Design Thinking: Still Leading by Design

This semester I volunteered to take over the responsibility for developing and delivering faculty development at our campuses’ quarterly development training. I’ve been involved in planning and delivering faculty development for ten years, and in terms of favorite activities it takes the role of a close second to working with students in the classroom.

In teaching design we already have a LOT of work and effort to help students develop a single design, from concept to refined, industry applicable outcome, but today’s design industry, especially top firms, demand far more than aesthetic refinement and software skills. Employers want designers that can problem-solve, assess and evaluate needs, work in teams, and ultimately lead by design. Over the past fifteen years a process to help utilize design processes and knowledge in leadership and innovation has been developed called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is an approach to problem solving through identifying a problem, using iterative, facilitated cross-functional  brainstorming to develop quick prototypes, flow charts and processes to identify and test various options in the problem space. From numerous divergent proposals, workable products, ideas, services and innovations can be made.

Design Thinking is a process that can be used in education, business, non-profits, songwriting, design and many more to help decrease the pressure, creatively approach problems, and to introduce new thinking. It can also disastrously flop.  Processes don’t beget success. it can be too expensive, take too long, participants can be married to their original idea, managers can try to direct the process to a predetermined result, or the end result may not actually be a solution! Here are some resources that I like to use in thinking about Design Thinking to develop the best preparation possible when working with teams to tackle complicated or new problems.

The AIGA/Cheskin Ethnography Primer. Design Thinking has for over a decade relied on insights from observational techniques developed in anthropological research called Ethnography. The simplest description for the purpose of ethnography in design is to state “ethnography is lived, experiential observation for the purpose of developing empathy for the context of the end user.” In anthropology it is more broad than that, emphasizing experiential narrative for  understanding and interpreting cultural context, which is not nearly as targeted as its translation into the design environment.

Is it hard for shoppers to find the checkout link on your website? It’s not because the user is dumb or incapable. Better to locate the problem in the design. What features should a home appliance have to meet the hopes and dreams of a customer in Japan? My American ideas about home appliances might not tell me, but traveling to Japan, visiting and observing a person using the appliance in their home may give me the insight I need to go in the right direction. Read more on design ethnography by clicking the alternately colored text AIGA/Cheskin Ethnography Primer

Silicon Valley design consultancy IDEO has long been at the fore of Design Thinking. With hundreds of highly successful, best in class products to its name, IDEO has its pick of projects to work on. In an article by founding partner Tim Brown in Harvard Business Review, Brown highlights key elements that have become standard in Design Thinking practice. Download the article by clicking the blue text: Design Thinking.

Roger Martin, Author of The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage published an excerpt on The Design Observer Group website. With an emphasis on the history of Design thinking and abductive logic, the logic of what may be, Martin gives us a philosophical lesson in the American Pragmatists, and in particular the work of Charles Sanders Pierce. Check out this great lesson in thinking and creativity by, you guessed it: clicking here.

But how does one do Design Thinking? A great format is the Design Charrette, a relatively short energetic planned activity to break through barriers on big, unwieldy problems. Evolve, an environmental and architecture firm posted a description of a design charrette they conducted.

Their charrette was focused on getting the design team to refresh how they think about design as a process, however, it can be used directly to have breakthroughs on individual client challenges. The ABC news special on IDEO’s five day design charrette working to develop tomorrow’s shopping cart is a great example of how to explore a particular product challenge.

James Dyson, the designer of America’s top selling vacuum cleaner, discusses the importance of prototyping and failure as a driver to innovate. With over 5000 prototypes developed to bring his cyclone driven vacuum to market, Dyson demonstrates how the effort can pay off in vast leaps in what had previously become a static industry. Check out the article here.

Stanford University has developed a virtual crash course in their Design Thinking methodology. Strap on your seatbelt, see what problems you might have with it, and by the end of 90 minutes, maybe you’ll have an automotive industry breakthrough on your hands. To start, visit the Design Thinking website here.

For those of you who have access to an Ebsco account through your library or school, check out the following great articles on Design Thinking.

Catmull, Ed.(2008)  How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review. September, 64-72. Excerpt online.

Burrows, P. (2006). THE MAN BEHIND APPLE’S DESIGN MAGIC. Businessweek, (4002), 26-33.

Brown, T., & Martin, R. (2015). Design for Action. Harvard Business Review, 93(9), 56-64.

For teaching approaches see

Coakley, L. A., Roberto, M. A., & Segovis, J. C. (2014). Meeting the Challenge of Developing Innovative Problem-Solving Students Using Design Thinking and Organizational Behavior Concepts. Business Education Innovation Journal, 6(2), 34-43.

Lee, C. K., & Benza, R. (2015). Teaching Innovation Skills: Application of Design Thinking in a Graduate Marketing Course. Business Education Innovation Journal, 7(1), 43-50.

For a more academic assessment of trends see

Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J., & Çetinkaya, M. (2013). Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures. Creativity & Innovation Management, 22(2), 121-146. doi:10.1111/caim.12023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s