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Design thinking: Simple practices with a big impact

Design thinking has been gradually changing the world we live in today, but only a few people really notice it. It is neither an attribute of a designer anymore, nor is it a new activity that falls under the “design” spectrum. Design thinking is a principle on its own, and it revolves around one very specific and important physical entity: humans.

More than just the looks

There is a difference between being a designer, and thinking like one. A designer used to be responsible for making a product aesthetically pleasing while keeping in mind the functionality of the final product or service. But long lost are the times when design was just a discrete stylistic gesture that polished a project before being handed over to the client. 

Design thinking is now a principle to abide by, and here at Pine, we apply such mentality in everything we do, from structuring our organisation to communicating with clients, delivering projects and innovating our services. To understand the benefits of design thinking, we must first look at the applications of it through time, and how now more than ever, this becomes relevant to everyone from startups to big corporations, government bodies, not-for-profit organisations and more. 

Origins of design thinking: The Great Western Railway

One of the first books we encourage everyone at Pine to read is Tim Brown’s “Change by Design”, and the book starts with the story of design thinking, and how it was introduced early on by designers who, at the time, did not know that they had discovered a completely new approach to solving problems in the modern world. 

Considered to be one of the pioneers of design thinking, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the great engineering mind behind the Great Western Railway (GWR) in England. Although he was an engineer at heart, Brunel was not only interested in the technology and the structural integrity of the railway. He stepped into the shoes of future passengers and tried to come up with solutions that would make their experience better. 

As a result, Brunel decided that he wanted the train ride to be as seamless as possible, creating the sense that passengers were “floating across the countryside”. He accomplished just that by taking the extra step to build bridges, viaducts and tunnels in order to maintain the flattest possible railway network. The GWR still stands as a proud example of his revolutionary work and remains a specimen of how design thinking unveils optimal, long-lasting solutions that still, almost two centuries later, offer high-quality experiences.

Design thinking principles

A lot has changed since the creation of the GWR, but the principles of design thinking have been developed, iterated, and pin-pointed to a few important ones. Try to visualise the design thinking process like the diagram below illustrates. 

design thinking process

Design thinking is not a linear process, nor is it irreversible. In fact, quite the opposite is true: it is a cyclical and iterative process that is centred around constant feedback and adjustments. It is fast, agile and repetitive and the user is always placed in the centre. You can read more about the specific activities included in this process in our last blog

People front and centre

There is really not much to add to the above statement, and we can’t stress the importance of this enough. It all revolves around the people. Period. As a design thinker, you know that you are not coming up with a solution that you like, or that you feel would be good. You are coming up with a solution that users will like. Empathy is one of the greatest skills one can have for this job. Step into the shoes of your users, listen to your audience, see through their lenses and you will be on the right track to offer an innovative and sound solution to their problem.

The magic of prototyping

Prototyping is a key activity involved in design processes. “Test, iterate, repeat” – is the motto for all design thinkers, and the only way to do this is by prototyping your product/service. You can get very creative with this activity and do it super low-cost, or you can invest more time and effort into it and be more scientific with your approach. It comes down to the scope, the budget and the timeline of the project at hand. One thing is for sure though: never skip this activity. We love prototyping, we love finding out what works and more importantly, what doesn’t – and that is the mentality that the iterative, cyclical process of design thinking requires. 

It’s all about the balance

Design can not happen without constraints. By contextualising a project, we automatically assign some constraints to it. Being willing to accept these constraints, taking them into account, and even being enthusiastic about them is the groundwork for design thinking. So the first step of a design process is to set those constraints, by aligning the interests of the stakeholders and defining the scope of the project. Budget, time, resources, are all common examples of real-life constraints in a project. These usually fall under three main categories that help us visualize them. The sweet spot is where the three overlap, where your product/service ultimately lies. 

  • Feasibility: This makes designers think about what is possible from a functional point of view for the project and whether it can fit in the timeline and the budget. 

