Design thinking helps us get unstuck. It reveals hidden options so we can take action with greater confidence and impact.
Active learning (vs. passive learning) is a mindful approach to leveraging on-job experience.
When we combine active learning with design thinking, we have a powerful framework for continuous progress.
As the integration of AI grows in every kind of job, human-centric skills are in growing demand. But critical thinking, judgment and decision making are difficult to teach.
Design thinking offers an optimistic, strengths-based approach to learning. It works because it encourages our natural human curiosity. In essence, we can learn to design our way through messy situations at work—while staying one step ahead of the robots.
New ideas are often ignored or rejected. How can better questions make a difference?
Let’s begin by imagining how the invention of wheeled luggage might be met with a shrug.
For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernard D. Sadow’s idea of a wheeled suitcase (pulled by a loose strap) was rejected. As he rolled his sample from meeting to meeting with various department stores, he was greeted with indifference. Eventually he sold his invention to Macy’s, and the market grew quickly as this story in The New York Times recounts.
But it wasn’t until 1987 that Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the roll-aboard suitcase which was pulled in an upright position using a long handle. Plath at first sold his Rollaboard to crew members, then his invention became a hit with passengers who saw it in use by flight attendants.
The initial rejection of wheeled luggage demonstrates a pattern of clinging to the old, difficult way when a better way may be under our noses. What kinds of questions would have changed how people viewed such an opportunity for innovation? What questions would have exposed unmet needs?
The New York Times reported: “Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.”
So, for example, these questions might have been eye-opening at the time::
Who makes the suitcase buying decisions?
How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
What if travelers could see a wheeled option in use?
What are the trends in air travel and ground transport links?
What assumptions should we verify before we say no to this idea?
It’s a stretch for us to imagine the idea of wheeled luggage being rejected. But this exercise helps us see how unasked questions may continue to hold up progress today.
Most clients don’t really know how to evaluate design firms. Also, due to the large sums of money they are spending on projects, they’re scared of being blamed for making a bad choice.
Imagine how you might apply empathy to this tense situation. Rather than react to every onerous RFP, why not meet with potential clients well in advance of the selection process? Why not ask if they want your help in writing the RFP? Your inside knowledge can help them avoid pitfalls.
Interview your clients
Instead of talking about your work for most of that intro meeting (Me! Me! Me!…oh right, you), what if you used this time to understand where they’re coming from (You! You! Me!).
Yes, we should bring our portfolio and be ready to tell a story that demonstrates our depth of knowledge. Yes we should focus on a relevant example that paints a picture of what it’s like to work with us. But we can enrich relationships and gain an edge by interviewing our clients. Maybe we can help shape the content of the RFP and be the proverbial firm with the inside track. I have been in this advisory/winning position several times, so I know it can be done.
Empathy-driven questions for a client might include:
1. What are your biggest challenges?
2. What do you look for when choosing a design consultant?
3. What problems do you seek to avoid?
4. Do you have any dissatisfactions with your current RFP process?
Empathy is a mushy term for a powerful concept. When we need to get unstuck, or to break out of self-limiting boxes and isolating bubbles, empathy can set us free.
Seeing things from the perspective of others unlocks fresh possibilities. Empathy provides us with better insight and information. When we understand people’s motivation, where they are coming from and what matters most to them, we can save time and energy.
Take the age-old challenge of fee-driven design firm selection, for example. Imagine using the process below to discover strategies for taking positive action.
We live in a global society that is threatened by wall-builders who incite fear, suspicion and conformity. Ontario’s greatest asset is its inclusive, diverse and creative culture. But much work needs to be done to keep our healthy spirit alive while serving “citizens, not consumers” across the province and beyond.
As the provincial government considers various ways forward, what if the stated ultimate purpose of Ontario Place was to nurture what Ontario does best? What if Ontario Place was once again (as portrayed in the original 1971 theme song) “a place to stand, a place to grow”—for Ontarians, as well as on a world stage?
