DMI Night Out Sydney – The Outer Boundaries of Design

September 13th, 2012 | eric

UNSW hosted the latest DMI Night Out and the topic “The outer boundaries of design” provided a robust dialogue between the speakers Steve Baty – Principal Meld Studios, Bob Nation – Design Director Barangaroo, myself, and an highly engaged audience.

The following is my presentation notes for the keynote.


Specialist –> Integrative

One could argue that somewhere in the 20th century we went from design thinking to design “thinging”.
Tim Brown at IDEO has written about the inherent design thinking of Isambard Brunel, the early 19th century engineer. Brunel famously build the railroad system in the UK and the overly ambitious steamship the Great Eastern. Brunel didn’t just focus on designing railroads and steamships. He concerned himself with designing the entire experience of getting customers from London’s Kings Cross to New York City. To Brunel, customers weren’t looking to be on a train or a boat, they were looking to get to a destination.

In contrast, 20th Century design was all about specialisation. In the process of becoming masters of the different areas of design, we seem to have swept design, as a way of bringing integrative thinking and skills to human problems, under the carpet.

We are now living with this legacy of design that has evolved into a world of masters of specific aspects of problem solving. Those who work on form. Those who work on function. Those who work on experience. We’ve lost a lot of the connections. Designers need to be more adaptive, because the design problems clients need to solve are changing every day, and the environment is becoming more complex. Communications are multichannel. Products and services blend. Branding is tied to digital strategy. Touchpoints and experiences cross real and virtual boundaries. Internal stakeholders are customers.

And so on.

‘Service design’ has promised to bring everything together once again. No longer do we only worry about the artefact, rather we consider and design to it’s context. We are moving away from celebrating the inspired genius and instead demanding cross-functional empathy with collaborative groups.

But, we are in danger of losing our clients in the shuffle. We’ve been busy training for a sprint, but the race is a triathlon. We’re not fully in the game, because we still promote narrow areas of expertise. We make it hard for our clients to find us and know what we can do for them.


Servant –> Master

We’ve been looking for our clients to guide our efforts. I think we’re past the stage where we can wait for permission to do great work.

So how can it be different?

There are a handful of design firms, such as Hyphen in the UK and BallyDesign in the US, that are creating their own products and IP to either sell to third-parties or bring to market themselves.

There’s the opportunity to grow and train designers within design firms and then embed design talent within organisations and even government agencies. Leveraging the hands-on training of the traditional design studio to accommodate the talent needs of organisations. Jump Associates in California does this with a few of their clients.

Design firms just can’t afford to be reactive only. They have to set the agenda and let their clients know what they can do. Go and ask a customer what they need. And you know why that’s a problem? They’ll tell you. And it will be wrong. The pontiac Aztec was a car designed by focus group. It’s exactly what was asked for. And it’s an abomination. It’s the designer’s role to discover the unmet needs of their customers and imagine an aspiration outcome the meets those needs.

Design firms have the same opportunity with their clients. Do we understand our clients unmet needs? Or are we waiting for them to come and tell and tell us what they “need”? If we can anticipate what would be truly valuable to our clients, we can create the aspirational future we know they can achieve. It’s hard to imagine beyond one’s own experience. We need to do that work for our customers and that includes clients. It’s easier to show than to tell. Design firms need to help their clients imagine what their future could be.


Solo –> Cooperative

So, where do design firms go from here?

While the end product of any design effort is important, involving your clients in the journey – as participants, experts, and decision makers, is now equally important. They want to be and should be part of what you do, but it’s a very different skill set to involve and utilise your client systematically and well.

I recently heard Jason Furnell, from ThoughtWorks, speak and he had a fantastic insight about the maturity path of designers. His point was, as designers become expert, to use his term, they often become the “hated design princess”. They become frustrated with their cohorts and clients who can’t understand their genius, sense of style, effort, and intent. Jason’s argument is that, as designers mature, they need to become facilitators of design thinking, using the same tools and methodologies of their craft to explore, understand, collaborate, and create.

Design firms are, perhaps, on a similar journey. Having mastery of skill is not enough to answer the complex problems the world is presenting and that people are demanding solutions to.

In my own world, my challenge is to integrate a design thinking approach across our organisation and there are plenty of design firms that would be keen to help me with this task. But the reality is, our organisation is in a poor position to understand, adopt, and integrate design methods. How many of us have participated in or promoted a ‘train the trainer’ approach to design integration? I’ve been on both sides of this and it never seems to stick. Why, because we have little to no real advocacy within organisations where it’s needed.

I chose to put myself at the coal face and advocate for design within financial services. If I’m ever going to make a difference in our corporate world, it will be because the value of design both internal and externally has been reframed. Organisations don’t need help in coming up with ideas, they are lousy with them. They need help in developing critical thinking. They need help in seeing empathy as the requisite for understanding. They need help in imagining a way to achieve these things that feels organic and attainable. They need to see design as something they do, not something they have to add on.

So, as a business person, what do I need?

I need partners that I can depend on to support the design journey I’m on.

I need skilled designers that rely on design thinking rather than a trademarked approach.

