Want an easy to understand definition of design thinking?

Try this article from Warren Berger:

4 steps to design thinking

It seems everybody is talking about ‘design thinking’ these days. But the concept remains somewhat vague, and much of the current discussion around it feels a bit academic and jargon-laden—all of which can be off-putting to many people (including some designers).

And yet I think there is great value in bringing some of the key ideas and principles of design thinking to the larger world, where they can be applied to all kinds of business and social problems. So with this in mind, I’d like to humbly propose a new, simpler definition of Design Thinking.

Design thinking = how designers think.

Makes sense, right? But this in turn raises the question: How do designers think? Are there certain ways they tend to view the world, and to approach problem-solving, that are different? And if so, what can we all learn from that?

Obviously, it’s dangerous to generalise about anyone, and perhaps especially designers—they’re an eclectic breed, working in a range of disciplines, employing different materials and distinct methodologies. But having studied more than 100 top designers in various fields over the past couple of years (while doing research for a book), I found that there were a few shared behaviors that seemed to be almost second nature to many designers. And these ingrained habits were intrinsically linked to the designer’s ability to bring original ideas into the world as successful innovations.

To break into four key points: designers question, care, connect, and commit.

Question. If you spend any time around designers, you quickly discover that they ask, and raise, a lot of questions. Often this is the starting point in the design process, and it can have a profound influence on everything that follows. Many of the designers I studied, from Bruce Mau to Richard Saul Wurman to Paula Scher, talked about the importance of asking ‘the stupid questions’—the ones that challenge the existing realities and assumptions in a given industry or sector. The persistent tendency of designers to do this is captured in the joke designers tell about themselves: How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?

The very act of asking all those basic ‘why’ and ‘why not’ questions in a business setting can make the questioner seem naïve. But by encouraging people to step back and look at old problems or entrenched practices with a fresh eye, the designer can begin to re-frame the challenge at hand—which can then steer thinking in new directions. For business in today’s volatile marketplace, or for those trying to redesign everything from healthcare to public transportation systems, the ability to question and rethink basic fundamentals (What business are we really in? What do today’s customers/ patients/ passengers actually need or expect from us?) has never been more important.

Care. It’s easy for companies or government agencies to say they care about customer needs. But to really empathise with people, you have to be willing to do what many of the best designers do: get out of your bubble and actually immerse yourself in the daily lives of people you’re trying to serve. What impressed me about design researchers such as Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO was the dedication to really observing and paying close attention to people—because this is usually the best way to ferret out people’s deep, unarticulated needs. When OXO and Smart Design were radically redesigning potato peelers, measuring cups, and other kitchen wares, the designers often got their big ideas by actually spending time in people’s kitchens, watching them make dinner. Focus groups and questionnaires don’t cut it; designers know that you must care enough to actually be present in people’s lives.

Connect. Designers, I discovered, have a knack for synthesizing—for taking existing elements or ideas and mashing them together in fresh new ways. This can be a valuable shortcut to innovation because it means you don’t necessarily have to invent from scratch. By coming up with ‘smart recombinations’ (to use a term coined by the designer John Thackara), Apple has produced some of its most successful hybrid products; and Nike smartly combined a running shoe with an iPod to produce the company’s groundbreaking Nike Plus line (which enables runners to program their runs). It isn’t easy to come up with these great combos; designers know that you must ‘think laterally’—searching far and wide for ideas and influences—and must also be willing to try connecting ideas that might not seem to go together. But this is a way of thinking that can also be embraced by non-designers, who can sometimes benefit by looking inspiration outside their own field—to see if there are any possibilities to borrow, connect, and recombine.

Commit. It’s one thing to dream up original ideas. But designers quickly take those ideas beyond the realm of imagination by giving form to them. Whether it’s a napkin sketch, a prototype carved from foam rubber, or a digital mock-up, the quick-and-rough models that designers constantly create are a critical component of innovation—because when you give form to an idea, you begin to make it real.

But it’s also true that when you commit to an idea early—putting it out into the world while it’s still young and imperfect—you increase the possibility of short-term failure. Designers tend to be much more comfortable with this risk than most of us. They know that innovation often involves an iterative process with setbacks along the way—and those small failures are actually useful because it enables the designer to see what works in the real world and what doesn’t. When the inventor/designer Van Phillips was making the revolutionary Flex-Foot Cheetah prosthetic foot, he tested his own prototypes by trying to walk and run on them—and each time they broke, he fell to the ground. But each time he fell, he learned something that brought him one step closer to achieving a breakthrough.

The designer’s ability to ‘fail forward’ is a particularly valuable quality in times of dynamic change. Today, many companies, government agencies, non-profits and others, find themselves operating in a test-and-learn, ‘rapid prototyping’ environment. Which is just one more reason to pay attention to the people who’ve been conducting their work this way all along.

Warren Berger is a consultant and author of Glimmer: How design can transform, business, your life, and maybe even the world (Random House, 2010). He edits the online magazine GlimmerSite.com.

From Unlimited: Designing for the Asia Pacific.

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