Elizabeth M. and William C. Treuhaft Professor of Entrepreneurship
Professor, Design & Innovation
Q: How do you define "design thinking?"
A: There are many definitions of design thinking. Typically, design thinking is understood as a set of broad approaches to organizational problem solving and innovation, based on the tradition of human-centered design practices. It emphasizes an iterative, visual and multidisciplinary approach to problem solving that moves from generating insights about users, problems and situations, to idea generation and testing, then implementation. Some even characterize it as a somewhat rigid linear process of problem solving. I don’t necessarily disagree with some of those aspects. However, design is far more than that.
What we emphasize at Weatherhead is not just these methods, but also design as a mindset, what we often refer to as “design attitude." It is based on the idea that management problems in today’s complex technological culture, the problems that we face in organizations, are wicked and indeterminate. The future and the world is not out there waiting for us to discover; rather it needs to be designed and created. It emphasizes the role of managers as designers, far more than just a set of techniques. Design thinking, therefore, in this way, is not just for those interested in traditional design, or new product developments, although they are the most directly related to it. Design should be embraced by everyone in the organization.
I often use this analogy. In every organization, there is a dedicated professional finance department under the leadership of Chief Finance Officer. Yet, everyone—not just in the finance department—needs to understand the financial thinking. We expect everyone understands the notion of Net Present Value, cash flow. We expect them to understand balance sheets and income statements. We can say the same thing about design. There is a dedicated professional department of design under the leadership of Chief Design Officer, or something equivalent. (Of course, some organizations have professional designers scattered throughout the organization with no coherent leadership). That does not mean that design should be owned by only those folks. At Weatherhead, we repeatedly remind our students that “everything in a business is designed." Therefore, we are all designers, just as every one of us must be a finance person to a degree.
Q: How can design thinking be applied in a variety of industries, including at organizations that have not historically self-identified as "innovative?"
A: There is no industry I can think of that does not require innovation in today’s economy. Every senior executive I have interacted with over the last 10 years or so says that innovation is one of the most important strategic issues they are facing. Design allows them to rethink what they do and what they offer to the market—whether it is tangible artifacts or intangible systems. Design thinking is not a superficial way to make your product look nicer, or your web or application interface more user-friendly. Instead, it allows you to revisit the fundamental meaning and value of what you offer and, in turn, create value in a new way. Even if you make the most mundane commodity, that commodity has a symbolic meaning, affords certain actions or represents complex thoughts behind it. By discovering those meanings and values, we are able to find new ways to innovate. In fact, I would argue that those industries are the most exciting context to apply design thinking.
Q: What are the top skills/attributes Weatherhead students can offer after learning the methods of design thinking?
A: Our students are equipped with the fundamental and critical skills of design thinking as a technique, including contextualized observation, various ways to interpret qualitative data to gain new insights, how to reframe problems and generate new ideas, visualization of their ideas, and how to build rapid prototypes to quickly validate their ideas. Furthermore, our students learn about design attitude and deeper foundational frameworks that help them frame wicked and complex problems in novel ways. Combined with Weatherhead’s emphasis on business as an agent of world benefit and leadership, our students are extremely well prepared to take on today’s most pressing management challenges.
Q: Any parting thoughts on the value of design thinking and its practical application in the modern workplace?
A: Design is often mistaken as a superficial gimmick: how to make our products look good, how to make our service more delightful, and how to change our packaging. All of these are correct. However, design is much more fundamental. What Steve Jobs did at Apple, for example, was not just a superficial gimmick. He built an organization that operates with a fundamentally different DNA, centered around design. Although Apple has a relatively small professional design team, everyone in the company feels he or she is a designer, whether in engineering or marketing. It is no accident that every product has an engraving of “Designed by Apple." Apple sees itself as a design company.
I had the privilege of working with Samsung Electronics very closely over the last five years. In 1996, Samsung declared it would reinvent itself through design. Twenty years ago, Samsung’s annual revenue was $29B and its market valuation was a meager $7.6B. Now, its annual revenue hovers around $200B with a market valuation of around $180B. Since 2006, it has been #1 in the global TV market and the only handset manufacturer that survived the iPhone revolution (Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and Blackberry are other leaders who did not make the transition). By any measure, this is tremendous growth, and design has everything to do with it. Their success is a direct outcome of persistent and strategic investments in design.
As design thinking becomes popular, the biggest risk I see is companies embracing design thinking as a shallow, gimmicky, short-term solution. With design as a short-term goal, these companies may see gains, but they will not experience the type of growth and success Apple and Samsung have enjoyed. In order to generate substantial and sustained gains via design thinking, companies must see design as one of their core capabilities, integrating it into all aspects of their business operation and treating it as an essential element of leadership. I believe what we offer at Weatherhead provides these fundamental insights and tools to our partners.