Change by Design

Tim Brown
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A strong introduction to design thinking. Brown argues that everyone can and should be a design thinker in whatever they do.

Getting Under Your Skin, or How Design Thinking is About More Than Style

Three Spaces of Innovation

  • Inspiration — the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions
  • Ideation — the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas
  • Implementation — the path that leads from the project room to the market.


Without constraints design cannot happen, and the best design is often carried out within quite severe constraints.

The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important.

Constraints can best be visualised in terms of three overlapping criteria for successful ideas:

  • Feasibility — what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future
  • Viability — what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model
  • Desirability — what makes sense to people and for people

Smart Teams

“All of us are smarter than any of us,” — this is the key to unlocking the creative power of any organisation.

Design thinkers cross the “T.” (see T-shaped skills). They may be architects who have studied psychology, artists with MBAs, or engineers with marketing experience.

A creative organisation is constantly on the lookout for people with the capacity and the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.

Converting Need into Demand, or Putting People First

The job of the designer is “converting need into demand.” — Peter Drucker

The problem: people are so ingenious at adapting to inconvenient situations that they are often not even aware that they are doing so.

Henry Ford understood this when he remarked, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse.’”

Three mutually reinforcing elements of any successful design program: Insight, observation, and empathy.


Learning from the lives of others

Go out and observe the actual experiences of commuters, skateboarders, and registered nurses as they improvise their way through their daily lives.

Rarely will the everyday people who are the consumers of our products, the customers for our services tell us what to do. Their actual behaviours, however, can provide us with invaluable clues about their range of unmet needs.


Watch what people do (and do not do) and listen to what they say (and do not say).

Be weary of confirmation bias (see Fallacy Of Confirmation, Antifragile)


Standing in the shoes (or lying on the gurneys) of others

The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.

We build these bridges of insight through empathy, the effort to see the world through the eyes of others, understand the world through their experiences, and feel the world through their emotions.

Latent needs — needs that may be acute but that people may not be able to articulate.

Emotional understanding becomes essential here. What do the people in your target population feel? What touches them?

A Mental Matrix, or “These People Have No Process!”

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking — a practical way of deciding among existing alternatives. Not so good at: probing the future and creating new possibilities.

Divergent thinking — if the convergent phase of problem solving is what drives us toward solutions, the objective of divergent thinking is to multiply options to create choices.

“To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas" — Linus Pauling

Synthesis — the act of extracting meaningful patterns from masses of raw information, is a fundamentally creative act

An Attitude of Experimentation

A creative team must be given the time, the space, and the budget to make mistakes.

What is called for is a judicious blend of bottom-up experimentation and guidance from above. The rules for this approach are as simple to state as they are challenging to apply:

  1. Whole organisational ecosystem must have room to experiment.
  2. Those most exposed to changing externalities (new technology, shifting consumer base, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones best placed to respond and most motivated to do so.
  3. Ideas should not be favoured based on who creates them

On the importance of deadlines — it takes judgment to determine when a team will reach a point where management input, reflection, redirection, and selection are most likely to be valuable.

Building to Think, or The Power of Prototyping

Since openness to experimentation is the lifeblood of any creative organisation, is the best prototyping is the best evidence of experimentation.

Prototyping — the willingness to go ahead and try something by building it

Early prototypes should be fast, rough, and cheap.

The goal of prototyping is not to create a working model. It is to give form to an idea to learn about its strengths and weaknesses and to identify new directions for the next generation of more detailed, more refined prototypes.

The same rules apply when the challenge is a service, a virtual experience, or even an organisational system.

These include scenarios, a form of storytelling in which some potential future situation or state is described using words and pictures.

A simple scenario structure useful in the development of new services is the “customer journey.” (see Customer Journey Map, Creative Confidence).

As the project moves forward, the number of prototypes will go down while the resolution of each one goes up, but the purpose remains the same: to help refine an idea and improve it.

Returning to the Surface, or The Design of Experiences

When we sit on an airplane, shop for groceries, or check into a hotel, we are not only carrying out a function but having an experience.

The psychodynamics of affluence —  Daniel Pink argues that once our basic needs are met—as they already have been for most people in the West—we tend to look for meaningful and emotionally satisfying experiences.

The Experience Economy — People shift from passive consumption to active participation. (See The Experience Economy, Pine and Gilmore)

The hierarchy of value they describe in their influential book corresponds to a fundamental shift in how we experience the world, from the primarily functional to the primarily emotional.

Lawrence Lessig has shown how we moved from a preindustrial world (mostly producers) to an industrial (mostly consumers of mass-produced media).

Lessig uses the example of music to show how we are moving back to active participation in our experiences from the passive consumption of the late twentieth century.

The intrinsically human-centered nature of design thinking points to the next step: we can use our empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.

