On Design Thinking

XVII.2 March + April 2010
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Design thinking in stereo

Paula Thornton

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When the topic of "design thinking" had gained enough momentum for BusinessWeek to devote an entire issue to design in 2004, it was a siren song to me. Newly converted, I digested everything I could find. Design thinking seemed to cover most of the experiential clues I'd been collecting as the means to improve business potential.

By 2006 an IIT Institute of Design interview with Roger Martin, titled "Designing Decisions," told of his conversion to the concept when noting the language and behaviors of designer friends [1]. That same year, Tim Brown presented fundamental thoughts on design thinking that also caught my attention [2].

But none of it was enough to satisfy me, so I convinced colleagues to help host a 2007 Design Thinking conference in Dallas, just to talk about it. We extended that conversation via a LinkedIn group that has grown to more than 2,500 members worldwide.

Discussions on LinkedIn paid increasing attention to design thinking, particularly in 2009. Martin was either speaking or hosting conversations with other members, while Brown issued a challenge to "move from design to design thinking" via a 2009 TED presentation [3]. By the end of the year both Martin and Brown had released books on the topic.

back to top  Same Song, Different Verses

Both texts are extensions of each author's continuous and evolving messages. Each approaches the same subject from a different perspective.

In The Design of Business, Martin expands on what I've labeled the "design continuum," (see Figure 1) which he described in the winter 2003 issue of Rotman Magazine, under the same title [4].

Martin took this continuum to a new level in a 2007 IIT-ID presentation when he talked about the significance of shifting from a focus on reliability to viability [http://twurl.nl/u6kma4]. He expands on this duality throughout his book, in the context of specific business examples.

Martin's thesis for business: "Design-thinking firms stand apart in their willingness to engage in the task of continuously redesigning their business. They do so with an eye to creating advances in both innovation and efficiency—the combination that produces the most powerful competitive edge."

Brown's book, Change by Design, struck a chord similar to that of his 2006 presentation, which highlighted principles necessary for the practice of design thinking. He notes why business interests have turned to design: "Innovation has become nothing less than a survival strategy." Later in the book he adds this emphasis: "Design thinking may be one of the most profitable practices a corporation can adopt during a recession."

Change by Design builds upon a theme that both Brown and Martin embrace: "The natural evolution from design doing to design thinking reflects the growing recognition on the part of today's business leaders that design has become too important to be left to designers."

back to top  Good Vibes

The books indeed complement the other. Brown covers more of the practical elements of applying design thinking (some of the binary code), and Martin focuses on the models to frame the activities (the algorithms and heuristics).

In select passages from Brown's repertoire, he illustrates how design thinking moves design into a more strategic role to unleash "its disruptive, game-changing potential":

Empathy. "Perhaps the most important distinction between academic thinking and design thinking... The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives."

Collaboration. "We need to invent a new and radical form of collaboration that blurs the boundaries between creators and consumers.... For the design thinker, it has to be 'us with them.'"

Synthesis. "The creative process...relies on synthesis, the collective act of putting the pieces together to create whole ideas...to sift through it all and identify meaningful patterns."

Biomimicry and intelligent design. "Nature, with its 4.5-billion-year learning curve, may have something to teach us about things...."

Optimism and trust. Design thinking relies on an "attitude of experimentation," supported by a "climate of optimism...Optimism requires confidence, and confidence is built on trust."

Visual thinking. "Words and numbers are fine, but only drawing can simultaneously reveal both the functional characteristics of an idea and its emotional content."

Prototypes and storyboards. "...thinking with my hands..."

Brown also offers specific examples on where and how to apply design thinking:

Transactions and touchpoints: "Describing a customer journey...clarifies where the customers and the service or brand interact. Every one of these 'touchpoints' points to an opportunity to provide value...."

Engineering experiences: "An experience must be as finely crafted and precision-engineered as any other product.... Unlike a manufactured product or a standardized service, an experience comes to life when it feels personalized and customized."

Innovative approach. "Many companies have shifted the horizon of their research programs from long-term basic research to shorter-term applied innovation.... Eventually it will be as natural to see innovation labs in service-sector companies as it is to see research and development facilities in manufacturing companies."

Not business as usual. "We...set out to train companies in our methods of human-centered, design-based innovation: user observations, brainstorming, prototyping, storytelling, and scenario building.... [This] is not the most effective way to proceed. Innovation needs to be coded into the DNA of a company...P&G...designated a chief innovation officer, increased the number of design managers by more than 500 percent, built the P&G Innovation Gym...and elevated innovation and design to core strategies of the company."

Other critics have suggested that neither author sufficiently communicated how to apply design thinking. With a deep reliance on the context of a problem, I'm not sure that anyone can "prescribe" enough of an approach to satisfy these detractors.

New relationships: "Design thinking is being applied at new scales in the move from discrete products and services to complex systems.... We are entering an era of limits; the cycle of mass production and mindless consumption that defined the industrial age is no longer sustainable.... Design thinking needs to be turned toward the formulation of a new participatory social contract.... We're all in this together."

Embracing complexity. "When it comes to colonies of humans, we have to reckon with additional factors of individual intelligence and free will.... Instead of an inflexible, hierarchical process that is designed once and executed many times, we must imagine how we might create highly flexible, constantly evolving systems in which each exchange between participants is an opportunity for empathy, insight, innovation, and implementation."

Repeatedly, design is compared and contrasted with design thinking: "Design is about delivering a satisfying experience. Design thinking is about creating a multipolar experience in which everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation."

back to top  Dissonant Passages

I'm quite comfortable mucking around in concepts, which are far more critical to the design of transactions and services than to products you can see and touch. Martin focuses on concepts as a means to help others apply design thinking to things like business strategy.

