Ten Things to Demand From Design Thinkers

Design thinking is currently an "It" concept, the topic of countless books and blogs and conference panels. While it can mean a lot of different things to different people, for me, design thinking is a methodology, a tool, a killer app, and a problem-solving protocol to be used on virtually any problem. It can be equally effective in designing a new product or creating a new brand, to envisioning a new approach to health care or to reinventing city management. Mayor Daley in Chicago, where I live, is a pretty effective design thinker. That's right, Mayor Daley.

Design thinking isn't the sole province of the insular world of design and designers. Every year, I learn this lesson over again in the class I teach in "Design and Design Thinking" at Northwestern University. The mostly left-brain, linear thinking, engineering professionals in the class never fail to blow me away with how quickly and effectively they ladder up on the idea.

Today we are facing many tough problems in business, in our communities, and in our society as a whole. This pliable and effective methodology is truly part of the answer. Consequently, it has migrated into the mainstream. It can be a great boon to problem solving, but it's not without its pitfalls.

Here are ten things to get you need to know to make design thinking work for you:

  1. Get Clarity about Equity
    Brand equity used to belong to the Madmen of Madison Avenue. But advertising is broken now. It simply doesn't work like it used to, and won't ever again. Advertisers used to tell people what they want. Now customers, enabled by the Internet and social networks, are telling companies what they want. The truth of the consumer experience is in the doing and that is where the equity lies. Don't listen to anyone telling you what the brand equity "should" be if it doesn't start with the consumer.
  2. James DysonDesigners are the Storytellers
    Authenticity in the consumer experience results in a story, not the other way round. A story has emotion, narrative, and memories built into it. I tell stories in every presentation, every chance I can. In a world bloated with messages, a story is sometimes the only thing people will remember. When I mention James Dyson, they remember how discouraging he found it to see how vacuum cleaners work, how many prototypes it took to get the one he was designing right, how elated he was at figuring out the answer! Now Target can't keep Dyson cleaners on the shelf at $400 per; his competitors struggle at $99. The product performs; the story makes it memorable.
  3. The Ergonomics of Understanding
    Design thinking starts with empathy and perception around what people actually need and do, as opposed to what they say they want. This, in turn, mandates new processes for evaluation and new metrics for measurement. It may even require the courage to make decisions that run counter to metrics. That's the decision Herman Miller designers faced when focus groups told them that people thought the first Aeron chair would be a failure.
  4. Dutch Boy PaintGood Design is Good Business
    Rumor has it that Dutch Boy saw something in the neighborhood of a 300% lift after re-inventing its paint can to have a twist-off lid. 300% How many companies would be thrilled with a 7% increase in sales?
  5. Design Thinking Starts at the Very Beginning
    Design has always had a place in the product development process, but too often it's been in the middle, used as a way to improve a product's aesthetics, or at the end, when it's used to create attractive packaging, or a sizzling presentation for the client. But those design add-ons can't ensure success. Before setting off on any mission, design thinking protocol asks us to step back for a moment and begin by challenging the problem to be solved in the first place. Is this the right way to frame this problem? Does the world need another one of these gadgets? The answers to those questions potentially save a lot of wasted effort and ensure a better result.
  6. Designers Need to Be Orchestra Conductors
    Design thinkers need to be able to mobilize cross functional teams. That requires a skill set that includes effective leadership, the ability to inspire, respect of other competencies, and equal measures of charm and manic control. It's not the usual stuff you get in design school, but it should be.
  7. Keep Design Assassins in the Crosshairs
    "We did that here once. I t didn't work." "We tried that three years ago. Customers hated it." "That's not the way we do things here." How many times have you been in a meeting and heard comments like those? Or, worse, been the one making them? Keep it up and you to can become a Designosaur. Design thinkers figure out ways to overcome resistance to new ideas.
  8. Use Your Head Before Your Hands
    Design thinkers look past a project to the next project, to the next step in the strategy. They look sideways to the tangents that are affected by the result, and longer term to the investment required as a result of solving the problem currently in front of the team. No problem is solved in isolation—either from the past, or from the future.
  9. Be a Good Shepherd
    Most design thinkers agree that the goal for any project should be the best result for the smallest investment, and the biggest effect for the least amount of effort and the least amount of resources. Efficiency, in short, is at the core of every truly wonderful design or system.
  10. Obsessive Compulsives Welcome Here
    I remember once attending a meeting where I pointed out an obvious deficiency in design and was told that it would take too much time and effort to fix it, that the investment of capital and energy would not be worth the return. While it was, perhaps, true at the time, the incident raised concerns about the organization's culture and attitudes that led to that moment. "Good enough" is no longer good enough. There's now too much competition from a flattened world that's getting better at answering true consumer and societal needs. Maniacal attention to detail, obsessive attention to brand equity, and a laser-like focus on superlative results are all key parts of the formula for success in the future.

