Design thinking is a word that keeps coming up in business innovation discussions, and has done so for a couple of years. In my discussions, at least with non-designers and more traditionally oriented business people, it’s usually because I bring it up … which often puts me in the role of having to explain what design thinking is and why (I think) it’s one of the most promising ways to take your business to a new level. I thought it might be a good idea to put some of my thoughts on the subject in a post as well. Think of it as a crash course in design thinking for people that have missed out, rather than a thorough examination of how the term is used and what it can mean. I COULD talk for hours …
What is design thinking?
First of all, design thinking can basically be defined as using design methods to develop business. Now this doesn’t mean designing physical artifacts. It can be an integral part of using design thinking, but it’s not its core. Rather, it’s about thinking as a designer (or, naturally, letting a designer in to think with you.). At the Rotman School of Management, one of the schools that have been in the forefront of design thinking with their Business Design program, design thinking is conceptualized as an “integrative way of thinking and problem-solving that can be applied to all components of business”. Heather Fraser, from the Rotman School, talks of the following integral principles in design thinking (with my comments after the dashes):
Empathy and Deep Human Understanding – good designers are human-centered
Multi-disciplinary and Cross Industry Collaboration – good designers find inspiration in cross-pollution
Ability to Imagine New Possibilities – good designers find opportunities in new places
Embracing Constraints as a Source of Creativity – good designers love constraints and make their best work on a tightly defined brief
Making the Abstract Visually Concrete – good designers translate a concept that’s contained in the mind to something visible that can communicate
Iterative Prototyping and Co-creation with Users – good designers make many prototypes, and create them alongside their customers
Intuition and Common Sense – good designers make decisions based on instinct and gut feelings (in combination with research and logic, mind you)
Drawing Inspiration from a Broad Repertoire – good designers get themselves a broad range of experiences to learn from
Vision and Perseverance – good designers follow through with their visions*
What does design thinking DO, exactly?
Design thinking helps you in any area of business that needs innovation – and frankly, what area of your business is completely stable? It’s useful when developing new products or services or creating new ways of marketing. Or, of course, reinventing your brand or your entire business model. With the help of design thinking, you’ll produce bigger ideas, truly transformative innovation, and you get a more holistic way to take on complex challenges. And the great thing is, unlike some other business theories that become trendy, it’s not just a catchphrase for top level management in large companies. There are design thinking case studies of giant corporations like GE or Procter & Gamble, but it can be just as easily – or more easily – applied to small business entrepreneurs. For a designer with an interest in business (and if you aren’t interested in advancing your clients’ business, why are you a designer?), it’s an opportunity to help create innovative brands and businesses at a core level, not just as the visual afterthought we’re often left to deal with. Our design trained mind is our biggest competitive advantage in any field of business.
* I borrowed these aspects of design thinking from this excellent blog post by Jesse Thompson. Do read it, it provides plenty of examples.
- Holiday Reading on Design, Information, Culture
- Design + Ethnography Intersections Pt I
- Design-Driven Innovation and Knowing the Consumer’s Mind
- Design + Ethnography Intersections Pt 2
- Visual Thinking as a Business Problem Solving Tool – A Couple of Useful Presentations