Sunday, January 22, 2012

Design Thinking Series #2: Core Tenets of Design

What makes designers so unique?

To think more like a designer, and to apply Design Thinking principles to the way that you approach business and marketing, you first have to understand who designers are and, perhaps more importantly, how they approach their work. In this second post in the Design Thinking Series, inspired by a lecture by Jeanne Liedtka and her book "Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers", I'll briefly cover some of the Core Tenets of Design, including some of the qualities that make designers - and Design Thinking - so unique.

"Don’t let your imagined constraints limit your possibilities, aim to connect deeply with those you serve, seek opportunities, not perfection."

Let's start off with designers themselves. What are some of the most important qualities of a gifted designer?

(1) They have an aesthetic sensibility: Designers, it may not surprise you, have a flair for the visual. They can visualize patterns, contrasts, what works, and what doesn't. They can express themselves through visuals, too - whether in a PowerPoint slide, on a whiteboard, or on a napkin. They can feel whether something looks right or not. Consider the lack of aesthetic sensibility that permeates the business world - can you remember the last good-looking PowerPoint presentation that you've seen? There's a lot to learn from designers when it comes to aesthetics.

(2) They inspire: Gifted designers aim to grab their audience at an emotional level. They don't settle for just agreement or moderate satisfaction - they aspire to surprise, delight, and elevate the response from their audience to the next level. As Liedtka puts it, "One of the saddest facts about the state of business is the extent to which we so often settle for mediocrity. Yet the difference between great designs and those that are only okay is the way the former call us to something greater."

(3) They invent: Gifted designers also think of themselves as creators. Compared to scientists, who investigate the present and look for explanations of what already exists, designers invent things for tomorrow - a future that doesn't yet exist. They create something that isn't. Designers always begin with questions like "What if anything were possible?" Ideas are, as Walt Disney once said, "created first in the mind and next in the activity."

(4) They iterate: Finally, gifted designers seem themselves as learners, constantly iterating and improving their solution based on ongoing feedback. While most managers have a linear problem-solving methodology - define a problem, identify various solutions, analyse each, then choose the right one - designers believe that successful innovation takes experimentation. To them, every problem is a possibility - one for learning, seeing, and responding to opportunities as they emerge.

Hmmm.. sounds interesting, right? But it's not just these qualities that make designers different than business people, it's how they work. Here are, according to Lietdka, some of the core tenets of design:

(1) Visualization: As mentioned above, an aesthetic and visual orientation is extremely important to designers. Pattern recognition, formulation, and expression are all a major part of the design process.

(2) Empathy: This is all about having a deep understanding of human needs, and focusing on meeting those needs when approaching problem-solving or creating value. Often, business people will start with the solutions and then retro-fit human needs into those solutions - designers don't work this way. Rather, they try to understand the emotional and rational needs of their audience, really "knowing" them as real people with real problems. The clues to the better future that designers are looking to create often lie with dissatisfactions with the present, and so designers look for those pain points and opportunities to improve people's lives.

(3) Exploration: This is the need for discovery. The design process is about constantly asking questions - What is? What if? What wows? What works? The process of ideation and brainstorming is based on the exploration of the question - if anything were possible, what would we be creating? Through exploration, designers attempt to describe what a new future might look like for their audience.

(4) Iteration: As mentioned earlier, designers view solutions as temporary stepping stones on the path to a better experience. Starting with tentative, low-fidelity answers, designers expect to improve it through experimentation and feedback. To them, small is beautiful - and so the process involves building a portfolio of small bets, presenting their audience not with fully-baked solutions, but with half-solutions - prototypes of the final experience.

(5) Co-Creation: Designers include their audience in the design process, collaborating with them to understand what's working and what isn't. They develop prototypes that are "good enough" to share with them sooner rather than later, and then test their assumptions with real people in real time. Their goal? Gather ongoing feedback that can help them improve their creations.

(6) Flexibility: Finally, the design process is a flexible one. Designers are always exploring multiple options as they listen to their audience and let them validate what is working. The process doesn't punish mistakes, but rather embraces trying things out.

Feeling a bit less like a business person, and more like a designer? Good. You've already read about the main differences between business and design. By now, hopefully, you have a better understanding of what makes designers so unique and a bit about how they work. In the final post in this series, I'll take you through one of the major activities that makes Design Thinking so much different than the traditional approach to business - Rapid Prototyping. Don't miss it!

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