The Making of a Design Thinker

It took years before this industrial designer realized that the true power of his craft transcended the physical object.

I was trained as an industrial designer, but it took me a long time before I realized the difference between being a designer and thinking like one. Seven years of undergraduate and graduate education and 15 years of professional practice went by before I had any inkling that what I was doing was more than simply a link in a chain that connected a client’s engineering department to the folks upstairs in marketing.

The first products I designed as a professional were for Wadkin Bursgreen, a venerable English machinery manufacturer. The company invited a young and untested designer into its midst to help improve its professional woodworking machines. I spent a summer creating drawings and models of better-looking circular saws and easier-to-use spindle molders. I think I did a reasonably good job—it’s still possible to find my work in factories 30 years later—but you’ll no longer find the Wadkin Bursgreen Company, which has long since gone out of business. As a designer, I didn’t see that it was the future of the woodworking industry that was in question, not the design of its machines.

Only gradually did I come to see the power of design not as a link in a chain but as the hub of a wheel. When I left the protected world of art school—where everyone looked the same, dressed the same, spoke the same language—and entered the world of business, I spent far more time trying to explain to my clients what design was than actually doing it. I was approaching the world from a different set of operating principles, and the resulting confusion got in the way of my creativity and productivity.

I also noticed that the people who inspired me were not necessarily members of the design profession. They were engineers and inventors, like Thomas Edison and Ferdinand Porsche, who seemed to have a human-centered, rather than technology-centered, worldview; behavioral scientists, such as Don Norman, who asked why products were so needlessly confusing; artists, like Andy Goldsworthy and Antony Gormley, who engaged viewers in an experience that made them part of the work; and business leaders, like Steve Jobs and Akio Morita, who were creating unique and meaningful products. I realized that behind the soaring rhetoric of genius and visionary was a basic commitment to a powerful way of thinking.

A few years ago, during one of the periodic booms and busts that are part of business as usual in Silicon Valley, my colleagues and I were struggling to figure out how to keep IDEO relevant and useful. There was plenty of interest in our design services, but we were increasingly being asked to tackle problems that seemed far away from the commonly held view of design: a health-care foundation wanted us to help it restructure its organization; a century-old manufacturing company sought to understand its clients better; an elite university was interested in exploring alternative learning environments. We were being pulled out of our comfort zone, but this was exciting because it opened up new possibilities for us to have more impact.

We started talking about this expanded field as “design with a small d” in an attempt to move beyond the sculptural objet displayed in lifestyle magazines or on museum pedestals. But this phrase never felt fully satis-factory. One day I was chatting with my friend David Kelley, a Stanford professor and the founder of IDEO, and he said that every time some-one came to ask him about design, he found himself inserting the word thinking to explain what it is that designers do. The term design think-ing stuck. I have become a convert, an evangelist of design thinking, and now use it as a way of describing a set of principles that can be applied by diverse people to a wide range of problems.

And I’m not alone. Today the most progressive companies are challenging designers to create ideas at the outset, rather than enlisting them to make an already developed idea more attractive. The old role is tactical; it builds on what exists and moves it one step further. The new one is strategic; it pulls “design” out of the studio and unleashes its disruptive, game-changing potential. It’s no accident that designers can now be found in the boardrooms of some of the world’s most innovative companies. As a thought process, design has begun to move upstream.

Moreover, the principles of design thinking turn out to be applicable to a wide range of organizations, not just to companies in search of new products. A competent designer can always improve upon last year’s new widget, but an interdisciplinary team of skilled design thinkers is in a position to tackle more complex problems. From pediatric obesity and crime prevention to climate change, design thinking is now being applied to a range of challenges that bear little resemblance to the cov-etable objects still filling the pages of today’s coffee-table publications.

The reasons underlying the growing interest in design are clear. As the center of economic activity in the developing world shifts inexorably from industrial manufacturing to knowledge creation and service delivery, innovation has become a survival strategy. It is no longer limited to the introduction of new physical products but also includes new processes, services, interactions, entertainment forms, and ways of communicating and collaborating. These are exactly the kinds of human-centered tasks that designers work on every day. The natural evolution from design doing to design thinking reflects the growing rec-ognition on the part of today’s business leaders that design has become too important to be left to designers alone.

One of my heroes is the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man who lived before the profession of design even existed. As the challenges of the industrial age spread to every field of human endeavor, a parade of bold innovators who shaped the world, as they have shaped my own thinking, followed him: William Morris, Frank Lloyd Wright, the visionary educators of the German Bauhaus, the American industrial designers Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss, the team of Ray and Charles Eames. What they all shared was optimism, an openness to ex-perimentation, a love of storytelling, a need to collaborate, and an instinct to think with their hands—to build, to prototype, and to communicate complex ideas with masterful simplicity. They didn’t just do design; they lived design. These great thinkers were not as they appear in the coffee-table books about the “pioneers,” “masters,” and “icons” of modern design. They were not minimalist, esoteric members of design’s elite priesthood, and they did not wear black turtlenecks. They were creative innovators who bridged the chasm between thinking and doing because they were passionately committed to the goal of a better life and a better world. Today we have the 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 and more meaningful.

Tim Brown is president and CEO of IDEO. This essay is an excerpt from his new book, Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (Harper Business).

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