Beyond Design Thinking: Why Hybrid Design Is the Next New Thing

Hybrid design dispenses with theory and relies on nimble, multi-faceted teams of experts to tackle the complexities of a design challenge.

For the better part of the past decade, the design profession has been in a chaotic period. Confronting a unique mixed salad of conflicts—political, social, economic and environmental—designers have been struggling to define their core beliefs. The result has often been a defensive stance, rather than a positive look at the industry's capabilities and their accomplishments. Expectations of the design industry's social responsibility are essential, yet an understanding of designers' ability to use their skills to create a better future would be a better place to start.

This is where hybrid design comes in. It's a progressive notion about the multi-dimensional craft of "doing things," as well as a reflection on the interconnectedness of all kinds of design within the economic and commercial fabric of society. It balances the skills, talents and relative strengths of designers to create both physical and non-physical objects, and their refinement, delivery, and relevancy within a cultural, social and responsible context. And it advances the current rage for design thinking by producing tangible, well-crafted solutions to the strategic and difficult challenges businesses face in this new, and complex environment.

The way that Apple's iTunes seamlessly works with the iPod is an example of hybrid design

Hybrid design is already happening all over. Within industrial design, the seamless integration of software and hardware into everyday objects, whether it be the iPod and iTunes, or the old-fashioned "on-screen-display" on your cable box, has been a part of any physical design for over a decade.

Similarly, non-object designers are becoming increasingly aware of the power and effectiveness of physical objects in cementing abstract concepts such as brand or service design. The making, delivery and presence of these physical objects are as essential to brand and service design as logos or user interfaces.

Hybrid design is the de-facto merger of industrial, interactive, and brand design. It is, however, more than that, since it places these trusted design methodologies within an actionable, focused and deliverable framework.

In this context, design thinking leads the way through strategic direction, but thinking is not enough. To get the job done, designers must distill a deliverable solution to the challenge, which is where a more craft-oriented methodology comes in. Having a great idea is a nice first step; making the idea a reality is better and ultimately, making an idea successful in the marketplace is the pinnacle achievement of any designer.

Boxee's interface integrates with a set-top box and a remote, designed by Astro Studios

At the same time, the craftsmanship of technology, and the effort it takes to produce a workable solution is getting more and more complex. Developing a software experience requires a very acute knowledge of the latest and best in code and development processes. Navigating the labyrinth of manufacturing methods with their costs, levels of sustainability, and business impacts has become a challenge for every industrial designer. Typically, such disparate capabilities would have called for people with specific expertise: A sustainability expert would tackle the package design, or a software developer would craft a graphical user interface (GUI) design.

Hybrid design breaks these professional silos and asks the design team to be aware, intelligent and reactive to an eco-system of experts surrounding the design process. Hybrid designers re-design, re-think and, in time, reflect on their work in progressive new ways. Over time the work coming out of a hybrid design team is of a better quality, better suited to a complex physical/non-physical world and better positioned to weather the tests of time, society, and culture.

Being a thought-leader (or a design-thinker) is nice, yet also being a craftsman, who can really speak to "what works" will make a designer a better advisor to an executive. Beautiful PowerPoint decks or carefully worded position-papers are getting less effective as challenges become more critical, acute and complex;  hybrid design makes the leap beyond the rhetoric in its informed use of experience-based intuition and crafts-based knowledge.

In short, "hybrid design" is to design what "design thinking" was to "innovation": the next level of design methodology based on a wider perspective, multi-talented approach that is still rooted in making things work.

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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  • Amit Erandole

    "carefully worded position-papers" - sounds like you don't have time for details, my friend. These days, it's harder to find time for the right words as can be seen from your careless use of the word "hybrid".

  • Tuija Seipell

    Of course, the end user seldom cares what profession - designer, architect, non-designer, non-architect - was behind a good or bad product, service or idea. I have worked with both architects and designers, and have both as friends, and I don't really see a significant difference in the way they think. Some people, regardless of their training, are creative, intuitive, original; some are analytical, some both. But to generalize that architects possess analytical mastery and designers intuitive originality is nonsense.

  • José Vanderhorst-Silverio

    I agree with Mathew 100%. About three weeks ago, in response to a post of a LinkedIn friend, to the idea introduced in the article "Gartner Advocates Hybrid Thinking for Enterprise Architecture," which is related to what Nick said, I wrote:

    Star quote:

    I think there are three short circuits in "Hybrid thinking combines the analytical mastery of architects with the intuitive originality of designers. Hybrid thinking drives change via the co-creative exploration of meaningful human-centred experiences when confronting complex, intractable issues, also known as “wicked problems.”