I need innovation in building the foundational skills necessary for our organisation, such as gaining empathy in both little and big ways; in being divergent in thought rather than jumping to solution; in testing ideas before implementing solutions.

I need to show how design answers the problems of the 21st Century better than the current approach to business administration.

Ultimately design has to sit at the table where decisions are being made, at the corporate level and even within government. Both design education and practice needs to move away from design as craft and more deeply explore design as problem solving.

If design is going to change the world, we have to reframe the conversation.

And at the moment it’s happening to us, not with us.

Big Ideas

September 5th, 2012 | eric

A large part of design thinking is in helping people and organisations develop big ideas. Or said another way, it’s helping people be innovative, or strategic, or we might even describe it as the process of being ‘creative’.

But, as I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself, it can be hard to come up with big ideas – especially sitting there at your desk whilst you do all your “thinking”. And because coming up with ideas is actually quite a challenge for most of us, we can begin to think that there are certain people who are better at it than others, or that it takes some kind of special skill or requires a huge level of effort to get results.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Everyone can come up with big ideas. Everyone can be innovative. It’s not rocket science. And it doesn’t even require highly specialised training, really.

So if it’s so easy, why aren’t we all tripping over all the big and innovative ideas that should be bubbling out of everyone’s head every day?

The short answer is that we aren’t developing innovative ideas because most of us aren’t putting ourselves into a position to be able to think big to begin with.

And that raises the question of what is an innovative idea in the first place?

I describe Innovative ideas as those that have a significant impact on what people find valuable. People fine value in things that provide enjoyment or entertainment, or create positive outcomes (wealth, health, stature). Value can be time saved or new opportunities enabled. There are lots of ways to create value across a lot of different situations.

In this case, the problem most organisation have is that they are looking almost exclusively at creating value that would, first and foremost, benefit themselves. That kind of value would be framed better as “the least amount of cost and effort for the highest amount of profit”. That’s a great goal to have, but as I’m sure most of us have seen, it’s close to impossible to reach. It’s terrifically difficult as it almost always becomes a process of removing cost and risk whilst maintaining or increasing profit. The last 30 years of business management has pretty much maximised the potential of that strategy.

So, if you are sitting at your desk or working on a project and looking for a big idea that will be easy for to attain and make your business a tonne of money, you’re going to be sitting there a long time. It’s the wrong basis for big and innovative ideas to be developed.

Instead, we need to think about what would be valuable for people, or groups, or companies outside of our own four walls. Why is this important? Because when we look to solve a problem for someone else, our ability to be objective and creative is at it’s highest. It’s why it’s often easier to get advice from someone else than it is to clearly see and solve our own problems. You’ve likely experience this yourself if you’ve ever confided in someone about a problem which they will only too happily tell you how to “fix”. It’s what we do when we want to help people we care about.

So our real challenge isn’t in coming up with big ideas. The real challenge is knowing enough about the people who will be impacted by our ideas in the first place. If you don’t know what people or other organisation find important or valuable, you will have a very hard time coming up with an idea that is in any way meaningful to them. If you don’t actually care, you can’t really help.

And who are these people that we care about? They’re our customers. And those customers are the people who could engage or buy our products and services. Those customers are the other people we work with that depend on our work product or participation to be effective. Those customers are the other companies we work with in partnership to benefit ourselves and our clients. Those customers are the communities impacted by our policies and infrastructure.

However, if we are to know anything important about our customers, those both internal and outside our organisation, we need to actually, you know, talk to them. You can’t ‘phone this in’. It takes getting off our chairs and going out into the world and really engaging with people. It’s knowing the issues, pressures, and environment of those who work in other parts of our company. It’s having empathy for what it’s like to be the person you are trying to help.

Once you have empathy for what it’s like to be in someone else’s situation, our natural ability to problem solve and come up with creative solutions kicks in and the big ideas start storming through. Your new problem will be how you can choose between all of the great potentials you’ll come up with.

Take the time to think about what would be important for your current and potential customers and ask yourself if you are really addressing what they would find valuable. Ask yourself if it’s valuable to you. I bet you’ll quickly be able to uncover some interesting new opportunities.

What’s In A Name?

August 28th, 2012 | eric

Design thinking.

It’s both an accurate descriptor and an unfortunately loaded term. And because of the broad use of the term design, it’s not a particularly helpful phrase when trying to explain an incredibly useful approach to problem solving. So why use it at all?

Because, as they say, “it does what it says on the tin”.

I like using the term design thinking, as it is about as accurate a description of how I believe we should approach the process of solving problems – wonderfully complex problems, at that.

But there’s a problem. Like it or not, for most people the term design evokes a meaning aligned only to the look or aesthetic of some thing, like clothes or furniture. Design is those things, but this narrow definition has led to a blurring as to what ‘design’ is really about.

If we pull design thinking apart, we can more easily see it’s meaning as a whole.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “design” as: [the] purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.

In it’s simplest terms, design is anticipating an outcome and having a plan on how to achieve it. That may sound complex, but we do this everyday with even the most mundane activities imaginable.