  • Viability: Does the proposed solution fit in the business model, and within the technological resources of the client? Or are you designing a cool spaceship for a farmer? 

  • Desirability: This is at the core of every design thinker. Do people really want what you are designing, or is it just something you have been dreaming about for a while now? 

Diverge, analyse, converge, synthesize

These are some important principles that apply to design thinking. It always starts with divergence, that is, deliberately expanding the range of options to choose from rather than narrowing them down. Design thinkers think, not outside the box, but as if there is no box. Bluesky ideation is what we refer to as this phase of the process, where all stakeholders involved in a project come up with the most extreme, futuristic ideas that they can think of relating to the project at hand. This is a great way to see where everyone’s imagination lies, and it broadens everyone’s thinking. 

Following this, a design thinker analyses the ideas that come up. It is their role to scrape off any proposals that are not relevant and keep the ones that align with the scope of the project. This ultimately leads to convergence, where we narrow down the possibilities for the project. It is then down to the design thinkers to take into account the three very important variables of desirability, feasibility and viability to decide how, when, and what to create as part of the project. 

think outside the box

Search for insight, not hard data

People won’t necessarily tell you what they want, but their behaviour will. Design thinking is based on the principle that the data alone will not tell you what needs to be done. You need to have the ability to translate the data into actionable insights. Don’t focus on quantity, but rather, on quality of data. Watch what people don’t do, what they don’t say is often much more insightful than what they do say. In the example below, you can see clear principles of design thinking being applied. 

How design thinking cruised its way into the streets of the US

IDEO with Shimano looked at the 90% of Americans who were not their target market, in order to create an innovative solution for the cycling market. Now that is what we call innovation. 

Design teams in organisations used to be sandwiched between other departments, like those of marketing or engineering, and were responsible for doing just that: designing. IDEO, one of the leading companies in applying design thinking principles, was invited back in 2004 by Japanese manufacturer of bicycle components Shimano, to collaborate on a new project. The aim was to come up with a solution that will address the changing scene of the cycling market. 

After forming a multidisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and designers, they ventured out to do some research. Interestingly, instead of focusing on the 10% of American adults who rode bikes, the team started looking into why 90% of American adults did not ride bikes. This is a great example of how design thinkers don’t just think outside the box but think as if there is no box. “Why focus on the 10% of American adults who ride bikes, when we can come up with something that can convince a portion of the remaining 90% to start riding bikes?” – they thought. And that is exactly what they did. 

The team focused on the factors that prevented people from riding bikes, like the overcomplexity of modern bikes, the bike-freak sales staff that were found in the bike stores, the specialised clothing and the advanced mechanics. All these deterrents were pushing away most American adults who just wanted to cycle from A to B. This human-centred research gave rise to the idea of a cruising bike, the type of bikes you see around cities nowadays: comfortable seats, upright handles, bulky bodies, few gears. They accompanied this new design with the appropriate branding, as well as city infrastructure to support this type of bike usage. “Coaster bikes” became a huge success, with many companies jumping on this trend following Shimano. 

The result: Design thinking had identified a whole new aspect of the cycling market that was untapped, creating great opportunities for the first movers but also (and more importantly) encouraging people who had given up on cycling, to jump right back on it. 

Where are the design thinkers? 

Design thinking is much more prevalent nowadays than you might think. A lot of industries and businesses rely on it to stay ahead of the competition, with many examples to be found in the real world. 

IBM

IBM is a corporate giant that heavily invested in design thinking and training its employees to think like designers. Reportedly, since then, IBM has witnessed an astonishing increase of 300% in their ROI, which they attribute to design thinking. Further to this, they offer a lot of educational resources on the topic, as well as establishing the concept of “Enterprise Design Thinking”, which, as the title suggests, is the application of design thinking principles to an enterprise level. 

