Embrace Design Thinking

Does Your Company Embrace Design Thinking? Here's Why It Should

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

As a designer I love to create highly usable, beautiful interfaces. In fact, design thinking pervades every aspect of my work life. Empathy, sustainability, effectiveness and aesthetics are parameters that inspire any activity that I take part in, whether it’s managing staff, preparing proposals or contributing to business strategy.

When people talk about design-centric or design-driven companies, they’re referring to businesses that apply design thinking throughout their operations. Why would a company want to do that? (Cue sucking sound of money flying out the window.)

Because it can positively transform a company.

A design-centric approach founded upon thoughtful design leadership has brought enormous success to myriad companies, from Apple to Nike to Starbucks. When embraced by senior management on down, design thinking fosters an enterprise-wide respect for innovation, quality and effective problem solving.

The result? Highly useable, popular products and a company culture that is highly coveted.

Design is a Powerful Tool

Design is not just about making interfaces that are organized and attractive. It’s not just about solving the puzzle of meeting complicated requirements. Doing design work is exercising power — creative, inventive power. And that creative power can be applied to any type of problem, be it developing a marketing campaign or constructing human resources policies.

Though design can be practiced in a way that is not particularly powerful — a meek activity of aesthetic choices within requirements met — at its best design is a tool for exploring options, for constructing potential scenarios, for bringing empathy to decisions and for inventing new ideas.

The difference between meek design and powerful design is in the execution — the actual process of designing.

Harness the Power of Design

So, how do you put design to work for you?  Think iteration.

Iteration — trial and error — is the lifeblood of good problem solving. Yet, the concept still scares people. To many, it signals extending deadlines and exceeding budgets. Some are only comfortable limiting its power — let’s do two iterations and then call it done.

To create a design-centric culture or to do quality design in general you need to fully embrace iteration.

You need to be willing to move swiftly and not become emotionally attached to inferior options. Successful iteration is not about spending lots of time developing different versions for the sake of variety. It is about being brutal when judging proposed options — thinking about them from a big-picture, strategic perspective — and always seeking optimal solutions.

Successful iteration means being able to sketch ideas in ways that are appropriate to the problem. I often remind my design team to make sketches before fleshing out a more expansive proposal in order to avoid getting locked into their first ideas. 

The more effort you put into an idea the less likely you’ll be willing to modify it. That’s simply human nature. But most of the time, modifying the idea is precisely what you need to do to arrive at the optimal solution.

To build a design-centric culture, one that prizes innovation and embraces iteration, you need to exercise strong design leadership.

That means striving to apply the power of design beyond just product design to act as a transformative force in a larger enterprise. To do that, you have to have a robust sense of the process of design and the courage to use it fully and powerfully.

How do you express design leadership at your company?