Ask yourself, how did you get to work today? Your method of transportation was most likely based on several factors, such as convenience, weather, and any activities you needed to complete on the way. You didn’t just appear at your desk – you anticipated a way to get there, accommodating a range of factors such as: will it rain?; is it rush hour?; do I need to pick up something along the way?; do I need a place to sit due to a weekend injury playing sport?

We are always, even subconsciously, anticipating outcomes. We are always designing. (Hey, that means we are all designers!).

The OED describes ‘thinking’ as: the process of considering or reasoning about something.

Thinking is consideration and reasoning. It’s what’s behind design as a process. It’s what transforms our ability to just anticipate an outcome into an ability to build a useful and significant outcome.

So, when we say design thinking, what we are really talking about is an approach to using critical reasoning to build really meaningful and important results. I think we’d all agree that is a great goal to aspire to.

Why is this important?

It’s important because if we don’t employ critical thinking in our work, even with the mundane stuff (especially the mundane stuff), we often end up doing things that ignore creating value for the people who use and purchase our products and services. We slowly start requiring our customers to accommodate us rather than using our scale and expertise to come up with creative and profitable ways to accommodate them. If you’ve ever had to deal with a utility company, you know what I’m talking about.

Critical thinking, or design thinking, challenges our assumptions and helps us focus on what is actually important. And what’s important always has to do with our customers (hey, without customers, we have absolutely no business, no revenue, and no purpose). If you no longer know how what you do day to day makes a customer’s world amazing and engaging, you should take a moment to step back and critically assess whether you are doing the right things.

So, ultimately, does it matter what we call ? Actually, no. But it is good to have a common language to describe shared meaning. And with the term ‘design thinking’, the meaning is pretty close to the surface.

Design Thinking: Bringing Everyone to the Table

May 6th, 2010 | angela

Design Thinking is a term many of us have been using loosely for years and reflects an integral part of design practice. The term has lately been gaining a lot of traction in business and management circles, and is more frequently appearing in books, articles and conferences. However, ‘design thinking’ has been taking a real battering lately, as people debate the term’s meaning and function, especially as it is promoted to new, non-design audiences.

Design Thinking

Some in the design community don’t see what the big deal is. They ask, what’s so new or special about the thing that we do intuitively and almost unconsciously as designers? Why is ‘design thinking’ being called out and artificially separated from the rest of our design activities?

Other designers are concerned with the implication of elevating and codifying a thought process. Once we make our definitions or our way of working too rigid and formulaic, aren’t we in danger of losing the plot? Or more fearfully, aren’t designers at risk of “giving away the store” if we share our methods and techniques with non-designers?

There’s a lot of angst and churn in the online boards where I’ve seen design thinking discussed (, Some in the business community also take issue, arguing that designers don’t have any special ownership over the kind of thinking process that leads to creative solutions and innovation. People outside of design have been doing this for decades. Surely there is not a type of thinking that is unique to one discipline or field?

‘Design thinking’ seems to have different interpretations in various forums and communities, but the moniker generally attempts to capture a mindset and attitude as much as any specific set of mental exercises or behaviours. That mindset is one of openness and curiosity, with the intention of learning and making new connections. It is also a mindset that embraces ambiguity and relishes the challenge of novel situations and subject matters. Design thinking is also strongly associated to the methodology of design process itself, particularly the front end of that process. It includes the way that we explore and situate problems and the people and perspectives we seek out as voices in the process.

In the past year there have been some important attempts to capture the value and nuances of design thinking by some of the big names in design and business. Roger Martin, for example, advocates for design thinking in his book The Design of Business. Martin has long been encouraging business people to become designers, and he sees design thinking as a critical capability for creating sustainable business value. Tim Brown also talks about design thinking in his book, Change By Design, and presents it as a systematic approach to innovation. Add to this countless articles in HBR, Business Week, the Design Management Journal, and the New York Times, to name a few.

All this has been helping to generate quite a buzz around the topic of design thinking. But design thinking isn’t really all that new. What’s new is that the business world is sitting up and paying attention. Peter Senge talked about something akin to design thinking with his systems thinking approach and the concept of the learning organisation in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, so what we would characterise as ‘design thinking’ is really not a new concept for business people. And of course, Herb Simon re-framed design as the central activity for management in Sciences of the Artificial in 1969. Design thinking’s been around for a while, but it seems that the moment has come for people to begin to see relevance in design thinking for problems that sit outside the normal domain of designers: management, organisations, government.

As for the hype, design thinking has come heavily into relevance because there is more and more attention being paid to the way that design approaches can bring about successful outcomes in a range of situations that wouldn’t be considered the traditional realm of design. Design consultancies are moving into the realm of business and organizational problems, and many management consultants and educators are adopting design methods.

For me, the importance of ‘design thinking’ has less to do with the particulars of what it is. It has more to do with the particulars of what it does. One of its most important features is that design thinking allows groups of people (design teams, organisations) to think together.

We shouldn’t see design thinking as a thought bubble that appears over a designer’s head, or even a dozen thought bubbles that appear over a dozen designers’ heads. Design thinking is the one big thought bubble that appears over all the heads, because it represents a shared generative process of exploration and conceptualisation. Design thinking is a cultural activity. Its meaning and value are situated in the social experience of designing.

