Posts Tagged ‘design thinking’

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders

Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank’s blog, “Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?” Given that I’m in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I’d like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:

We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms

While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I’d like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.

Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper “A short, grandiose theory of design“. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:

  •  For large complex projects, it “would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods” and rallied against an “adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices.” 
  • He separated “direct design” in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to “indirect design” in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 

Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin’s words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author’s articulation of “borrowing” the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government’s ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

User centered design thinking: An approach to problem identification

What is user centered design thinking?
Lets break this phrase down, first into two parts of two words each,
user centered = being user centered means that your frame of reference for creating a system, a product or business model is always the potential or intended ‘user’. Immersion in the user’s environment, also known as ethnography or user research or user observations or whatever you want to call it, allows one to stand within the constraints and context of the environment in which your audience operates. 
This experience, thus, allows you to gather and collate insights into the context in which your implemented design will work to solve a problem or challenge.  More formal methods of information gathering such as camera studies, interviews and behavioural prototyping add metrics and data that help guide the intuitive response to a possible solution or first prototype of one.  One could say that becoming user centered means to pull oneself out of one’s own frame of reference in order to place oneself in another’s shoes.
Through this, we come to know the general constraints and outlines of the recommended approach or solution that will be the end deliverable of such an exercise.
Now we come to the infamous and much abused term, design thinking =  It is ultimately yet another attempt to find a name for a whole brain approach to problem solving, one that uses the logical analytical tools and frameworks of the business world as well as the fuzzier, more intuitive ones from the world of design. Key is knowing when to use which metric or tool in order to best communicate the intent of the proposed program, the goals to be achieved or the problem or challenge to be addressed thus providing a roadmap or direction for the prototype that is implemented in the field to be tweaked into or measured up against.
But overall, if the user centered design thinking approach to solving large scale systems design problems is to be successful, the key challenge is to frame the problem correctly at the outset.
Once we are able to frame the problem correctly, addressing the real challenge or the unmet or undiscovered need, as more formal product designers are wont say, the design brief essentially writes itself as there is always that overarching goal that one can measure one’s progress and results against. At each stage one asks are we addressing the correct problem or challenge?
Are we solving the right problem?

Mapping the path to prototyping an adaptable user centered design process

We’ve all seen the classic User Centered Design (UCD) process diagrams, mostly linear, that attempt to communicate the steps yet unable to capture the iterative nature of the activity simply due to the limitations on how many circular arrows one can add without losing clarity. When I first began exploring the process deeply for application in emerging markets, this is the one we naturally used during a brainstorming experience with David Kelley back in April 2006:

But those of you familiar with the application in the practice of user centred design will recognize that this section applies to the design planning phase, prior to the design and development of the first prototype, boxed up here as “implementation”. You’ll also note that “User research” or rather, “Immersion” in the field, is left implicit, although one can say that it is represented by the green circle. Exploring as I was, back then, the intersection of where design met business, I felt this diagram was limited in its ability to communicate what really happened, much less why or how.

[Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height]

Shortly thereafter, in May 2006,  Damien Newman put the now famous “squiggle” up on his blog in response to a contemplative post of mine. Aha! I said, when I read what Damien had to share about his illustration:

So I decided to consider how to frame design activities in all disciplines, to discover which ones were worthy of placing on my map, could be the process one takes to set about producing a designed solution. I think in its most basic and fundamental form, the process of design that one embarks upon, can be seen in three steps/stages/phases (whatever): Abstract, Concept & Design.

At first there is a sort of theoretical, not yet in existence, essence of a thought, state or problem solution. As designers, we set about to bring that abstract state into a concept, something that can be communicated, perhaps visualized, definitely discusses and shaped. The final stage is the design of the concept, into the form, solution or final presentation of the concept.

I’m not sure if you were to have stood at Fort Point in San Francisco at around 1827, and said “We need a bridge to get over there” if that is a fair description of the Abstract, phase – but its about the time a typographer decides to start their first sketches of a typeface that it shifts from being abstract into a concept.

At a firm like IDEO, all design starts with a healthy amount of messing around in the abstract. Human Factors leads their approach to framing a design concept and problem – and they clearly (like others too) excel at bridging any gaps between these three phases, and at including the client, their customers and designers in the process.

