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Thinking like a designer

Design Thinking Design Innovation

Solving problems and creating innovation are desires shared by EPUs, start-ups and companies with hundreds of employees in any sector. But how? That's the question that "Design Thinking" tries to answer in a holistic way.

Design Thinking? Never heard of it? Probably not quite true. Even if the term initially brings up only question marks, all of us will have had something to do with Design Thinking - maybe without even knowing it. Workplaces have changed drastically in recent years. It's not only the internet that has opened a vast number of new options - especially with regards to cooperation and co-creation , team and project related work is frequently the topic for discussion - but also in the "analogue" world. If you add to this: innovation, interdisciplinary nature and user oriented design, then you get pretty close to what Design Thinking is.

What is it?

Let's start again from the beginning: Design Thinking initially simply means to "think like a designer". That is, to use the methods which (industrial) designers use in their work and to apply it to other areas. The term is probably most often connected to the Californian company IDEO, who first marketed the Design Thinking system and uses it themselves. Flat hierarchies, project related team work and creative courage are part of a normal day in the office at IDEO - a core task of the company is to also teach this to others.

One of the co-founders of IDEO, David Kelly, also heads up, which he founded, at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in Stanford, which amongst other things offers so-called "bootcamps" in Design Thinking and has made this method presentable even in the academic world.

How does it work?

During such bootcamps, e.g. persons from different work areas are split into groups and are given a project - and in the best cases there are also customers who are included in the process and give feedback. Instead of simply discussing the wishes of the customer in the team and to then try to magic up some innovation, Design Thinking wants to include the end user into the thought process and that in an as emphatic way as possible. This means that extended, deep surveying of the user/target group with regards to their requirements for the concept is part of the process. Design Thinking is not only a method of finding a solution, it desires to start with the right questions.

Valentin Abe, from bettertoday, Agency for Innovation and New Work, a Berlin based consulting firm and defines itself as strategy consulting, innovation academy and idea workshop) is responsible for management and communication, sums it up perfectly:  "You have to have empathy for the user, you have to let go of what you thought and how you worked up until now. You have to get out and listen to people. Be it on the streets or in companies - you have to understand where the requirements are."

Paper, Tixo and trying to understand the user

Another important factor for Design Thinking is the quick prototype phase or creation of models which are taken from the way designers work. Instead of creating expensive prototypes over a long period time, small models are fashioned from materials such as foam, paper or Tixo as soon as possible and shown to test customers. If there is no appeal, then you can react quickly and with little financial loss.

Professor Hubert Scholl, who teaches Design Thinking as per the principle of "Understand, Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype" as part of the Master Degree Course in Supply Chain Management at the Campus Steyr of the FH Oberösterreich, tells us about his experiences: "The fascinating aspect of this approach is the intensive engagement with the entire setting of the problem which needs solving, and this includes trying to understand the user for whom the solution has to be found. In this context, ideas and solution approaches are created which go far beyond of previously standard results based on monocausal created contexts."

Accessibility and criticisms

Design Thinking is not a rigorous system, it is very accessible - many people who work with it only use certain approaches which they have learnt either during their training or in workshops or which they have taught themselves using videos or tool kits that you can buy en mass on the net. Still, Design Thinking has frequently been criticised in recent years: that it does not deliver the kind of innovation that it initially promised. This is, however, a criticism which aims more at the implementation rather than the concept itself: Creative work - as design and its associated thought processes is in large part - cannot be packaged 100% into an instruction manual, but it needs trying out which in turn means getting on the wrong track occasionally, something which both large companies and small ones try to avoid. For Design Thinking to work, companies have to allow creative spaces in which these "wrong track" can happen. A view which Valentin Abe supports: "The business world has conditioned us mostly to a status quo where ideas have to be always successful, have to be according to a business plan and therefore meet the requirement of entrepreneurial safety-mindedness. To "simply try something" is usually not allowed. One of the essential features of Design Thinking is, however, the concept that instead of a rigid and linear process we have to think and try in cycles. The acceptance of "mistakes", which are not really real mistakes is actually an  opportunity to find a sensible idea and solution."

Design Thinking comes closes to one of those issues which have the greatest innovation potential but which cannot be learned: the hardly tangible "creativity".


Amira Ben Saoud