I was a frequent visitor (and a new Canadian immigrant) during the early days of Ontario Place. In subsequent decades I was a less frequent visitor, although l worked with Eb Zeidler for ﬁfteen years and enjoyed many Zeidler office parties in the pods. During four visits between September 15 and 25, 2016, I was captivated by the entire experience that the in/future event organizers and participants created.
What have I learned by reﬂecting on that event and this extraordinary site’s legacy and potential over 45 years?
In addition to a strong, simply stated higher purpose, Ontario Place needs to identify speciﬁc values (see embedded slides above for suggestions) that will allow it to achieve its full potential while avoiding wasteful investments. Whenever a project is under heavy public scrutiny involving diverse stakeholders (including both naysayers and champions), there is a threat of settling for mediocrity. Project fatigue sets in, deadlines loom, and the inevitable cost-over-value critics emerge. Bland vision statements and design principles are not strong enough to carry a project through all the stages required to see greatness take shape in the form of built reality.
In order to build greatness—to create places people love and want to be—project leaders need to craft a higher purpose statement along with simple but evocative shared values. Places that stir our imagination and restore our energy do not germinate from vague, generic, clinical or corporate terms.
Ontarians are citizens, not consumers; we remove barriers, we don’t build walls. We are humans talking with humans. In the memorable words of that 1971 song, we want “a place to stand, a place to grow, Ontari-ari-ari-o!”
Read my summary, “Learning from Ontario Place” with examples and photos here
Kerrytown in Ann Arbor is a place people want to be. What can planners and developers learn from this example?
Architects tend to talk vaguely about design quality and excellence. This can lead to disappointment when bland places get built that nobody cares about.
We need to be more specific when discussing all the the intended functions of a space. “Function” includes technical specifications and program requirements, but also a purpose. The ultimate purpose of most building projects is to attract people: shoppers, diners, employees and others who will deliver ROI (return on investment) to the owners.
Developers and even the most cold-blooded business investor can avoid unnecessary risk by asking one simple question when making design decisions: “Are we building a place where people want to be?”
The answer to this basic question requires awareness of the kinds of places people don’t want to be, as well as analyzing places they barely tolerate out of necessity.
Why do people love Kerrytown? Five factors are evident there:
Human scale (not overwhelming, or making people feel insignificant)
Distinctive character (unique identity that people can relate to emotionally)
Flexible seating and overflowing activities (an organic sense of abundance)
Nature and the human touch (such as art, texture and living things)
Elements of surprise, whimsy, quirkiness that indicate people care (vs.”mean”)
These five elements add up to a wise business decision. When architects say, “business investors don’t appreciate good design” they are really saying “decision makers don’t recognize elements that contribute to places people want to be.” It’s not enough for designers to talk about excellence and quality.
In the middle of Detroit there’s a place that makes you think about the true nature of work today. Specifically, how should society address job creation and greater opportunities for all?
The Green Garage offers some practical and sustainable responses to the economic and political turmoil we face in our perilous transition beyond industrial era “jobs for life.”
Twentieth century so-called “lifetime” jobs were often monotonous, confining and exhausting. People were left with scarce energy and creativity for working beyond retirement age. Whether displaced as a result of trade agreements or advanced robotics, layoffs and plant closures threatened workers throughout their careers. Employment insurance was supposed to take care of gaps, but this whole approach to work was economically and personally unsustainable.
In contrast to the current rise of revitalizing “green jobs,” Diego Rivera depicted robotic, lifeless “grey jobs” in this fresco panel:
When Green Garage founders Peggy and Tom Brennan talk about “a more sustainable way to work” they think in terms of a full spectrum of eco-friendly and economically-healthy contributors. Every aspect of their physical working space serves to advance triple-bottom-line green practices. In addition, a wealth of sustainable approaches to lifelong employability are emerging from this former Model T showroom.