This squiggle was in response to this post of mine from August 2005, Design vs Design thinking where I’d first attempted to distinguish between the tangible role of a human centered designer and those who were inspired by the human centered design process for business strategy and planning. But, as experienced practitioners and thinkers on the messy, chaotic, non linear creativity inherent in these activities will recognize immediately, the squiggle is too implicit to help communicate the process with clarity to audiences without exposure to the process, such as your typical client organization or institution. Linear, structured thinkers need to feel confident they understand what you are planning to do and how you’ll go about it before they’ll sign a check.

And so, we finally arrive at early 2008, where the first attempt to crudely diagram the evolving process for emerging markets and bottom of the pyramid (BoP) customers as articulated in my previous post from 7th November 2012, was prototyped so:

Quite a few circular arrows are missing from the How? and Next? phases here as it attempted to frame the bullet points from process description into a visual format. Now I hope that with the help of excellent visual thinkers involved in our current project, there is a chance that this process can be greatly improved.

Prioritizing whom you put at the center of the strategy and why

The tacit mandate for companies interested in the BoP market is that your product or service must either fill an ‘unmet’ need (of which the poor have many), or provide a way for them to enhance their livelihood or quality of life. Why else would they divert their limited and hard-earned cash for your product or service? So the fundamental consideration before design would be to focus on the benefit to the BoP: Is there an opportunity for social or economic development?

Next, the solution must be well designed—contextually relevant, appropriate, and of course, affordable. But the best designed product or service in the world will not sell if your customer is unable to find it. Since logistics and transportation is as much of an infrastructural challenge in the developing world, distribution becomes critical in ensuring the availability of the product. The entire supply chain might have to be built from scratch.

Once you’ve made the right product and got it out to where its needs to be, are your customers aware of its existence, what benefits it may provide for them, and the reasons why they should think about purchasing it? Is there a demand for this product, or can one be created? Does the value proposition of your offer resonate with the value system and worldview of those at the BoP?

And finally, the whole offering must cohesively hinge upon preserving and ensuring the dignity of your new customers. The poor are not looking for handouts, but rather opportunities; providing them with such products or services through a filter of ‘charity’ or ‘social work’ serves no one.

Our work in the field observing those at the base of the pyramid had led us to conclude that their life of adversity—managing in challenging conditions—evidenced a very different value system and worldview from what is commonly considered mainstream consumer culture. Their buying behaviour and decision-making criteria imply that those in the lower income strata—particularly in the developing world—are not ‘consumers’ but in fact extremely careful ‘money managers’ for whom an expense is often an investment whose return must be maximized. They tend to be risk averse and seek greater value from their purchases.
So an integrated strategy—one that looks beyond the design of the product or service for the other 90% but also takes distribution, demand, development and dignity into account while touching the core values of the BoP customer—could be considered a framework for best practice. ~ The 5Ds of BoP Marketing: Touchpoints for a holistic, human centered strategy



Lets take the example of your average social enterprise seeking to sell a cookstove or solar lamp to the erstwhile BoP customer. Do you know where he or she goes shopping? If you’re targeting rural customers in Sub Saharan Africa or South Asia, what are the odds of there being formal retail within accessible distance?

What are the odds of your subsistence farmer dropping by a supermarket when he’s in town next for market day? What kind of a difference will it make to your distribution strategy or demand creation and customer awareness program if it were designed from the point of view of your intended customers and their daily life, environment and buyer behaviour?

What if these assumptions were validated prior to investing thousands of dollars in setting up traditional distribution channels, per the conventional product introduction strategies as developed in the more sophisticated mainstream consumer markets?

Most social impact programs, whether they offer a new product or a service, or a program for socio-economic development of some sort, tend to focus their efforts on meeting the perceived needs of their most visible stakeholders. Rarely are these the intended recipients or end users, that is, the customers who would be purchasing the product or participating in the program or service.

Thus, when when there is little or no traction in sales and/or use of product or service, its always a head-scratching surprise. No wonder, when marketing may focus on value propositions that attract funders or changes in design are based on intermediary feedback, with little or no resonance with the actual needs or challenges faced by those among the intended target audience.

Human centered design, which inspires this holistic approach to the design of a strategy or plan, provides us with an approach which prioritizes the needs and challenges of the people considered most important for success or failure. Over and over, we learn expensive lessons when little or no impact is observed. Experience shows that the most dangerous assumption at the start of planning a program or crafting a strategy is that there is no difference in context between BoP markets and mainstream ones.

Whom do you choose to respond to? 