Not Design Thinking

When we try to start problem-solving as a group, either as a design team in a studio developing new products, or as a project team in a large corporation working on value creation opportunities in a new customer segment, or as a group of experts working with government policy, we quickly run into problems when we all utilise our own instinctive problem solving processes independently. Design thinking is a way of establishing a shared language and practice and a way of forging new behaviours.

Many argue that “thinking” cannot or should not be separated from design “doing”, but in doing so, we are attempting to isolate an important but often obscured aspect of design activity. The thinking component encapsulates things like establishing purpose, intent, and strategy—things that precede the practical components of design but are nonetheless big factors in the ultimate success of any designed solution. In an organisational context, these things carry even greater weight for the number of stakeholders and the level of authority required for input. Before we even get to the point of sketching potential concepts, there is a body of divergent mental work that we have to do to ensure that we grasp the totality of the problem, and in fact, that we even grasp the right problem.

I would argue that what really makes design thinking useful and powerful is that design thinking is what allows groups of people to make something together. Designers are truly some of the best collaborators out there, and design thinking is a big part of why, or how, collaboration works.

So all the hype—I’m glad to see it. I hope it helps to expand the number of people who see design as something relevant to themselves and their world. Designers need to relax and stop worrying about sharing their trade secrets or opening up their practice space to non-designers. There’s definitely enough problems in the world to keep us all busy as design thinkers.

Walling Off Innovation “Cities”?

April 12th, 2010 | eric

There was an interesting article in the New York Times last Friday, Innovation, by Order of the Kremlin, which discusses Russia’s latest attempts at designing an environment of innovation to compete against the likes of Silicon Valley (and their copy cat cities around the world). What’s remarkable about the story is that the protagonists (in this case Russian expats from Silicon Valley VC groups and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation, amongst others) are working to create, not a walled-off city of scientist a la Cold War Soviet Union, but a bureaucracy-free zone un-mired by the unaccountable and varied enforcement of tax laws. Just outside Moscow now sits the promise of a city dedicated to developing new ideas to wean Russia off of its economic dependance on oil.

Russia’s new venture is great for a number of reasons – not the least of which is a move towards helping Russia avoid the massive intellectual capital brain-drain it has endured for the last twenty years. But the more subtle implication is the object lesson it provides for most large organisations. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare most business cultures to the stereotypical red tape and institutional/policy barriers created by many governments. The implication from the NYT article is that, like Russia, to actually create an innovative environment an organisation needs to protect itself from the machinery that makes most organisations tick along so steadily. Easier said than done. But one might argue, if Russia can do it, so can Citibank or British Airways, amongst others.

Perhaps the argument for businesses creating “walled cities” of innovation is short-sighted. The real question isn’t whether or not organisations should create external innovative cultures, it’s knowing how to incubate a culture so that it produces the desired outcomes for growth. I’ve often spoken about the dynamic whereby most businesses enlist two general types of workers: Maintainers and Innovators. These are descriptive of two important approaches to work product (neither of which diminishes the other’s value to an organisation). In this case, Maintainers are skilled at taking a known processes and honing it to a sublime result (think specialists who master an important function and continue to provide incremental improvements over time). This has been the purview of MBA programmes and the model that most businesses aspire and adapt to.

The other approach to work product is the Innovator. In this case, it’s not about incremental improvement, rather it is about wholesale change. Innovators are looking to delve into areas where there is little expertise or specialised knowledge. The goal is to explore the potential of new methods of growth or engagement, typically way outside of the competence and comfort level of the organisation they work within. You can see where having both Maintainers and Innovators within the same organisation would be desirable, but it can also be problematic. Challenging the status quo in many companies can be an exercise in futility, and equally problematic is trying to institute structure and process onto “creative” groups. If this our fate, how can any organisation hope to be both “efficient” and “innovative”?

One of the most common solutions a business might be tempted to take to integrate innovation into their organisation is to create a skunkworks, just as Russia is doing. For those not familiar with the term, Skunk Works was the name of a group at Lockheed Martin that was given a very high degree of autonomy and was unhampered by corporate bureaucracy while they worked on secret projects. In this model, one wouldn’t bother trying to change the existing machine (or the Maintainers in my previous example), instead one would give carte blanche to a smaller and more nimble team to explore and invent without encumbrances. The challenge with this method of innovation is that the results of your skunkworks needs to be incorporated back into the culture where it couldn’t flourish to begin with. While a skunkworks is fantastic as a method for creating new businesses that develop on their own, this method is less useful for creating ideas that can be adopted by an existing organisation. Perhaps Russia’s foray into protected innovation cities isn’t the panacea for business it appears to be at first blush.

To have an integrated impact on an organisation, innovation has to be a function of the business process itself. In my example above, we rely on Maintainers to promote and improve the products, processes, and services necessary for the efficient and predictable running of a business. We have also been asking these same Maintainers to envision, develop, and implement new and disruptive technologies and platforms. It has been clear for at least the last decade that Maintainers are ill prepared for that task. Unfortunately, most organisations who are trying to build a culture of innovation do this by attempting to train Maintainers into being equally successful Innovators. I think this is at the root of the problem. In a general sense, Maintainers are not Innovators, nor is the opposite true.