    The first short circuit is in "the analytical mastery of architects..." Architects focus is on the system as a whole, and so they should have a synthetic mastery. Maybe, the problem is that some EA's are being trained like engineers.

    The second is that architects are designers.

    The third is that Design Thinking at the organizational level is what "... drives change via the co-creative exploration of meaningful human-centred experiences when confronting complex, intractable issues, also known as “wicked problems.”

    As a result, I suggest we should forget of Hybrid Thinking.

    That is what I have gone through to create the EWPC-AF to solve the electricity "wicked problem."

    End quote.

    This article is based on the same misunderstanding about Design Thinking.

    In his book “Change by design: how design thinking transform organizations and inspires innovations,” Tim Brown wrote that Design Thinking operates in three spaces of innovation, the last of which is concerned with "implementation: communicating an idea with sufficient clarity to gain acceptance across the organization, proving it, and show that it will work in its intended market.”

    This time my friend said it simpler - Weick says it best: "It's not, Think, then act. Instead, it's, Think by acting. By actually doing things, you'll find out what works and what doesn't."

  • Michael Nicolson

    I don't think you're saying anything new here. How is this article about the "Next New Thing" if it has been already happening for a decade or more? You can make up catchy new terms and throw in as many hyphens as you want but it all boils down to one thing; design (and that always involves thinking, therefore "design-thinking" is a redundant term, as is much of the text above). Finally, since you are basically describing the profession of architecture here, wouldn't it be easier to say that designers are approaching design the way architects do?

  • Sunil Malhotra

    No offence to you Amit, my critique is more general in nature. I like the article and your attempt to articulate the challenges here.

    But this whole labeling game is becoming very tiresome. I guess it's a great attention grabber in the west but that's where it ends. First we label something "Design Thinking" and then try to fit our notions to define what we mean. Then when things don't quite fit or the shine goes off, we invent another label - in this case "Hybrid".

    Pardon my ignorance, but isn't Industrial Design by definition, interdisciplinary? You say "Hybrid design is the de-facto merger of industrial, interactive, and brand design". I recall my first design class where they told us that Industrial Design ('objects' at the time) was a combo of aesthetics (Brand?), ergonomics (Interactive?) and Function (Engineering?) - and now I hear you propose a new label for Industrial Design (?) that you call "Hybrid".

    Either you're suggesting that we go back to Design School to relearn our basics or that Industrial Design has acquired a whole new meaning today than it did back then.

    Read my take on labels on my blog.

  • Avinash Rajagopal

    Ummm...How is this different from what we were calling "Inter-disciplinary" two years ago, and "Multi-disciplinary" three years ago? Design by its very nature draws upon diverse domains of knowledge. "hybrid" design is a redundancy.

  • matthew holloway

    I like the intent but I think you missed a big opportunity.

    Don't get me wrong, I agree that when you have non-designers applying design thinking, often the Design-doing is left out and the results fall short. Design is the secret sauce for achieving the products everyone desires. But the silos you mention are artifacts of broken organizations, not the profession. Professional Designers have been practicing what you describe as hybrid for about forever (I learned it 25 years ago in college, they had been teaching it that way for 25 years before I got there, and I am sure mine was not the only design school teaching it.).

    On as a member of professional design community, I wish you would have stopped yourself from adding another buzzword to the bingo board and just written how this return to how Design used to operate is long over due.

  • ironick17

    Dev Patnaik wrote an article entitled "Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking" for Fast Company a little less than a year ago: . We at Gartner liked it so much, we decided to use "Hybrid Thinking" as the name for a new line of research: .

    How would you compare and contrast hybrid design and hybid thinking?

    -- Nick (Twitter: @ironick)

  • Alberto Villarreal

    Nice insight as usual and interesting perspective. But I would just be careful with the statement about success "...making an idea successful in the marketplace is the pinnacle achievement of any designer".

    I think in this period where many things are going through a redefinition (design profession, business models, etc.) we need to find new ways to define success and to measure it. If a designer only aims for a product to be successful sales-wise, then chances are he's forgetting about the social/cultural and environmental aspects of success. I think measuring the success of a product by the revenue it generates is a very old school vision.

    Success should also be hybrid, and it should consider other areas of impact on a product, service or system, not only the economic aspect.

    Otherwise I find the article interesting and I agree with the more holistic and strategic approach.