Design Thinking Top 10

My Dad and I used to build toy boats when I was a boy. Before we ever got out the wood, tools, or paint, we would get out the paper and pencils, and plan what we were going to build in great detail. We’d discuss the boats purpose: its function, the features it would need, all the while sketching out and discussing ideas. Painting the boats was the final ritual, but it was never about decoration, it was an integral last stage of a string of joined up processes.

Question: How many designers will it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Why a light bulb?

There used to be a tendency to think of design in terms of visual appearance, that it’s a process for making things look nice – all about surface. We now (most of us that is, the rest of you please catch up) know that design is a fundamental creative and open exploration of the problem spaces and solutions. In this post I want to explore ten key ideas that might help start develop a culture of Design Thinking in your business. Design can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and growth, and should arguably form the very foundation for driving your brand or business forward.


1. People

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative by building a genuine empathy with customers and users. Its key contribution to business thinking is that it turns the traditional model of company first on its head, as organizations are increasingly aware that they can no longer rely on providing value solely through products but need to move into creating meaningful and memorable customer experiences. Design Thinking and Processes

2. No Rules

Even talented teams and businesses sometimes fall into the trap of solving a problem the same way every time. Design Thinking requires that no matter how obvious the solution may at first appear, we encourage free and open thinking, challenge established norms, and try to shake ourselves out of habitual patterns of thinking to really look at the problem space with fresh eyes. This can be hard: many established businesses cannot see the wood for the trees, and are unaware of their tunnel vision. Try to strip away the invisible preconceptions and constraints that you are unwittingly bringing to the process, sidestep your organization’s ingrained thinking and ask the questions no one wants to ask. Look in the darkest corners, challenge everything and leave no stone unturned.

3. Mess

Design is messy, it’s not about screens, it’s about the physical world: paper, pens, post-it notes, and scissors. It’s about getting some note cards and arranging them on the floor or sticking them on the walls with blue tack. It’s about getting coloured string and pins and physically making connections on a wall. As modern digital workers we have become increasingly screen locked. If we live just in our minds, in virtual worlds, then we are only using half our skills. By connecting solution thinking to touch and feel, the “real” world, we connect the left and right sides of our brain, develop empathy, and begin to unlock our creativity.

4. Fail fast – fail cheap

Design Thinking celebrates mistakes, we learn more from failure than we do success, so we just jump in and have a go, hoist up a flag and see who salutes it. If no one does then we try a different approach, iteratively feeling our way around possible solutions, free of concerns about “the right way” (those judgements will only reduce our natural creativity.) Wild ideas are welcome, since these often lead to the most creative solutions.

5. Play

Adults have a strange attitude to play, for some reason we think it is childish, that adulthood should be serious. However, play is an important catalyst for creativity and forms a vital part of the mindset in Design Thinking. It can be hard for us to take the leap from our virtual worlds into an open playful collaborate mindset, so take small steps. Next time you are organizing a meeting, look up some creative thinking exercises (the three brains is a great one for example) and try starting with five minutes play. Or go out and have mussels and white wine at the seaside.

6. Prototype

Got an idea for a new feature, or a new product? Don’t write or talk about it, go and try and make it. Paper will do to start. Prototyping is incredibly powerful, and can be a liberating creative process. It’s the only way to quickly get hands on with your idea. By pushing out low fidelity prototypes we can quickly jump into user feedback, and further hone our ideas.

7. Less is more

Human’s have a tendency to complicate, but as design thinkers we need to develop a tendency to the opposite and adopt an ongoing battle against complexity. How small can our solution be, what is the simplest most elegant way for us to get from A to B. The same thinking can apply to a wide range of areas: eyeball tracking software and hot clicking data analysis tools are great, but should we also be sitting down with our users with a notepad and watch how they are using our applications? Copy writing is another great example, how many times have we all read great swathes of weak bloated copy where a few simple paragraphs would do. How many tech companies can effectively explain what they do to their customers in less than three sentences? Probably not many. Design Thinking and Processes.


9. Participation

Everyone in your organization needs to get involved in Design Thinking, it should be an open and participatory process, not hidden away. A great example of this open approach is from the UK Government’s Digital Services department. Here is an extract from a recent post: If you visit the GDS offices one of the first things you will notice is that every spare bit of wall space is covered in drawings, sticky notes, index cards and diagrams. Instead of keeping our ideas, plans and work-in-progress buried in digital tools, documents, Gantt charts and emails, the teams here manage their workflow through their walls. We love our walls and they talk to us. As well as a place to hold the daily scrum, the walls bring transparency to what we do. They help us to manage and measure workflow, and enable us to spot the bottlenecks. A huge benefit of using the walls to track our work is that everyone in the office can see what other teams are working on. This encourages open dialogue. We really appreciate it when people from other teams look at our walls and talk to us about what they can see, especially if it overlaps with their own work. Design Thinking and Processes.


10. Risk

Design Thinking can be an exposing process for a business, it can strip away preconception and prejudice – expose blockages and vested interests for all to see. Some may prefer to stay in the dark, and your relentless child-like questioning may not be welcome in all quarters. It also requires management buy in, and in my experience many organizations will (whistling with fingers in ears) deliberately ignore certain insights that are turned up in the process. These insights are just a small glimpse into the world of design-orientated thinking. It’s an opportunity to shake out the cobwebs and tap into the true source of innovation in product and service development: a people centered world that is messy, free thinking, and where everyone is invited.