| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


RapidBlog: Design Thinking, by Kevin Budelmann


Smart design makes for better living.

Kevin Budelmann is a strategist, designer, author, and teacher as well as the president of Peopledesign, a design strategy firm in Grand Rapids.

A hundred years ago, the industrial era led to new kinds of skills: Customer segmentation, assembly lines, and advertising were the tools of industrial management. It didn’t happen overnight, but our society rose to the challenge of how to meet our societal needs at an industrial scale.

Today’s modern marketplace looks different. The Internet has spawned a global communications revolution. Computing power has been doubling in speed at half the price every 18 months for 30 years, which will soon lead to computer chips being in just about everything. “Smart,” connected objects are just about everywhere from clothing to our buildings. And that’s saying nothing of globalization, climate change, 3D printers, or the impact of mapping the human genome. Change is upon us.

A new era requires new skills. The emergence of "design thinking" is one of the innovation disciplines in a new era of choice. Design thinking is neither the panacea to solve all business problems, as some suggest, nor is it simply a fad that is about to pass.

Thinking like a designer is less about putting designers on pedestals and more about increasing awareness – and for designers, self-awareness – of what actually happens in a creative process. Great designers may exhibit these skills intuitively, but that may not be enough. There is a great need to innovate more reliably.

Today’s problems are complex: Some call them fuzzy or wicked. Design thinking is dissecting and describing an ideal design process for the purpose of increasing engagement (teams) and making it repeatable (a process).

Here are five ways to start thinking differently about your business problem.

1. Solve the right problem

This is harder than it sounds. Too often, people design solutions into problems, which limits what the solution might be. People are imperfect: We are biased, have personal motives, we don’t do what we say, we get stuck on what we think is right and confuse causes and effects. Many people often see themselves as problem solvers, but consider: Is everyone equally good at solving problems? What is problem solving, exactly?

Problem framing (defining problems) is an emerging discipline. Don’t assume – start by thinking about problems as inputs and outputs. What is going in, what is coming out? Think about problems as Legos: Creating something new often involves breaking something into its parts and recombining them.

Problem framing – and reframing (defining the problem differently) – is a powerful tool for making progress on complicated problems. Consider how abstractly or concretely the problem is defined, consider causes and effects. You may be a "big idea" person, but try to avoid being an ADD reframer. Reframing too late can derail the best project.

2. Think in systems

Look for, find, create, and leverage patterns. They’re everywhere. Connecting dots in ways that haven’t been connected before is the stuff of innovation. Look around you: What is the current system? How might we make a better system?

3. Simplify complexity

Simple solutions are better – and harder to achieve. Too often organizations push their complexities onto their customers, but what customers truly crave is simplicity. Roll up your sleeves: The right constraints are productive and help you move forward. Have empathy for project team members who are different than you by design, and keep your eye on the goal.

Don’t forget that what has worked in the past is likely to work in the future. Sometimes re-inventing the wheel isn’t necessary, just noticing that it’s round and gets you places.

4. Making is thinking

White-collar jobs have separated planning from doing, and too often planning (for example, strategy) is seen as a higher thinking art form than doing (making it happen). Intuitively we know these things are symbiotic, but too often one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

Doing – or making – is also thinking. Language is abstract, but physical prototypes encourage decision-making. Use prototypes as communication boundary objects – tools for collaboration and failing fast. Language itself is tricky, so words and measurement create orthodoxies of thought. After all, communication and meaning is not one way – it is shared. Broadcasting a plan is not communicating meaning.

5. Understand people

We are moving away from an emphasis of industrial scale to one of personal choice. We still need scale, but each person has different needs.

People are complicated. We ask for something new but often reject it when we see it. What do you take as a given? What is your bias? Then consider what is genuinely different, and create models for generating and communicating something genuinely new.

Customers will tell you what want, but they often don't know what they need. How many customers asked for the iPhone? People ask for choice but crave simplicity. Consider how people make decisions, behavioral economic theory, and personal motives. Consider organizational orthodoxies and models for change.

Keep in mind that empathy is not a luxury. You are not likely to be your customer or the user of your product or service. Seek a deeper understanding of the user context, behaviors, goals, and activities.

Design thinking and new skills will not solve all problems, but they are new tools to help us chart a course in an emerging era of choice here in West Michigan and beyond.

Disclaimer: RapidBlogs are lightly edited and honor the stylistic decisions of the writer. Views and opinions expressed in RapidBlogs do not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth Media or its staff.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts