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Informed Design

Thinking Like a Designer – Design Thinking and the Pursuit of Innovation

January 15, 2021 6 minute read

The first in a series of posts on the topic of Design Thinking and its impact on business innovation. This introductory post focuses on the origins and features of Design Thinking and its growth as a mainstream approach within contemporary design practice.

According to the Design Management Institute’s Design Value Index, design-led companies like Patagonia, Dyson and Airbnb consistently outperform the market. That’s because great design sells. And these businesses build value by making the products and services that are fashionable and in great demand.

Design transforms the way companies create value. The move to innovation has shifted from product-centric, marketing-focused engineering to design-oriented businesses transfixed on heightened customer experience. Design thinking is driving this change in strategy. And it has happened by superimposing the designer sensibility and its methodology toolkit on the corporate realm, aligning people’s consumer wants and needs with what’s technologically feasible and what is viable from a business point of view. Design thinking gives large, complex organizations the structured framework the need to simplify their business processes and master innovation for the benefit for the user.

Design thinking applies its signature human-centred, highly empathic world view to transform the way leading companies harness innovation and create value – with successive series of leading products and services, exceptional user experiences and disruption of business models.

Origins and Features

Design thinking is not new. While it became popular in the early 1990s and into the 21st century, it began as a discipline in the ‘60s. Over the last 50 years, it has grown as a problem-solving methodology with the help of research tools and techniques borrowed from other places – engineering, business management, the creative fields, as well as the social and computer sciences. Today, it’s a composite of approaches that is self-defining, which is why it’s recognized as having a multi-disciplinary, human-centred methodology.

Much of its present-day popularity is derived from advocates at IDEO, the Stanford Design School, Rotman and others, inspiring large organizations to take the approach on board as the preferred method for addressing complex problems and creating innovative solutions. Design thinking’s innovative ideas and research methods spring from fundamental human needs as the trusted source. The user perspective and the associated social context are the central structuring principle and focus for design thinking projects where the creative, non-linear and human-centred perspective is the driving force. It’s really more like storytelling and re-interpreting subjective meaning through collaboration, empathy and understanding the place of the user in society than relying solely on objective and quantitative data.

Its contemporary appeal as a problem-solving methodology and strategy for innovation lies in the complexity inherent in large organizations, the pace of emerging technology and the nature of modern business. Design thinking is based on a human-centred view of the world. People are looking to make sense of their environment and the challenges around them. And the analytical tools in the toolkit offer this view along with a palatable means for addressing these challenges, harnessing creative energies and reengineering business processes.

Although the methodology of steps is a linear progression, Design Thinking is non-linear and not necessarily sequential as they do not proceed in any specific order, may occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. Stages should be viewed as different modes contributing to the overall result. Through the progress of the project, Design Thinking systematically understands user problems and needs, identifies the problem-solving opportunity and delivers the enhanced client experience.

Design Thinking Assessed

Design thinking is a journey of learning and discovery. You succeed at it by finding solutions based on the needs of real people. When it’s well done, human-centred design takes the user experience to new heights by creating products and services that connect with customers. It’s a team effort. User-centric innovation also relies on the knowledge of unspecified feelings or needs that have been unearthed through design thinking’s research methodology that yields invaluable insights, new ideas and the promise of competitive advantage.

As more companies adopt design thinking as their preferred approach, the question of its effectiveness becomes a matter of how it is applied within their operations. More specifically, how it is to function within different types of organizations, how they are structured and the types of corporate cultures that prevail. Doing design thinking well in these environments is by no means a given and will require careful balancing. This will be necessary to afford designers the flexibility to work creatively and productively without the wider corporate structure becoming overpowering.

Striking the right balance can often be challenging and critical, particularly in companies whose cultures may ultimately prove unsuitable or lacking in trust. Conversely, where these environments are engaging and supportive, where innovation can thrive, design thinking will flourish.

— Ian Chalmers, Principal and Design Director

Check out the second instalment of this series — Innovation by Design


Ian Chalmers, RGD
Principal & Creative Director

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