To fundamentally improve an organisation’s approach to innovation, companies need to build on the inherent skills and talents of their business cultures (which, traditionally, are also inherently non-innovative) by focusing on what both Maintainers and Innovators do well. The real challenge isn’t in trying to develop Maintainers into Innovators, but rather creating a culture that allows Innovators to find success, accolades, and promotion within structures that historically don’t reward such outlier behaviour. Unfortunately, companies typically try to either make the same people play both Maintainer and Innovator roles, or Innovators are sequestered within a skunkworks where they can’t remain vital to the organisation.

It is common for companies, especially ones that are struggling to maintain a competitive position, to look towards outside agencies to help them develop an innovative approach to their business. These agencies typically specialise in strategy, change management, or service design and promise to help develop methods for growth whilst also imparting a process that the company can adopt to implement innovation on their own. My own experience is that those projects go fairly well as long as there is agency involvement, but flounder after completion and no actual change takes hold. This is to be expected, as there are few, if any, innovation advocates within organisations who are empowered to take the ball and run once the agency’s work is completed.

When organisations create incentives for Innovators to flourish within their culture, they create advocates for sustaining innovation. By having internal advocates manage the process of change, Maintainers are free to help integrate new approaches to business and implement the necessary processes and procedures to ensure a robust platform. Basically, Maintainers enlist the expertise of Innovators to implement innovation. Innovators work to challenge, envision, and prototype new approaches to business without having to be “graded” on their ability to function simultaneously as Maintainers.

The call-out to business is that, if they want to create compelling and competitive platforms, they need to enlist the support of Innovators as part of the business culture. This means creating incentives and rewards for promoting innovative behaviour that is separate to what makes a successful Maintainer. The challenge is that traditional metrics and key deliverables are poor indications of successful innovation. The design problem becomes much more focused when it’s not about integrating an innovation culture, but rather defining how to encourage and reward Innovation management and work product. For an organisation that has not yet integrated Innovators into their culture, perhaps the best use of an outside consultancy is to help answer that question.

Just as Russia has suffered a brain drain to the Bay Area, businesses have lost the other half of their talent to Innovators who have no place to flourish in a traditional organisation. Instead, these Innovators often end up working for outside agencies, freelancing, or find themselves under-appreciated and move from company to company, taking their own expertise, knowledge and potential with them. The answer isn’t creating “walled cities of innovation” within companies through skunkworks, outside design firms, or buying one’s innovative competitors. The answer lies in leveraging the inherent skills in two types of staff, Maintainers and Innovators, and incentivising each to be measured for the type of success they promote.

Some Highlights from the DMI Re-Thinking Design Conference

June 28th, 2009 | angela

Here are some synopses from the sessions I most enjoyed.

Re-Thinking and Re-Designing Business Strategy
It’s probably my own particular bias that I thought that the panel with Jeanne Liedtka and Tony Golsby-Smith, moderated by Roger Martin, was the highlight of the conference. But the session really stood out for me as one of the most spirited and serious conversations of the two days. All three of them put forth a thesis and then used the conversation to back up their claims. While Tony, Roger and Jeanne were pretty much on the same page about the centrality of design thinking to strategy, each of them had a unique perspective on why that is, and how design can begin to play a stronger role in the strategy space.

Jeanne Liedtka: “Strategy is the most important thing a leader can be doing.” “But if you’re not trying to make tomorrow better than today, why bother doing strategy?” Jeanne talked about her frustration with business managers who are not looking at strategy as an opportunity to invent the future of their organizations. The problem is that the customary strategic processes involve spreadsheets and numeric projections and organizational culture is programmed to seek out certainty over possibility; visionary leadership must step outside that mindset to look for opportunity.

In her research, Jeanne has observed that there are innovative managers out there who grow their businesses despite their organizations’ tendency to crush creative thinking. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit of design that links it so strongly to strategy. Designers excel at finding ways to create new value. But, Jeanne also cautioned us that invention and value creation is not end game. She noted that value itself is an inconsistent principle, because value creation and value capture are two distinct components, and successful innovation requires both. It is not enough simply to create value; we must also invent the business models that allow us to capture that value.

Tony Golsby-Smith: Strategy is about thinking and conversation; not timetables and templates. In the business world, strategy is routinely suffocated under the budgetary process, and organizations fail to create space for vision. The thinking process is shrouded in analytics, yet we’ve never moved an inch into the future by analyzing. Tony then explained of Aristotle’s two roads of thought, Analytics (which dominates Western thinking, and propels management science) and Rhetoric/Dialectic (which is the domain of design and leadership and is the art to analytics’ science). The second road (Rhetoric/Dialectic) introduces values, where the first road is objective. Therefore the second road is better equipped to respond to human problems and gives us a toolkit for creating visions for the future.

Roger Martin: In 1959 the Ford Foundation said that business schools were not analytic enough, and we’ve been glorifying the hegemony of analytics ever since.

Jeanne Liedtka: Jeanne expressed skepticism about large organizations enthusiastically undertaking innovation, noting that, “innovation will continue to be a subversive activity.” Roger Martin responded that, “the subversive activity is to turn the future into the past.” (This prompted me to think that this would be a very interesting essay for the two of them to write.)

