Design Thinking

Design Thinking has become fashionable over the last few years, with several books being published and presentations at conferences. Different authors have different perspectives on it, and below I will try to distil these. I have chosen to represent the various strands of thought as different levels, for ease of understanding.

Level 1 – Include a Designer on the Team

At its simplest and most basic level it is a push by designers, and by that I mean industrial designers, i.e. the ones who went to art college rather than university to study engineering, for companies to take industrial design, i.e. aesthetic design more seriously, and include their input in the design of a product. This is on the basis that all other things being equal, a customer will choose an aesthetically pleasing product over one that isn’t, which is undoubtedly true, if indeed all other things are equal (price, performance, reliability, brand values etc). Moving on from that, industrial design is seen as a way to generate distinctiveness and a brand in the market place, with the potential of being able to charge a higher price.

Of course in many industries, designers have played an important part for ages; the automotive industry being the classic example. But in others there has not been that tradition, e.g. white goods, medical devices and a host of others, although that has been changing over the last few years.

Level 2 – Design Method with the Designer as the Leader

At the next level up, rather than the designer being part of the team, there is a push for the designer to be the leader of the team, and for his ‘design method’ to be followed.

One of the major proponents of leading by design has been Tim Brown of IDEO. His definition of Design Thinking is “Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

He talks about the design thinking process as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps and says there are three spaces to keep in mind:

  • Inspiration

Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions.

  • Ideation (I hate that word)

Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.

  • Implementation

Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.

And he says that innovation happens in the sweet spot where human desirability, technical feasibility and business viability overlap.

Similar ideas are embedded in the design method put forward by The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( Their process of design thinking has 5 stages:

  • Empathise

Who is my user? What matters to this person?

Learn about the audience for whom you are designing, by observation and interview. I would go further and say walk in their shoes, embed yourself for a while in their world.

  • Define

What are their needs? Create a point of view that is based on user needs and insights.

  • Ideate

Brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible – Wild ideas are encouraged.

  • Prototype

How can I show my idea? Build a representation of one or more of your ideas to show to others. Remember a prototype is just a rough draft

  • Test

Share your prototyped idea with your user for feedback. What worked? What didn’t?

You can see elements of both waterfall and agile here – elicit & set down some requirements first, but then quickly show something to check them and their interpretation out.

Another take on Design Thinking comes from Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano. He introduces the idea of products and services having a ‘meaning’. An unusual word to use in the context of an inanimate object (and his idea might have got a bit lost in translation into English from Italian), but he is talking about redefining a product – giving a completely new reason for customers to buy them.

Thus rather than relying on the traditional levers of market pull or technology push, an inventive designer can see beyond these to create a radical change in meaning (how a product is perceived and used), which when combined with new technology creates a sweet spot or a technology epiphany as some people call it.

Design Driven Innovation


Level 3 – Design Thinking as a Business Process

In Level 3, Designers and Design Thinking take over the world, or at least the business. Just like Six Sigma has been stretched by certain promoters of it from its manufacturing and quality roots to become a business process, so some of the avant-garde in the Design Thinking world are now promoting Design Thinking and their Design Method as a business process.

The idea is to take Design Thinking beyond just designing products and to use the Design Thinking approach and a Design Method in business generally. This could be by

  1. Designers bringing their methods into business by either taking part themselves in business process, or training business people to use design methods. This interpretation has been described by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. And it sounds eminently appropriate that a designer should be CEO, given that IDEO is a design consultancy.
  2. Using the ‘human-centred’ approach of Design Thinking to make businesses more ‘human-centred’ and creative.
  3. Using Design Thinking as a problem solving approach – Define the problem, create and consider many options, refine selected directions, and repeat if necessary. Pick the winner and execute. (Isn’t this what people were doing anyway, without calling it Design Thinking?)

Comments on Design Thinking

All of this sounds quite good, although the cynical might say it is all a cunning plan to get jobs for designers and design consultancies, and then for them to win the power battle over engineers, manufacturing people, sales & marketing and finance, ending up with them running the company.

However it has been shown to work, but it seems to me it only works well if you have good designers. And by that I don’t mean the ones that draw the prettiest shapes, but the rare few that understand all the other processes and give them equal weight. In other words, if you have got Leonardo Da Vinci (a designer, engineer and inventor) it will be fine, but if you have got Michaelangelo (a very good artist, but that is all he was), or worse still Tracey Emin, you will be heading for trouble.

In my experience there have been too many cases of designers (in the motor industry they are called stylists, or the ‘yellow-shoelace-brigade’) coming up with pretty shapes that don’t work.

Take the first Ford GT in 1964 as an example, as first designed by the Ford stylists (who like to be called designers). Note the lack of a rear spoiler. Ferrari had them since 1961.

Ford GTA Prototype


Beautiful isn’t it, and I must admit that I fell in love with it as a young boy. The problem was that it was great as a piece of sculpture, but not as a car. It was aerodynamically unstable and didn’t cool the engine. So this is what the engineers and drivers had to do to it to get it to be half reasonable before it could be raced.

Ford GT40


So which would you prefer when you are doing 200mph down the Mulsanne Straight?

Beautiful but dangerous, or ugly but safe?

And its not just cars where designers make cock-ups. It’s the simple things too. We have a butter dish that looks very nice until you place a standard size piece of butter on it and then try to place the cover over the butter. It won’t fit. This kind of poor design drives me mad. What happened to ‘Form follows Function’?

So if you are thinking of Design Thinking make sure you have a designer who can actually think!

And contact us if you are thining about Design Thinking! We’ll help you get your thinking on the right track.