Read more of Mark Dziersk's Design Finds You blog

Welcoming Guest Blogger Mark Dziersk: "Creativity Plus Risk Gets You the Grade"

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world's largest design and branding firms. At Brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined Brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches' Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA's premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark's course, "Essentials of Industrial Design," in Northwestern University’s Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

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  • Umut Duman

    I think design thinking should be a part of engineering. And its atthe same time an art.

  • Jared Richardson

    Great article. Always nice to see intelligent conversation around important topics. I'm very curious to see how we capitalise on this moment. How do designers get a seat at the table, and be part of the conversation to finding quality (designed for actual people) solutions. There are still far too many outdated methodologies and stale minds making critically important decisions at all levels of public and private life. For me, there is a huge disconnect between the design thinkers and the institutions who would really benefit from new processes.

  • Paula Thornton

    Your piece has gotten a lot of uptake via Twitter. Good for you and for the conversation. The problem is, both your piece and the one you reference muddy the waters for the Design Thinking conversation. Both pieces, and even the Wikipedia definition are better labeled "thinking about design", but are not specific to Design Thinking (as I pointed out here http://twurl.nl/lvlrry

    Clearly there is overlap and general reference, but the differentiators are what is critical to truly move the conversation forward and truly capitalize on the corresponding practices.

    What's missing? Discussion around the continuum within which Design Thinking lives (mystery, heuristic, algorithm, binary code); reference to the business tension between Reliabilty and Validity (Roger discusses this just prior to minute 13 http://twurl.nl/u6kma4), etc.

  • I'm the Cold Wiz

    Unfortunately, most that come out of Biz school (and lots of others who sit at their desks covered in cob-webs and coffee) do not know how to write or express a proper design brief. How great would it be for the problem solvers (Designers) to get good information handed to them so they can run with it and make it shine? There's a sign on Ted Turner's desk that reads: "Lead, Follow, or get the Hell out of the Way". It's perfect.

  • Marianne Grisdale

    Dear Mark, I love your comment about the phrase, "good enough". It is my least favorite phrase. Good enough implies mediocrity. No designer wants their design to be merely mediocre. No company want mediocre sales of the aforementioned product.

  • Mark Dziersk

    Fred, My former colleague Marc gobe wrote a book called "Brandjam" which touches on that very idea.

    best, Mark

    Mark Dziersk FIDSA

  • Fred Collopy

    Point six could suggest that there is something special about the designer as team member, and there may well be. But I think a more useful metaphor than orchestra conductor is accomplished improvisor. In an effective team leadership moves from member to member more like it does among the members of an accomplished jazz ensemble than in a hierarchically tuned performance group like an orchestra. There may well be a macro leader (such as Duke Ellington) but he knows when and how to pass the role to others (think of when Duke passed it to Paul Gonzalves' for his solo at Newport or let Jo Jones play an explosive role from the sidelines).

  • Nancy Gage

    I agree with Dave. I call myself a Visual Essayist, rather than a graphic designer and that was over 10 years ago, but convincing upper management just didn't cut it. Let's have hope that this can be the true beginning of change.

  • Dave Brown

    This is excellent advice for new and old companies alike. This thinking is still underrated. It won't be in 5 years.

    Along the same theme, I have to recommend 2 books:
    Dan Pink's A WHOLE NEW MIND
    37signals' GET REAL
    Google the latter and you can read it online for free...