Prioritizing a particular user group allows for more relevant design and development. Iteration after initial implementation, that is, testing the prototypes in the field, need to be based on accurate feedback and if this aspect is not considered critically, then strategies get misaligned as multiple voices may offer conflicting or indirect information.

What do you choose to focus on?

Time and money are not unlimited. Prioritizing which set of voices to listen to and what context or needs your service or program is meant to serve helps increase the focus of the efforts and the resources.

As our most recent experience with agricultural value chain innovation in the context of social and economic development for Bottom of the Pyramid markets shows us, the lack of clarity and understanding of who exactly is the “User” ie. not having a specific focal point for planning and for program design leads to a cascading series of challenges from initial implementation through to end result, and thus, impact.

What essential aspects of the approach, philosophy and methodology from human centered design can offer value to such program development for donors?

Self centered design vs user centered design: Its good, but in what context?

I started this train of thought last night on Twitter with the title of this post, that arrogance did not make for good human centered designers if they thought they knew better than their end users and were not listening to them. Dirk Knemeyer encouraged me to write it all out in more than 140 characters.

Apple is a popular example held up of this self centered approach to design, that customers were unlikely to know what they wanted so it was upto the powers that be to provide them with the latest greatest, shiny toy to drool over.

Apple’s target audience is more like themselves than disparate in incomes or infrastructure. Think about that for a minute. That has nothing to do with geography. Apple is an aspirational symbol of disposable income.

The price point, business model and distribution geography alone clearly demonstrates this focus. Certainly, anecdata points to the Kenyan taxi driver with an iPhone. All of the above characteristics create the aura of exclusivity, thus status symbolism for the common man on the street.

You have secure and daily access to electricity, the visible ownership of this product communicates, or at least have the money to pay for charging services.

Indubitably, Apple’s product design is “good”, if not “great” or “superfantastic”, but who is good for? And in which context?

“Good” in design (UCD) is not disconnected from context of customer’s needs, lives and environment. If it is, its art.

Industrial design’s roots are in commercial application and increasing saleability of product. Else, why invest in making something desirable?

If you find yourself answering “To make it desirable for its own sake”, distinguish that answer from “What is art?” as a question.

How many examples of “good” design award winners are we aware of that never made an splash in their intended market, much less a ripple?

The OLPC won design accolades. The LifeStraw won design awards. The d.light is in the British Museum. The Hippo Roller was going to change women’s work.

Where are they now?

Why is design important?

Design is first and foremost a philosophy, based on a system of values, which seeks to solve problems. What are we creating? Why and for whom? Are we correctly framing the problem to be solved? These are the questions to which the answers are then manifested tangibly in the form of a new product, service or business model.

Human-centered design approaches the task of problem solving by always seeking to understand the end-user’s needs and aspirations, goals and the environmental conditions and constraints in which they live. When we can design a product or solution that meets an unmet need or challenge successfully that becomes good design.

These qualities are what make design a powerful tool for not only increasing value for corporations but also benefiting their customers by providing elegant yet effective products, services and business models. Often the biggest challenge is to identify the real problem that must be solved, this where using design research methods and tools can help businesses at their early stage strategic planning.

Design thinking in business takes this problem solving aspect one step further. Now the tools and techniques from the field of design such as ethnographic research, rapid prototyping and conceptual brainstorming integrate with the pragmatic business frameworks of strategy, analysis and metrics to create and provide roadmaps for business innovation and competitive advantage. In this context, design has evolved away from traditional form giving to becoming an integral part of corporate strategy.

How and where can it be applied?

When you’re looking for new market opportunities – You know your company’s strengths and are looking for inspiration and insights for innovation within your existing product line or think there might be a new product category you’d like to explore. You know the market opportunity you want to target, such as “seniors or youth market” or “wish to expand to a new culture or country ” but need help to define the product or product category that would allow you to take maximum advantage of this opportunity.

Or when your business is facing a very specific challenge, but doesn’t really know why and needs to take a look not only at their products and services but their business system to see what can be tweaked. Often companies who need an innovative new product concept to become a global design “hit” will face this fuzzy problem. This is where design tools such as exploratory research and insights can lead to clear articulation of opportunity spaces and as yet unmet consumer needs, communicating visually through concept sketches as well as creating a strong business case for a particular design direction by supporting market analyses and metrics.