Unlike a manufactured product or a standardised service, an experience comes to life when it feels personalised and customised.

Most often it comes from the ability of experience providers to add something special or appropriate at just the right moment.

Spreading the Message, or The Importance of Storytelling

Mostly we rely on stories to put our ideas into context and give them meaning. (See Narrative Fallacy)

Storyboards, improvisation, and scenarios are among the many narrative techniques that help us visualise an idea as it unfolds over time.

At the heart of any good story is a central narrative about the way an idea satisfies a need in some powerful way.

As it unfolds, the story will give every character represented in it a sense of purpose and will unfold in a way that involves every participant in the action.

Meme — a self-propagating idea that changes behavior, perceptions, or attitudes.

In today’s noisy business environment, where top-down authority has become suspect and centralised administration is no longer sufficient, a transformative idea needs to diffuse on its own. If your employees or customers don’t understand where you are going, they will not be able to help you get there.

The Paradox of Choice. — most people don’t want more options; they just want what they want.

Optimisers — people paralysed by the fear that if they only waited a little while longer or searched a little harder, they could find what they think they want at the best possible price.

Storytelling needs to be in the tool kit of the design thinker—in the sense not of a tidy beginning, middle, and end but of an ongoing, open-ended narrative that engages people and encourages them to carry it forward and write their own conclusions.

Design Thinking Meets the Corporation, or Teaching to Fish

Large companies are better positioned to look for breakthroughs from within their existing markets, where technical virtuosity provides no assurance of success.

By mapping innovation efforts along a vertical axis representing existing to new offerings and a horizontal axis representing existing to new users, companies can get a good picture of the balance of their innovation efforts.

In addition to incremental projects that secure a company’s base, it is vital to pursue evolutionary projects that stretch that base in new directions. This more venturesome goal can be reached either by extending existing offerings to solve the unmet needs of current customers or adapting them to meet the needs of new customers or markets.

And though it may be tempting to focus on incremental projects in which business forecasts are easy to make, this shortsighted approach leaves companies vulnerable to the unforeseeable events of the type that Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed the “Black Swan.”. (see Black Swan Theory)

The paired challenges facing most companies today:

  • How to incorporate designers’ creative problem-solving skills into their larger strategic initiative
  • How to engage a far greater percentage of their workforce in design thinking itself.

The New Social Contract, or We’re All in This Together

If a company does a better job of understanding its customers, it will do a better job of satisfying their needs.

Past innovation is no guarantee of future performance.

The guiding principle for any large-scale systemwide project is to ensure that the objectives of different participants are aligned.

Every interaction in a product/service experience is a small opportunity to make that exchange more valuable to and meaningful for all participants.

The widespread shift, even among traditional manufacturing companies, from a “product” orientation to a “service” orientation is key to scaling up the tools of the design thinker to grapple with complex systems on the order of airport security.

Design Activism

The most compelling insights often come from looking outward, to the edges of the market. The objective is not so much to design for these marginal, outlying populations as to gain inspiration from their passion, their knowledge, or simply the extremity of their circumstances.

Though it is praiseworthy to contribute our talents to the eradication of preventable disease, disaster relief, and rural education, too often our instinct has been to think of these interventions as social acts that are different from and superior to the practical concerns of business. They aren't.

IDEO has a shared interest in using design thinking to balance business goals with philanthropic objectives — led to an ongoing partnership with Acumen Fund.

The initiatives examined here, however, do not call for highly trained specialists to interrupt their careers but for them to redirect them in ways that serve those in extreme need.

Designing Tomorrow—Today

Design thinkers observe how people behave, how the context of their experience affects their reaction to products and services.

Asking the right kinds of questions often determines the success of a new product or service

  • Does it meet the needs of its target population?
  • Does it create meaning as well as value?
  • Does it inspire a new behavior that will be forever associated with it?
  • Does it create a tipping point?

Extreme users are often the key to inspirational insights. These are the specialists, the aficionados, and the outright fanatics who experience the world in unexpected ways. They force us to project our thinking to the edges of our existing customer base and expose issues that would otherwise be disguised.

Use digital tools to document your project outcomes in a way that deepens the knowledge base of your organisation and allows individuals to learn from it and to grow.

“Innovation begins with an Eye,” but I’d like to take this one step further. Good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary.

If you haven’t explored lots of options, you haven’t diverged enough. Your ideas are likely to be incremental or easy to copy.

Remember to document the process as it unfolds.

Above all, think of life as a prototype. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, and change our perspectives. We can look for opportunities to turn processes into projects that have tangible outcomes.

Today we have an opportunity to take their example and unleash the power of design thinking as a means of exploring new possibilities, creating new choices, and bringing new solutions to the world. In the process we may find that we have made our societies healthier, our businesses more profitable, and our own lives richer, more impactful, and more meaningful.