Jeanne called up the fixed mindset and learning mindset models researched by Carol Dweck at Stanford. Business thinking is predominated by the fixed mindset, people who are often driven by a fear of failure and of looking stupid. Innovators and design thinkers are more likely to be of the learning mindset, people characterized by actively seeking broad repertoires of experience and who are willing to take risks.

However, Jeanne suggested that these two mindsets can be brought together in the context of the organization through design. The hypothesis generation and testing that is inherent to design approaches is very effective for reducing corporate fear. And the way to succeed, to innovate, is to experiment in the marketplace.

Tony Golsby-Smith: Tony proposed the notion of the dialectic organization, one that is both analytical and rhetorical, capable of using both of Aristotle’s roads of thinking. While analytical thinking is an undeniably critical part of managing an organization well, leadership, decision-making, and innovation are inherently 2nd road activities. (Tony warned us not to make innovation alone the holy grail.)

Roger Martin: Roger added that everyone in the organization should be involved in making choices and determining the future, and therefore rhetorical thinking should not be limited to the province of leaders only.
Read the rest of this entry »

Thoughts on the Design Management Institute’s 2009 Conference “Re-Thinking Design”

June 26th, 2009 | angela

Last week I attended the Design Management Institute’s 2009 Design/Management/Brand Conference, titled “Re-Thinking Design”. It was my first DMI conference, and I was initially attracted by the “strategic conversations” focus of the conference, being organized by Roger Martin of the Rotman School at U. Toronto and Darrel Rhea of Cheskin Added Value. Adding to the attraction was a panel that would feature Jeanne Liedtka, a strategy professor at U. VA’s Darden School of Business, and Tony Golsby-Smith, my former boss at 2nd Road in Sydney.

All these people have been really crucial to the evolution of my thinking and practice of design over that past 5 years or so, so even though I’m not usually much of a conference maven, I realized that it might be pretty fun to be where these people were gathering in the same room.

The organizers chose a different format from the typical parade of slideshows. Instead, the speakers were invited to participate in panel discussions (only two speakers gave slide presentations). DMI President Tom Lockwood described it as “thoughtful conversations with thoughtful people—a process of rethinking design live”. Overall, this format gave a pleasant informality to the proceedings, but I have to admit that at times it had a bit less structure and depth than I might have liked.

I totally agree that no one likes to sit through hours of narrated slide presentations that usually amount to the latest version of a presentation that the speaker is using to promote their business or book. But I do like conferences that force their speakers to put themselves out there a bit, with a bold argument or a new concept. We did get some of this, as Robert Brunner of Ammunition LLC put forward a new business model for design, which involves doing away with clients. Or rather, becoming your own client. Also, Tony Golsby-Smith invited all of us to take thinking more seriously and promoted language as the skillset designers need to master if they want to be able to influence the big problems.

There was a strong representation from the business world as well as design leaders, but many of the attendees were designers who worked in large corporations. I would have liked to see some stronger representation from some of the design schools, too. On the whole, the range of topics was varied, and spoke to the different types of audience members—designers, managers, leaders, and consultants. I wear many of those hats, and I knew it would be a lot of “preaching to the choir” for me. I guess my biggest criticism was that I didn’t feel like the conference challenged my thinking significantly. But it does seem like professional conferences like this are more about finding common ground and sharing experiences in a convivial environment.

The running commentary by the moderators was what really held the sessions together and I appreciated their efforts to reflect on the proceedings as we went along.

On the first day of the conference, Roger Martin noted how enthusiastically business was beginning to embrace design. Darryl Rhea later suggested that the reverse was not necessarily true of design; that designers were generally too cowed by business matters; that design is afraid that it doesn’t know enough about the world of MBAs to make an impact and lets that fear of the unknown keep us out of the conversation. Designers always talk a lot about wanting to have a seat at the table. But I think Rhea’s point is that we don’t get to that table by sitting back and waiting to be asked. (Jeanne Liedtka noted, conversely, that the “table” is overrated, and that a lot of the truly important stuff happens out in the organization.) Several speakers over both days echoed the claim that we have a responsibility to learn the language of business, the language of our clients, of those we are collaborating with.

Rhea noted on Day 2 that one of the conference attendees had asked him “Why is it that the CEO from the accounting products company was more persuasive, more passionate about design—more articulate about design—than the heads of IDEO, Ziba and Adaptive Path?” I agree with that observation. I’m not sure why that was. Perhaps designers feel that they are going into alien territory when it comes to strategy, and so they adopt an unconsciously defensive or wary stance, rather than one of confidence and optimism. In any case, many of the design voices I heard over the two days were both cautious and cynical about design’s opportunity space in the business strategy world. But then, perhaps we designers don’t have the best perspective on design, because we don’t always have the opportunity to pull back and look at the impact and potential of our work from an organizational or societal perspective. We only see ourselves at ground level, where we are making and doing, and we may feel compelled to microscope, rather than telescope, the context of our work.

More thoughts on the conference can be read on the post “Some Highlights from the DMI Re-Thinking Design Conference”.