Design has the tools for visualizing complex large scale systems and the insights thus derived can be applied to improving the quality of the customer’s experience, improve the efficiency of the process and offer benefits across the spectrum of applications. For example, the UK has hired a senior designer to help improve the patient experience and the processes at the National Health Service. Bringing design’s empathy and user centered approach to process innovation adds intangible value to systems which were otherwise focused on efficiency and profits alone.

So design is extremely important. The nature of the field allows it to add empathy, insights, innovative approaches to problem solving to traditional means of addressing the same challenges. It creates value and enhances the user experience; it gives meaning to lifeless objects and can touch human emotions on a fundamental level.

First published

User driven innovation planning and strategy in development

It was with feeling of satisfaction that I read Eric Smallberg’s recent post titled “Thankfully, ICT4D is Now About Strategy and Implementations, Not Technovelty” where brings up the lessons from failure and the shift in emphasis of technology based development projects and social enterprises.

He says:

Richard Heeks wrote about the early history of these changes in a paper entitled The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto. Mr. Heeks explained the difference in earlier attitude between the first programs, and the projects in the field today. Early programs relied upon “technovelty” and focused more on spreading access as quickly as possible instead of on thoughtful implementation. He generalizes the outcome of those early projects into a few words: “failure…and anecdote[s].” Often programs would return with great stories about how technology had changed one individual’s life, without analysis to the larger effects. Past the promotional materials, positive impact became difficult to assess, which in turn led to many projects today being framed by sustainability, scalability, and evaluation.

Reading through, I can honestly say that this applies to all technological innovations aimed at the rural African, the base of that pyramid or for social impact. For most of 2012, I’ve been involved in assessing the current status of a social enterprise in East Africa, and these points from the article resonate:

As speakers talked about their projects, and the effect they had, they all listed off their lessons learned, including:

  1. “Building trust and credibility is crucial”
  2. “Research tech context before strategizing”
  3. “Technology should serve the goal, not be the goal”
  4. “Try to find out if there is an alternative to technology”
  5. “Use the technology that is already in place to limit training needs”

Sounds amazingly like basic advice for user driven innovation, minus the jargon, from the frugal engineer’s point of view (#5 Why reinvent the wheel when first prototypes abound?)

I hope this shift in thinking, as observed among the ICT4D practice, finds a way to influence the startups and social enterprises in more basic services such as cooking, lighting, defecating et al. 

Design for the next billion 2012: What’s missing?

An upcoming project’s requirements led to the realization that there is a huge gap in design for the next billion (and more). The subsequent domino effect has left a lack in tools, methods, frameworks and thus, disciplines themselves, from the perspective of addressing the challenge of serving the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) population segment. Here I will simply attempt to capture the questions raised in these four areas I’ve noticed:

1. Tools for the BoP Market

It all started yesterday when I was looking for a means to manage customer relationships with lower income customers in rural Kenya. Where were the CRM tools that could be effectively, affordably and easily used by a social enterprise or business whose primary target audience were the BoP? Examples of Customer Relationship Management apps proffered to me in response to this question in Twitter led to a series of design constraints coming to light as I attempted to explain why such and such or that and the other would not do for the operating environment in which it must work. It made me realize how few tools (if any at all) existed for the BoP market, that companies could utilize in order to build relationships and loyalty with their customers and offer them a well design user experience.

Why was there this gap when there was a plethora of such tools and applications for even the smallest startup to use in the developed world? Furthermore, given the years of investment by a vast variety of firms, large and small, attempting to improve the quality of life for the BoP yet still only partially succeeding in reaching out to these new customers and creating markets and demand, wouldn’t there be a crying need for appropriate technology and cutting edge marketing and communication tools to help improve the success rate?

This thought led to the consideration that in order for such relevant and appropriate tools to be created, there needed to be appropriate and relevant methods for design and development in the first place.

2. Design methods for the BoP

So when Victor Lombardi posed a question to me during a recent skype conversation:

How do you visualize the long term experience of the BoP customer?

I realized I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way before, and as Victor said, he’d not seen anything on this either. Whereas, these concepts and methods had emerged in response to the way increasingly sophisticated companies were engaging with their customer base. My attempts to grapple with this question uncovered such concepts as Customer Experience (and thus, customer experience design), User Experience and its design, and whole slew of information waiting out there among young and new design disciplines.

While their roots are in technology and the internet, their philosophy can be summed up as a holistic human centered strategy for sustainable customer engagement.

