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The power of design thinking

How design thinking can be used in a range of business scenarios for all-round benefit

There’s been growing momentum in recent years for non-designers to enter the design space – for entrepreneurs, scientists, civil servants and marketers, among many professionals, to adopt ‘design thinking’.

Many organisations still have a traditional approach to solving problems based on an ‘expert’ mindset and a top-down, hierarchical model in which there is convergence or group thinking.

Design thinking differs from traditional management thinking because it is more democratic and participatory, with divergent as well as convergent thinking. Design thinking is essentially a people-focused and user-centric approach to innovation. And it moves away from that ‘expert’ mindset – instead of using a neutral, scientific and objective approach, design thinking is all about being empathetic and engaging with users.

All organisations – big or small, public or private, new or old – can benefit from design thinking. Business is full of problems and challenges, design thinking provides a different set of lenses to look at these problems. Instead of benchmarking current practice and simply copying or building on it, you might come up with something completely different by looking from a different angle.

Design thinking has become popular because it is effective in getting inside the heads of people and understanding what they really need. By using this process companies can learn a lot more about their customers and city authorities can learn more about their citizens. It is about understanding people and providing services that fit their lives. Some good examples of companies that have adopted design thinking include industry ‘disruptors’ like Airbnb, Uber and Deliveroo. More established organisations like IBM and Fidelity Investments also benefit because they are now competing and have to keep up with the newer, digitally-savvy start-ups.

In providing better services companies can benefit in other ways like creating customer loyalty, reducing costs, and making more efficient use of resources.

To shed some light on a much-debated area here are my three top tips for design thinkers:

1. Look and learn

A primary characteristic of design thinking is to be patient, to go into the field, to observe and record in a sketchbook or with a camera, without preconceptions. So much business thinking is based on preconceived ideas, on existing market ‘knowledge’ and an over-awareness of barriers to change. When asked to design a new product, service or communication designers look at things in a fresh and sometimes naïve way, asking the stupid questions and behaving like participants in a process, not experts. So bring out the anthropologist in you. Don’t be afraid to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes.

2. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate

Business managers are often specialist in a particular field – and their thinking is bounded by that field of expertise. But designers tend to take a more generalist approach that means lessons in one sector can be applied to another. One of the central tenets of design thinking is a willingness to cross-pollinate – to take ideas from one area and apply them in a totally different context, rescaling them where necessary.

3. Think visually, not in words

Many professionals rationalise or justify decisions by writing long reports with lots of words to wade through. Design thinkers use images. Their way of thinking is visual. Simple diagrams, photo-evidence, development sketches… all of these help to communicate ideas and support effective and collaborative decision-making. I recently participated in a design thinking seminar at 10 Downing Street that advised senior civil servants to put more images and less words into briefings for ministers, as these had more impact in terms of argument and evidence and saved time.

Designing is a professional craft that takes years of training and expertise to perfect. Design thinking is something different – it is a useful bridge between designers and those who commission and use design. It provides a shared set of perspectives or values so that everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction when it comes to making the project a success. And as a people-centred innovation method it makes sure that the needs of the end user are considered in real depth.

Jeremy Myerson is is the Helen Hamlyn professor of design at the Royal College of Art. He is leading a masterclass at the RCA and the Design Museum on Design Thinking & Innovation on 10 to 11 May