Four Seasons

In the hospitality industry, crafting a memorable experience is of uppermost importance, and so it is no surprise that design thinking has become the go-to approach for companies. The Four Seasons is a known luxury brand that offers very high-quality experiences to their guests. One of the ways they do so is by focusing on their staff training and giving the power to their own employees to contribute to change. Four Seasons knows that the best experience starts from its own people, and amongst other perks, after only 6 months their employees are put on the receiving end of the brand’s service. By doing so, the employees literally step into the shoes of their customers, understanding them better, and making sure that the next time they are serving them, they will keep them satisfied. 

Airbnb

Airbnb is a different, however equally great example of how design thinking can make or break a business. Although everyone is familiar with the great success of the company, few people are familiar with their early, more moderate business journey. Airbnb used to struggle to make sales, with little revenue coming in every month. Being a data-driven company, one would assume that they would look at their data to decide what to do next. Well, that’s wrong. 

Having a design thinking mindset, they decided to be creative and diverge their thinking by coming up with some hypotheses about the factors affecting their sales. One of their assumptions was that the quality of the photos they had on their website had a big impact on potential customers. So they decided to fly out to New York, hire a professional photographer, and go to one of their listed apartments to take some photos. This very unscalable yet very creative approach to solving a problem had a direct impact on their sales. They hypothesized, they tested and they saw direct results, by doing something that took them much less time than delving into KPIs and metrics. This is the beauty of design thinking. 

Airports

Another great example of a design thinking application can be found at airport security designs. IDEO and U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worked together to improve the airport security experience. First, they began by observing the behaviour of passengers. Then they also looked at the experience of TSA staff at the airport and realised there is frustration on both sides during the security checkpoint. On the one hand, TSA staff need to follow a script of instructions for passengers, and on the other hand, passengers are being ordered to do things. The challenge at hand became clear: how might they redesign the experience in order to instil empathy in both parties. 

The solution? It was double-sided, and you have seen it all around airports everywhere nowadays. On one hand, airports are now designed in a way to provide information to the passengers early-on, in the lobby areas of the airport, in order to know what to expect and not being caught by surprise. On the other hand, TSA staff were handed over power and responsibility in order to carry out their job more effectively. That means that their training changed, from learning and repeating a script, to making critical evaluations of situations and acting accordingly, as they feel necessary. This ultimately gave the power to the people responsible for implementing the rules, making the process more friendly and the overall experience much better for both parties, whilst maintaining the safety and security of passengers and humanising the otherwise robot-like behaviour of TSA staff. 

Teaching the outmoded

As we outlined above, there are many instances where design thinking has not only improved an existing service but also created new opportunities for companies to tap into. Having said that, there are still numerous companies that have remained stuck in the traditional, old-school methods of conducting business. This needs to change. But how? 

Teaching the outmoded is hard, and convincing them that this fast, agile approach is not only for a startup or for a new product is by no means an easy task. Companies that are very much based on hierarchical organizational structures and vertical information flows are subject to a great threat in the fast-paced modern environment. Such companies will eclipse if action is not taken, and design thinking should be looked at as a systematic approach to innovation. Companies should give more and more power to their employees, and listen better to their customers if they want to stay ahead of the competition. Flat organizational structures are becoming more and more prevalent, and employees are working more like bees in a honeycomb: independently but with a centralised direction. 

So, what’s next? 

Once the principles of design thinking become the rule and not the exception, we are expecting to see great things happen on all fronts of the modern world. From redesigning everyday life and whole economies to fighting pandemics and environmental threats, to restructuring cities and even democracy, design thinking is a revolutionary approach that is bound to change the world we live in. 

Design thinking is about testing, iterating and ultimately changing what we currently have for something better. In the process of doing so, and as design thinking becomes more and more widespread, the question that we will face is this: How might we redesign the principles of design thinking, to make it an even more effective and innovative approach to future problems we will face. Now that yet remains to be answered.

Costis L.

Costis L.

As a co-founder of Pine and a curious and passionate design-thinker, I always use my current knowledge to create new things. For instance, I learnt that tomato is actually a fruit, so I risked it all and used it in a fruit salad. It worked.

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