How different is it for those of us seeking to engage with the underserved and overlooked lower income customer base in the developing world? And due to the lack of market development and available information, was it not more critical that each actor focusing on the BoP market consider every single element of their business strategy rigorously in order to establish and maintain their enterprise sustainably? There are no specialized firms nor fragmentation of disciplines for BoP oriented enterprises, they must be the jack of all trades from inventor of new products and services and business models to figuring out how to reach these demanding customers who live in challenging environments.

Yet, all the conversations on “Design for the next billion/other 90%/social impact/poverty alleviation/BoP” revolves around the long established methods and approaches from traditional product design, development and engineering. There is a gap here that must be seriously considered if the tools and apps for reaching these customers, as mentioned in the first point above, are ever to be successfully developed for our use.

3. Frameworks for the BoP Market

And so, we need new frames of reference and ways of grasping the operating environment in order to create strategies and thus action points for this wholly different and new frontier market opportunity. Where is the Customer Experience lifecycle as it applies to a BoP customer, to go back to Victor’s original question? And critically, can the existing frameworks and disciplines deal with the challenge of bridging the socio economic and infrastructural chasm as well as the attendant underlying assumptions? Obviously not, since those are the tools and methods and frames of reference which we’ve all been struggling to apply with little degree of success in the BoP context.

Or, as I said to Victor in response to his question, how can we assume that the long term experience of the BoP customer will follow the same path as that diagrammed or framed for the ToP customers?

After all, when the fundamental mission of a social enterprise is to alleviate poverty or improve quality of life, then the ideal long term outcome for a BoP customer is that he or she moves up and out of the equation. That is, the idea is not that they come back for the “BoP” focused product or service meant for the economically challenged but that their life has improved to the extent that their upward mobility implies more expensive product or a different value proposition all together.

This is diametrically opposite the fundamental assumption in conventional frameworks where the goal is to create customer loyalty and long term engagement. On the other hand, one could create great user experiences and loyalty that leads to word of mouth referrals and advocacy even as the successful customer upgrades to the next level.

4. Design disciplines oriented for BoP customer context and needs

This is an open ended question. Is it enough that the existing fields of design, particularly the nascent and emerging ones – like UX strategy for example – simply be focused on the challenges and constraints of the BoP customers environment, infrastructure and cash flow, or, is it that there is a space for an entirely new design discipline that holistically covers all elements of the user experience – whether a product like a cookstove or a user interface for a mobile app or service – and takes all these fundamental differences between the BoP customer and the first world one into account?

For the tools, the methods and frameworks themselves might need to be redesigned in order to be successfully applied for this customer base. From Brandon Schauer’s writing:

UX managers are in a rare position where they can see both the business needs and user needs, and can find where they align to produce revenues from positive relationships, not from goading, entrapment, or annoyances.

Perhaps what is required is a new way to frame the problem solving approach, say for example, UX for the BoP and not simply use the term design as it is currently meant in the narrowest sense.

Out of touch, out of sync: The future of American Design

Since I’m still in the mood to look back at the progress of the design industry in this past decade, let me bring up another article I’d spotted in FastCo as well. This one is from September 2011, titled “American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next?” written by FrogDesign’s Robert Fabricant. Going by titles alone, I hope this isn’t the renaissance of the design industry’s intense navel gazing of the 2005-2007 era, although, I’ve heard it said that design writing tends to consist of little else. Lets look at what he has to say:

This wave of “agile innovation” poses a new set of challenges for designers, as many of the tools of design are already in the hands of entrepreneurs and engineers. Designers can’t wait to be “hired” to enhance or improve these offerings. We must be active participants at their inception. If designers are truly skilled at identifying unmet human needs and creating the breakthrough products to address those needs, then, increasingly we will need to prove our value as entrepreneurs. American designers can and should lead the way in showing how you adapt the design process to rapid, real-time product development. And lead the way in demonstrating what can be achieved by designers as entrepreneurs in our own right. Ten years from now I hope to see designers able to attract VC capital at the same rate as MBAs and software engineers. That is the next big mission for American Design.

Amazingly, just a few months later, we have this Reuter’s piece In Silicon Valley, designers emerge as rock stars (though its publish date is Friday the 13th of April, not the 1st).

Five years ago, Justin Edmund arrived at Carnegie Mellon University, a floppy-haired freshman, with artistic talent and dreams of joining a venerable design firm like IDEO or Frog. But during his sophomore year, a recruiting pitch from a Facebook employee turned his head, and prompted a detour of his ambitions.