Design in the White City

August 24th, 2008 | angela

I’ve just finished reading the best-selling historical novel Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, about the development of the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. I picked it up out of interest in knowing more about Chicago history, and the book does a really outstanding job of bringing the physical reality of the city to life, giving great detail about how Chicago would have been experienced in the 1880′s and 1890′s. The book helped me to visualize what life must have been like for my great grandfather, who immigrated at that time and grew up on the South Side along with hundreds of thousands of other immigrants who were flocking to Chicago’s booming industries.

But the book is also an excellent rumination on the power of Design. Chicago won the world’s fair in 1890 (beating out NYC, Washington DC and St. Louis), just three years before the fair was set to open. Once Chicago was chosen as a venue, a local citizens’ committee of 250 prominent men was created to help steer and promote the fair, and the city formed a corporation with a 45-member Board to finance and build the fair.

The Board appointed a local architect named Daniel Burnham to lead the project. In essence he would become the principal and lead designer (as well as project manager). As you would expect, local politics immediately began to enter the equation as the groups became embroiled in arguments about exactly where in Chicago the fair should happen. By the time Burnham got the go-ahead to begin planning the chosen site, there was less than 2 years left to go about building a world’s fair from scratch. Sound like any design projects you’ve ever worked on?

Too much was at stake in Burnham’s career for him to decline the challenge, though I suspect many of us would have given up in the face of such a seemingly insurmountable task. Ambitiously, Burnham solicited a team of some of the top US architects of the day, a group of East Coasters who were quite dubious about helping podunk Chicago put together a world class project. He assembled his reluctant lean design team, eventually winning them over using the pivotal support of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed Central Park and many other significant public commissions.

The entire team was, frankly, freaked out by the seeming impossibility of the deadline before them, an absurdly short span of time in which to design, engineer and build a fair expected to host 27 million people over its 6 month lifespan and out-do the French, who had put on a smashing world fair in 1889 with the show-stealing Eiffel Tower as it’s coup de grâce.

The team rallied and put together a plan for 6 majestic main buildings and an overall landscape, which would be further populated by another 200 or so smaller buildings covering a square mile. But the designs came in behind schedule, pushing construction perilously close to the deadline. And throughout the project, Burnham and his team continued to face many barriers and slowdowns caused by the myriad of committees and stakeholders representing local, national and international interests. In the end, the fair went up, and had considerable success, but not without many cracks behind the veneer and a tremendous risk of outright failure. (The Ferris Wheel, the fair’s crowning glory and answer to Paris’ Eiffel, was not completed until 2 months after the fair opened.)

I provide this outline in order to illustrate an important and integral aspect of design work that is so commonly overlooked. Read the rest of this entry »

The Fallacy of Novelty

August 9th, 2008 | eric

Recently I was having a discussion with Angela about how design sometimes misses the mark when it comes to supplying elegant solutions to complex problems. Too often designers come up with overly elaborate or contrived solutions to issues that could stand to use a more mundane and commonplace approach (either for purposes of simplicity, cost, or implementation). Users have seen countless examples of poor interface design that was subordinate to flashy graphics and artistic intros. Or information design that was more about sticking to a clever metaphor than getting the point across. Every industry has its examples.

Unique for the sake of uniqueness is even more typical in design schools. As is often the case, you have many capable and creative students working towards a common design problem—perhaps even the same one that a series of previous semesters’ students tackled as well. How is it possible to stand out in a crowd when most approaches to the problem have been touched on, if not delved into to a ridiculous degree? The honest answer is, you can’t. But what is lost in the pursuit of one-upping the competition so to speak, is the lesson that being novel isn’t necessarily a goal in good design. I’m not advocating that designers not attempt to build remarkable and unusual solutions to design problems, because they often will be required to. However, the imperative for new approaches should be driven by research into the needs of the users, and not merely an abstract sense of differentiation. It just may be that the solution that will most address the design problem will not be one that breaks convention and will more likely build on typical or past solutions. Any designer worth their salt will explore the potential of all avenues, including both conservative and innovative approaches.

But designers are encouraged and praised by their peers and professors for originality—sometimes over and above the fit for purpose. And that is a shame. Often times the most elegant solution will be the simplest and easiest to implement. It won’t require a new model or experience map for the user. New technologies won’t need to be created and organisational structures can remain relatively untouched. But those kinds of solutions are un-sexy and seem to show a complete lack of the “creative” skills designers are known for and so proud of. And it isn’t just in school that designers are encouraged to put avant-garde ideas ahead of practical ones. Design firms, design publications, and other designers often admire and praise those who are breaking ground (or “shifting paradigms”) over those who are simply getting things done. To be sure, this isn’t a rampant problem in the real world, but it is enough of an issue that the design industry should be more self policing.

As an example of our lack of enthusiasm for relevant design, we celebrate the Ferrari but have disdain for the Corolla (which, with over 35 million cars manufactured to date, is the best selling car of all time). Of course there is a place for high end sports cars, and Ferrari’s are wonderful examples of form vs. function. But the Corolla was just as effective a design solution, and had a positive effect on an exponentially greater group of people. Why celebrate the design of the Enzo as a higher form of achievement? Because it is sexy and sexy design is rewarding to the aesthetic sensibility and our egos. That’s a really poor aspiration to be encouraging in designers, in my opinion. If you are designing a million dollar sports car, you can play all you want. If you are designing the next “peoples car” you have to consider the cost of manufacturing, economy of materials, localization, usability across a range of needs, longevity, sustainability, ease of repair, customization, and a host of other issue that likely will not be focused on “make it fast and make it pretty”.