Employment today depends heavily on three factors: first, our reputation as active contributors; second, our capacity to make healthy human connections; and third, our appetite for continuous learning. The Green Garage provides a physical and mental environment that grows these three ingredients of sustainable work in the 21st century.
Green Garage participants are brought together by shared values. For example, Detroit Food Academy works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire Detroiters ages 13-24 to develop entrepreneurial ventures rooted in food. These ventures include guiding artisan food projects from early stages of development to market. “Students learn by transforming their ideas into reality. Through this process, they grow as holistic leaders who are healthy, connected…” which they explain has the power to improve the local food system. These experiences “open doors, create connections, and spark confidence” which ultimately leads to more resilient workers.
Detroit Food Academy also stands in marked contrast to the economic monoculture which thrived spectacularly in Detroit for only a few decades. Relying on a single industry led to dependent and vulnerable workforce. Instead, DFA’s green job enterprises are diverse and committed to long term well-being.
As I described in a previous post, we can learn a lot about the new nature of work from such leading examples.
Designers like to talk about “solving design problems” but is that their most valuable activity? And is it really best to “define the problem” as a first step?
Problem-solving is an activity that drains people’s energy. This is not news. In the late 1960s, Ronald Lippitt at the University of Michigan found that when groups begin a major planning exercise by focusing on problems, they get depressed.
By contrast, Lippitt also found that when groups begin by developing a specific and persuasive definition of their future, they had more energy and motivation to work through problems along the way.
Problem solving tends to be about filling gaps and fixing deficiencies. Fixing large scale problems can feel overwhelming, maybe even impossible. The best planning process begins with vivid aspirational statements, rather than setting out to solve a problem.
We can compare Abraham Maslow, who was a leader in the positive psychology movement (along with Martin Seligman) to Aaron Antonovsky, who studied positive health (which he termed salutogenesis) rather than sickness, and Ronald Lippitt (originally with Kurt Lewin) who led a “preferred future” approach to planning (v. problem solving).
For all three of these pioneers, the idea of focusing on positive concepts rather than pathology is not merely about “positive thinking.” Pure positive thinking is vulnerable to ignoring blind spots while oversimplifying challenges, which can lead to bad decisions.
Instead, we can plan for greater possibilities using rigorous values-based criteria to guide our decisions. Planning for possibilities begins by identifying assets rather than deficiencies, and goes on to define a purpose, as well as values and aspirations. This planning approach leads to better decisions than the most creative problem solving model.
photo: Binocular’s Building, Frank Gehry’s design for Chiat/Day in Venice, California, 1985-91.
Every designer I know is puzzled by the term design thinking. It doesn’t really describe how they think. For starters, rarely do design thinking business models mention the natural stops and starts, the emotional ups and downs, the messiness and the rejection that brings inner turmoil. Then there’s the belief that, for many designers, empathy is more than a step in a business process; instead it’s a way of being. Also, designers must cope with the fact that innovators are too often perceived as a threat.
Another of the “multiple issues” as Wikipedia would say regarding this term is that there are plenty of card-carrying designers who have little interest in human-centric design and who tend toward linear thinking. Not all designers are capable of innovation, but plenty of engineers, scientists, writers and other non-designers engage in purposeful creative thinking.
And yet, other than over-simplifying a complex concept and ignoring emotional realities, design thinking has done much to fuel the conversation about how innovation happens. Everyone has the potential to think more creatively to achieve a values-driven purpose. But in order for DT to get beyond the perception of one more management fad, it is crucial to prepare people for the realities of coping with ups and downs.
As a long-practicing designer, it still cheers me up to remind myself that ups and downs are to be expected when doing pioneering, or even routine non-routine work.
* Detail from Sanko Trading Co. mural, Queen St. West and Claremont St. painted by Ken Galloway, Timothy Fukakusa, Mitsuo Kimura, Takashi Iwasaki, Darcy Obokata, and Shogo Okada in the winter of 2013-2014.