Design

Design as Culture. The Problem of Humanising Innovation

Design thinking is more than just innovation. It is a broadly based approach to solving problems. But does it go far enough in humanising the world around us? Hack and Craft talked to one of the leaders of the design thinking movement in Europe, Arne Van Oosterom.

November 29, 2016
Arne van Oosteram
Senior Partner & Founder Design Thinkers Group & Design Thinkers Academy

Arne Van Oosterom is a senior partner and founder of the global agency Design Thinker’s Group and its partner initiative Design Thinker’s Academy. He has taught widely on the subject of design as well as consulting to a wide spectrum of organisations.

H&C: Arne, over the past decade “Design Thinking” has emerged as a distinct discipline and in Europe you’ve been central to the idea that thinking like a designer can help businesses function better. Can you sum up the essence of design thinking?

AVO: I would argue that it is not “thinking like a designer” but rather acting like one. Most people are capable of creative thinking; we do it all day while trying to solve the problems we encounter throughout our lives.

However, in our work environment we often lack creative confidence because we are stuck in dehumanised systems, expecting us to be rational linear thinkers and act like experts while dealing with increasingly complex problems.

These static systems have worked for a while, but they are designed for a static, frozen world, not for a world that is changing rapidly all the time. To survive we need creativity, that beautiful human characteristic. But creativity only blossoms in an environment that is suitable and supports creative behaviour.

H&C: What do you see as the main milestones on the way to Design Thinking’s integration into corporate thinking more generally?

AVO: We need to align our incentives, KPI’s, environments etc, with the behaviour we want to see.

In essence design thinking is all about behavioural change. It’s not about other methodologies or tools. The difficulty is that design thinking is not a fixed process, a workshop or a set of tools. That’s how it is being packaged, because it is easier to sell. We need to start understanding that if we expect people to behave in a different way – being intrapreneurs, change makers, innovators – we need to create the right conditions.

H&C: I read recently that design thinking is not enough, even designers need to understand technology. There’s quite a challenge in there isn’t there, because most organisations would want to see themselves as software driven rather than design driven. Is that a real ideological struggle?

AVO: There is no such thing as software driven… surely. I would say all companies are driven by people. People with goals. These goals can be power, status or happiness.

All companies are part of the same world. We are all part of a huge wave of change and we all need to adapt to a future we cannot predict.

I would argue that adapting to change is fundamentally a creative problem solving skill. We have been unlearning this skill and now there’s a great need for it. This is why we see buzzword pop-up like service design, lean startup, agile development, design thinking. It is really all the same. We only package it differently so it is easier to sell. Marketers and salespeople are hijacking it.

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H&C: One of the most exciting developments of the past twenty years has been user experience design, especially self-service routines for digital sites. But that emerged very much from a platform view of the world and the desire to reduce the cost of scaling a business. Has that helped the design thinking movement?

AVO: I’m sure it has helped, but it has also been a source a useless largely semantic discussion about the difference between user experience design, service design and design thinking. As I said before, it is fundamentally all the same. But I am also happy to be fighting a losing battle with this thesis.

H&C: What kind of students do you get at the design academy Have you found any changes in the people who want to learn design over the past decade?

AVO: All sorts of people come to our training programs. From large and small enterprises, governments and NGO’s. People from HR, IT, Sales, Innovation, Design and so on and so forth. But what a large percentage of our participants share is the need for learning by doing and deeper facilitation skills.  

H&C: Is this an indication of a real move towards more multidisciplinary teams?

AVO: Absolutely. I also think it is an indication that a design approach is infiltrating organisations from all angles.  

H&C: If you were to sum up design thinking in five steps in order to convey it to companies that don’t yet get it – what would those steps be?

AVO: In fact I learned not to try to convince companies that “don’t get it”. I think it is a waste of time. It’s not rocket science really. If people say they don’t get it, what they are really telling me is that they are not ready to listen. Probably it is threatening to their position. It’s a lot more fun and fruitful to work with people that do ‘get it’

If you want to convince people you should just do great work and show them that design thinking is not replacing anything but simply ads the human connection to every step in whatever process you use.  

I can give you 5 bulletpoints…

Design Thinking enables you to create an organisation:

  • That attracts Talent and keeps them in,
  • That is capable of speeding up real innovation,
  • That is adaptable and doesn’t see change as a threat but an opportunity,
  • That understands collaboration and how to work in a connected and networked world,
  • That delivers real value to real people and develops long term relationships with all stakeholders.

H&C: Increasingly design is also about the personality of the designer as well no? At least in consumer goods, do we love the product or the designer?

AVO: I’m not sure but I think you are talking about a brand promise? I think people always like to belong to something bigger than themselves.

A great brand offers a great vision or story that resonates with people and gives you the feeling you can be part of it. A great brand is more like a movement than anything else. It becomes part of your identity and you’ll be very open to whatever product they offer you. And you’ll be very forgiving, even when some of the products are less than perfect. So then you could argue we love what the brand (company or designers) does for us more than what the product does for us. But in the end this is what value creation means and we often confuse the means and ends; the value people create and the tools that enable this value creation.

custom logo design

H&C: What problem do you see a designer solve and think – that’s a excellent illustration of the craft?

One of the case studies we used during our Bootcamps is SH:24

“SH:24 is improving access to sexual health services by offering self-testing kits for sexually transmitted infections, and information and advice 24/7 for residents of Lambeth and Southwark.”

It’s one of the purest design led projects and has been a huge success. Check it out.