But it would be duplicitous of me to put the blame for this only on peer pressure and design school dynamics. Most businesses are not set up to let designers participate in the complete life of a product or service they develop. This is usually seen as an efficiency of skills within an organization (designers design and operations manage). The reality is that it doesn’t allow for the needed experience on seeing what works and what fails. This kind of experience is what builds the judgments necessary for understanding the best solution; novel or otherwise. Perhaps part of the problem is that while designers are correctly taught to take a design past its current limits, most design students are not taught how to elegantly bring the design back to conform with the constraints imposed. In school, students are allowed and even encouraged to leave their solutions “out there”. Or they are taught that it’s OK to sacrifice one or more criteria, so that you begin moving away from a complete solution in favor of a novel one.

Students typically don’t get to see the effect of their ideas in the real world and are not challenged to anticipate them either. As a design manager I’ve seen plenty of portfolios from outstanding graduates who are oblivious to the limits of their work. Why wouldn’t they be? Who has taken the time to challenge them? The better designers quickly begin to understand how to work in the real world, but it is difficult to break the new graduate’s habit of designing to their own sense of “cool” rather than focusing more on the best solution. And that’s assuming their boss, manager, mentor is helping them make that transition. Of course on the flip side, in a business setting, simple and elegant solutions often look deceptively easy to reach, which makes it hard for designers to command value for what they do. A complicated solution is perhaps more likely to be respected as an extension of rarified knowledge, whereas a simple solution might be merely regarded as the product of common sense that anyone could have produced.

Final thoughts:

I’d like to reemphasize that I am not advocating that designers avoid pushing boundaries, conventions, or the status quo. In fact, the opposite is true. The best advances in technology, products, and services have come from truly original thinking. The important lesson that has been inadvertently lost in this process of creating great ideas is the need to make appropriate judgments and not strive for original and unique just for the sake of novelty. When designers play and explore as extensively as they can, it only helps to build their repertoire of solutions to a problem. Great judgment allows them the ability to focus on the idea(s) that are best suited to the problem—even if those ideas seem unexciting. The strong designer knows when to leave the wondrous stuff on the drafting table and when to pursue it with vigor.

We do ourselves a great disservice by not catching our own hubris early in the process and verify that we’ve not made something more complex or unusable than we could have just to be novel. To continue broadening the scope of design into other areas such as business management, social services, and service design, the desire to be unique needs to be tempered with the drive to be relevant.

Photo credit: Design and Punishment, by Ben Cunningham, from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth’s 2007 Three Dimensional Design graduate directory.

Morning becomes electric (cars, that is)

July 25th, 2008 | eric

BMW’s new electric MINI

The rising cost of gas for automobiles has kicked-started the development of electric and hybrid cars out of the realm of niche and into mainstream, albeit early adopter mainstream. BMW just announced a new electric version of their MINI and Tesla Motors has just released their high-end electric sports car. While this is certainly good for helping to move energy consumption away from specifically using fossil fuels (electric cars can get their power from wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, or other non-crude based supplies), there is another opportunity that waits in the wings:

The return of the boutique coachbuilder.

Over the last century, the breadth of coachbuilders designing the bodies for the chassis of other car manufacturers has waned to the point of being rather exotic. To be sure, companies such as Ghia and Pininfarina still do their thing, but we don’t see novel designs like the Karmann Ghias anymore. The advent of unibody construction has made custom coachbuilding practically impossible¹.

With the advent of electric motors and drive systems comes the potential for car manufacturers to go back to the days when a chassis was sold as-is. Coachworks would then build their own unique body on top of a standard base. Will the simplified electric car allow a new industry of coach manufactures and body shops cater to smaller groups of car buyers? I hope so.

Currently, Tesla Motors is beginning to sell their new electric sports car that will be sure to turn heads. And why shouldn’t it? The body is based off of a Lotus Elise, after Lotus won the design contest for the bodywork. This is a prime example of one company focusing on the motor (a complex and challenging design problem in an of itself) and another focusing on the more visual and tangible experience.

As we speak, both Ford and GM and struggling for relevance in a world that passed them by three decades ago. Is this their opportunity to turn their manufacturing ability into creating inexpensive and easily produced and maintained chassis? Dealerships could potentially partner with as many coachbuilders that they wanted to offer customers actual choice in the vehicle they drove.

I hope that the change to focus on electric motor vehicles is also an opportunity for a move back to more players in the actual design and production of auto styling. The competition and diversity would promote an amazing influx of creativity in an industry that has become, frankly, quite pedestrian. And focusing on creating chassis would allow Ford, GM, and their ilk a graceful way to move on from an industry that they helped devolve into so much cruft to one where their engineering expertise can push electric chassis development with more efficient and cost effective technologies.

¹ Wikipedia, Coachbuilders
Photo: BMW MINI,