Jax Wechsler

How design supports innovation

Design is not about making ‘things’, but is also concerned with how people, and people and ‘things’ work together. Complex problem solving requires collaboration, creativity, co-design, iteration, insight and taking a human-centred approach. These are all key principles used within the discipline of design. Contemporary businesses, not for profits, corporations and governments are employing design approaches to solve complex problems, shape human experience and become more profitable, sustainable and innovative.

Design used to be confined to product development. But, design brings so much more. Apple’s Steve Jobs commenting on the breadth of relevance for design said, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Tim Brown, IDEO’s president and CEO, defines design thinking like this:

“the mission of design thinking is to translate observation into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.”

Design thinking refers to the methodology of design appropriated from the small industrial design context and applied to complex business and social processes. Tim Brown of the global innovation firm IDEO defines design thinking as

“a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

The schema below illustrates this sweet spot for design innovation.

Sweet spot for innovation

Some qualities of design thinking include;

  • Design is human-centred, beginning with deep empathy and understanding of people’s needs and motivations. Design helps make products, services and systems more useful and usable.
  • Design is collaborative and multi-disciplinary, requiring the expertise and participation of many people, including those who use and deliver services.
  • Design is optimistic, at its core there is a fundamental belief that we can create change.
  • Design is experiential, the design process is all about devising experiments, testing things out, taking risks and embracing failure so that we can learn and refine ideas.

Design : a process plus a mindset

Whether we are focused on innovation as doing something better than how we used to do it, or doing something completely new, design can support organizations to innovate. ‘Design thinking’ refers to both a process and a mindset.

The design process

Design is a process driven approach. Its process provides structure so that creativity can freely bubble up. Design thinking involves an iterative process that has distinct stages. There are different models used to communicate the design process, for example the process below is from the Stanford D-School.


Empathize : You have to empathize with your users. This means getting to know them through interviews, observations and learning how they would possibly interact with your product/ service/organization.

Define: From that empathy, you can start forming hypotheses and asking further questions. All the while keeping the user’s perspective in mind.

Ideate: This is the exploration phase, where no idea is off the table. Burn through bad ideas to get to the good ones.

Prototype: Put your ideas to the test. Building a prototype allows you to see how your product might feel out in the wild.

Test: Now this is where you can put your prototype in front of users, learning how they interact with it and thus allowing you to refine your ideas and increase your understanding.

(Based on “An Introduction to Design Thinking: Process Guide” from Stanford’s d.school)

A designer’s mindset

Traditional business mindsets tend to be problem-focused. A problem is identified and solutions are generated and implemented. I have seen so many briefs formulated without a real understanding of the problem at hand. Often initiatives solving the wrong problem are executed, wasting valuable time and resources.

A design mindset brings a different way of thinking, allowing time for problem framing, to get to more innovative and person-centric solutions. Some aspects of a design mindset are;

Comfort with ambiguity – Designers do not rush to solutions, they are comfortable exploring the problem space first, ensuring that they are solving the right problem.

Question – Explicating and unpacking assumptions is at the core of a design mind-set. Understand what assumptions are being made. Go talk to people to make sure that they are true.

Empathy – Be human-centred. Consider the points of view of the people in your service or product eco-system. Observe people. Talk to them. Understand their worlds and their life contexts.

Making – A design mindset makes to think. Stick man sketches to envision the people involved in a service, or using lego to envision product distribution. Create models to explore complexity and tell stories about people.

Optimism – A design mindset is focused on possibility. Designer’s prefer to use the term “yes and” instead of  “no but” when considering possible futures.

Feedback – Understand the need of getting feedback. Be OK with showing half-baked ideas or prototypes. By talking to people about possibilities they become better.

Collaboration – A design mindset values collaboration and the different perspectives needed to solve complex problems. Involve others .

Design provides a valuable approach to problem solving, it requires a designerly mindset, available to everyone.

NOTE: This article was originally written for Aquent


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