right-brain thinking and analytical left-brain thinking; doesn’t prefer one method of thinking over another but rather, it blends the positive aspects of both.

P&G CEO A.G. Lafley explains :“Business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence). Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.”

Read more on Deductive, Inductive vs abductive thinking on wikipedia.

What are the key components of the “Design Thinking” approach?

The design thinking process has seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated (source : wikipedia)

Where can it be used?

Thinking in design terms has value beyond products.  Services, processes, systems, experience, strategy can all benefit from design thinking. It is supposed to help get bigger ideas, faster and more efficiently whether it is in developing new products or services, developing better internal processes, creating new ways of marketing to customers, or  re-inventing an entire business model. .

Who are the leading thinkers/proponents in the DT arena?

Roger Martin of Rotman School, Toronto

David Kelley, founder of Stanford

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Who is using it already?

P&G is ahead of the game, as expected. GE, MAYTAG, LG it seems are also using it in some form. RED HAT- provider of Linux and open source technology also uses it.

Where can I read and learn more?

1. Roger Martin’s explanation of Integrative thinking

2. HBR article of June’08 (if you are not a subscriber you will have to buy it for $6.50 to read the full article)

3. Business Week 2008 article on P&G and design thinking.

2005 article by Bruce Nussbaum

4. Q&A with David Burney, Vice President of Brand Communications + Design at Red Hat. Burney is a champion of design thinking.

5. Another good blog post which explains DESIGN THINKING

6. Rotoman school in Toronto has a course on Business Design.  Stanford “d-school” is also aligned with this approach (the Idea of the d-school apparently came up in a Coffee shop and has been neatly captured in the napkin below, for posterity).


One response to “Design Thinking : A Simple Primer

  1. Totally agree. We are working with a design company that became more of a consulting firm, as they come to the business to discuss ‘how can we create the future’ approach. They have very different way of thinking. They simply don’t have ‘the box’. Have a look at Seymour Powell.

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