The Design of Thinking

August 18, 2016
To compete in a increasingly unstable business landscape, Canadian organizations of every type need to understand design as something more than a contracted creative skill and recognize it as a critical seat in the executive suite.*

Design Thinking is not a panacea for business. It is not the right tool when innovation is not the desired outcome. Design Thinking is all about innovating. If you know what you want; if you have determined your process, you’re not looking for innovation.

Over the past 25 years, I have shared my own growing understanding of Design Thinking with budding designers at the university level and, on occasion, even elementary school children. I use Design Thinking techniques and facilitation in my own professional life to help clients define, refine and solve their challenges in understanding their audiences and their own offerings within their audience context. It pushes them past their comfort level into uncharted markets and audiences they hadn’t imagined. Design Thinking is really the problem-definition process and, relatively recently, has been applied to many “non-design” problems. Design Thinking is hard to map or explain, but it is used in solving what have been coined “wicked” problems — those without a clear goal or a known process for achieving the as-yet-undefined goal — those with multiple stakeholders and seemingly intractable viewpoints. Wicked problems don’t have one right answer.

Design Thinking was born out of the way designers work, and some design firms offer services that share these methods with clients. Ion is one of those design firms. The process is inherently creative, but it is not about “making art.” As such, it can make a lot of traditional business professionals very uncomfortable. But it needn’t be intimidating. It’s a tool, and if you are working with the right people and have true buy-in in the C-Suite, it is an effective one. Design Thinking is not a panacea for business. It is not the right tool where innovation isn’t the desired outcome. The process is all about innovating. If you know what you want; if you have determined your process, you’re not looking for innovation.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein

Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design Program ( speaking in a Stanford webinar, called for “radical collaboration” where disciplines step out of their silos and work together to solve wicked problems. It might seem simple, but in North American business, the older paradigm of top down management and specialist silos is still the norm. In the typical North American businesses model, the status quo will go after an innovative idea like white cells attack a virus. Bringing customer-facing research, finance, engineering and and other management experts together as equals in properly facilitated workshops can awaken innovation. Ion makes it work by bringing decision makers together with the people for whom they make the decisions. Often initially out of alignment, they create synergy that gives them insights to innovation.

In the typical North American businesses model, the status quo will go after an innovative idea like white cells attack a virus.

Design Thinking for Innovation is the standard approach at companies like Apple, AirBnB and IKEA. No amount of customer research will invent an iPhone or a service that turns everything else on its head. People can’t suggest what they cannot yet comprehend or imagine. But cultural ethnography — observing people in their daily lives — and knowing how to see the gaps, exposes opportunity. These companies don’t ask what new products should be developed, they put ethnographic study in front of a mixed bag of professionals who work together to imagine new ways of meeting need in a world that seems to change minute to minute. Canadian organizations have untapped opportunity in the innovation space that can increase competitiveness, create jobs and make the world a better place. The forest industry in particular comes to mind. The untapped potential here boggles the mind. We have dire need of innovation in food production, health care delivery, education and elder care, among others.

Years ago, I worked with a 5th grade class to challenge traditional learning techniques by bringing mathematics, English, science, art and social studies together in one group project to solve a waste management problem. And what did I learn? That the group dynamic — bringing “thinkers” and “experts” together, where the strong in one discipline work with the weak in another, and all grow in their weak areas and fortify their strengths — that a “big” problem can be solved in an unexpected way. It requires good facilitation. It requires open minds.

For the last couple of years I have been conducting research with young farmers in a semi-rural community. We know that the average age of the Canadian farmer is 59 years. The trade needs new blood to continue to sustain itself. In the case of these newer farmers, many lack the experience tied to a family farming lineage. They work on small land plots instead of large acreages. The land is expensive. And without traditional marketing channels available to larger farms, they have to be creative with how they get product to market. I am not starting with a solution and trying to fit the problem into it. We need to know what the actual problem is. With proper facilitation, I plan to help these farmers articulate what they need and find the innovations in their work and value chain to make them financially sustainable and make their produce more accessible to their local communities.

Design thinking is the way new leaders will develop the truly new ideas, processes and platforms that will shape our future. It is critical to business growth and development that business leaders embrace the process and bring Design Thinking into the boardroom as a tool for innovation. It is not the only tool any more than Six Sigma is the answer to everyone’s prayers, but it would be folly to dismiss it. A now-retired colleague at Emily Carr University of Art and Design,  Professor Tom Becher, told me that perhaps “Design Thinking is really the Design of Thinking”. (He, like many others, dislikes the term “Design Thinking”, but it is useful in many contexts). Pushed out of comfortable, linear patterns of process, experts in their own fields can sometimes create such synergy that groundbreaking ideas take root.

At Ion Brand Design, our practise focuses on working for communities to create brands with their stakeholders, so that those brands are authentic and truly owned by these communities. We don’t ask what the brand should look like, we ask what it should feel like. We engage residents, business owners, employees and politicians in envisioning the story of their community’s future — the moments they will be proud of and the qualities that will make them glad they live and work there.  The leadership teams in these communities gain insight into what residents feel about their communities. This influences every aspect of government. The participants in our workshops become a legion of brand champions, spreading the understanding of what the brand is and what it means to the community’s future.

This participatory design approach generates more than branding. It articulates how people want to feel in the future. It seeds service design, interaction design and wayfinding. It guides writing, photography and even the way staff answer their phones. It is our goal that through using Design Thinking principles we can help communities become more sustainable and more livable. That’s leadership thinking, and it is better placed in the boardroom than at a drawing board.

*Known as the VUCA World involving non-stop Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, the term originated with the U.S. Military in the 1990s. Artel and Solomon. Moments of Impact. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2014

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