I'm not as comfortable, however, with the way Martin shares his concepts. The book was bumpy—it lacked the natural flow of his other works, and seemed ill sequenced. The strongest lead-in for the book started in Chapter 4—design thinking in the context of the P&G story—with supporting details in Chapter 3. Then Chapter 5 introduces the critical context for the trade-off between validity and reliability, with supporting details in Chapter 2.

Chapter 1 starts off with a "new" concept, a "knowledge funnel," that is referenced throughout the book. It takes the original design continuum (referenced earlier) and aligns each part to a funnel starting with "mystery" as the widest part. For me, the funnel detracts from the original concepts, as the funnel forces something that was once fluid and unidirectional into a very linear concept. The additive value of the funnel is not apparent.

This is unfortunate because Martin's concepts are not only relevant, they're also interrelated in ways that provide a powerful framework for assessing and applying design thinking. The mystery continuum has a direct correlation to validity and reliability. Note how the left and the right of the various continuums in Figure 2 correspond directly to one another.

This collection mimics the left and right of a long-standing, powerful model: yin and yang. Just as with the yin/yang model, design thinking works to embrace the dichotomy—embracing both sides at once to create a new "middle." But business tends to believe that the goal is to move toward the right. As a result, businesses are predominantly over-yang'd. Design thinking provides a means to restore the natural power inherent in the balance.

Martin's writing circles back on itself often and poses contradictions. He speaks repeatedly of a balance: "Design thinkers seek to balance validity and reliability." Then in the diagram of the "Design thinker's personal knowledge system," the first label states: "1. My world is reliability oriented." I got the distinct impression that Martin kept commingling references to designers with design thinking.

Perhaps Martin simply lacked having the benefit of a strong co-author like Tim Brown had: "My silent partner Barry Katz, through his skillful use of words, made me appear more articulate than I really am."

back to top  Unresolved Passages

Other critics have suggested that neither author sufficiently communicated how to apply design thinking. With a deep reliance on the context of a problem, I'm not sure that anyone can "prescribe" enough of an approach to satisfy these detractors. My guess is that people still need help figuring out how the parts and pieces apply in various situations (if anything, this was where Martin excelled, as he gave example after example as to how the validity versus reliability continuum applied).

Neither author sufficiently addressed the following:

The design question. Martin has addressed the relevance of asking "why" in past articles, and Brown mentions it briefly in his summary. "A willingness to ask 'Why?' will annoy your colleagues...but...it will improve the changes of spending energy on the right problems." But it is through repeated inquiry that the core design question is identified. In an earlier book, David Kelly gives a perfect example of not getting the question right (though his example is intended as a positive one). In the redesign of a water bottle for bikers, IDEO did not start with a non-product question, such as: "How do we deliver fluids to an individual who may have one or both hands busy?" If it had asked this question, it would have invented the water bladder years earlier.

The significance of failure. While both authors heartily supported the significance of discovery by failure (failing faster), and cultures that support such, neither addressed the significance of failure as a starting point for design discovery and the relevance of accommodating exceptions in solutions (embracing failure as part of the solution).

Embracing the in-between. Late in his book, Brown notes in passing, "It is precisely in the interstitial spaces...that the most interesting opportunities lie." That is the sweet spot for design thinking. It is both in-between and comprehensive at the same time. It is the dichotomy, the paradox. In his book, Martin erroneously assigned the paradox to the mystery: "Starting at this paradox—this mystery...." Design thinking's strength is in embracing the paradox, considering possibilities across all of the dimensions of the "design thinking continuum." How is that possible? By delivering solutions that most appropriately apply binary code to the repeatable actions that no one wants to be bothered with, algorithms to repeatable yet variable things, heuristics where human judgment can help with exceptions, and a healthy dose of mystery to continuously question all assumptions. It's effectively no different than applying the concepts of integrative thinking, which Martin supports in his earlier book The Opposable Mind, across the design thinking continuum.

back to top  Curtain Call

In the end, both books—and both authors—contribute significantly to the discipline of design thinking. My armchair recommendation for practitioners is to leverage both books. If your goal is to share the value of design thinking with others, I'd suggest Brown's book over Martin's.

back to top  References

1. IIT Institute "Designing Decisions" Conference Video, May 17, 2006; http://trex.id.iit.edu/events/strategyconference/2006/perspectives_martin.php/Correspondingslides; http://trex.id.iit.edu/events/strategyconference/2006/community/presentations/roger_martin.ppt/

2. Thornton, Paula. June 14, 2006. "Service Innovation Through Design Thinking"; http://totalexperience.corante.com/archives/2006/06/14/service_innovation_through_design_thinking.php/

3. Brown, Tim. "A Call for Design Thinking." Lecture, July 2009; http://blog.ted.com/2009/09/a_call_for_desi.php/

4. Martin, Roger. "The Design of Business." Rothman Magazine; http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/rogermartin/DesignofBusiness.pdf/

back to top  Author

Championing the needs of individuals, predominantly in information technology settings, Paula Thornton fights to address real points of interaction and truly influence design that is often left to chance. She morphs her past roles (technical writer, decision support analyst, information architect, user experience architect) with her passions (complexity theory, architecture, sustainability, design thinking, Enterprise 2.0) to engage in her favorite past time: synthesizer.

back to top  Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1699775.1699778

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Design Thinking Continuum.

F2Figure 2. Design Thinking Framework.



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