“It didn’t even occur to me that working at a tech company was something I could do,” Edmund said. “I switched my trajectory completely.”
Edmund isn’t alone. Inspired by the legacy of Steve Jobs and lured by the promise of the current tech boom, young designers are flocking to Silicon Valley, where they’re shaking up a scene long dominated by engineers and programmers.
Last year, McClure put down money to create the Designer Fund, a program that identifies entrepreneurs with strong design backgrounds and offers seed money and mentoring from experienced founders like Putorti and Chad Hurley, of Youtube. The fund, headed by Enrique Allen, a 25-year old graduate of Stanford’s design school, has partnered with more established venture investment firms like Khosla Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.

“We’re reshaping a lot of how you build a company,” McClure said. But, he added, “there’s still a resource and talent shortage” for interaction designers.

Young American designers seem to be already leading the way, as the rest of the article clearly demonstrates, attracting VC interest and a fund developed specifically for them. Can this shift have suddenly happened in the 6 short months since that article was published at Fastco?  Apparently not. Dave McClure writes in BusinessWeek back in February 2010 on “The Value of Design to Startups” where he says:

It certainly doesn’t hurt to have code jedis at the helm of your starship, but engineering for consumer Internet startups need only be competent. The real challenge is finding designers and product managers who can build an awesome product experience, and marketers who can figure out effective, scalable, integrated distribution strategies (whether organic or paid, whether technical or creative).

So are these two clusters of highly intelligent people simply talking past each other, or has the design industry indeed aged and faded to the extent that they’re unaware of what’s happening in the cloud around them?

From the perspective of someone who was once actively thinking and writing about design, from a desk on a hill in San Francisco, just five years ago (when Justin Edmond arrived at CMU in fact) it seems that American design has a bigger problem they face today – that of still living in an echo chamber whilst gazing at their navels.  Man, even I’ve archived those posts on a dusty WordPressed shelf and moved on to the next frontier. Once upon a time, Fast Company was as edgy as Wired in the heydays of “make it look like Wired” but today, it seems to have become the “business strategy” thinking designer’s bulletin board. 

Going nowhere fast: Looking back at a decade of design thinking

“He who doesn’t know where he came from doesn’t know where he is going” ~ African proverb

Today, I came across an article in FastCo written by one of Monitor/Doblin’s people, Melissa Quinn, whose bio seems to imply she is responsible for selecting the right mix of professionals from both business and design. Reading What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems took me back in time to a wholly different era, just about 7 years ago to the Spring of 2005, when “Business” and “Design” first began to intersect on a graph that had until then been asymptotic. That I feel grandfathered is a side effect, but that the conversation has gone nowhere in these intervening years is a much worse feeling for one who has been immersed in this conversation for a decade. And, I was a latecomer as those articles reveal.

Why did Quinn’s article wake up the ghost so suddenly? She wrote:

 And I was less than impressed with the business-thinking skills of designers the following Monday morning, when I interviewed 10 of them at the Institute of Design in Chicago for jobs at Doblin. To most candidates, I asked of the ideas they presented in their portfolios, “But how does it make money? Who will pay for that? How much would you need to sell to be profitable?” and was met with far too many blank expressions when I did so. Design schools have a long way to go to integrate good business thinking into their programs. In order to make their value known to the world, designers need to speak the language of business–that’s where great ideas get funded and developed. Design education needs as much of an overhaul as business education if we are to benefit from the talents of design thinkers in the business world.

I hope that we see meaningful reinvention of both design and business education so that the business world can realize the true value of design thinking. Until that happens, Rotman’s Business Design Club would be wise to require challenge teams to comprise both designers and MBAs. At least it would level the playing field, and it may improve the educational experience for both–assuming each can decipher what the other is saying.

“Ahh, my poor students” was my first thought, forgetting that I’d not been Director of Graduate Admissions and head of the department for all things students since the summer of 2005. Ironically, most of Doblin’s current team are either former classmates or former admits, can you blame them for raising the bar too high for new recruits? Still, pride in the past aside, one must now ask what the problem is with the curriculum and the teaching at the Institute of Design if after 7 years they still haven’t learnt to think about the bottomline?

After all, hadn’t I taken Design Planning with Doblin’s Keeley himself? His curriculum began (in the Fall 2003) with an introduction to most of Porter’s classic frameworks of strategy and competitive analysis interspersed with the usual suspects from Bschool textbooks. If anything, that should be the program (Human Centered Design Planning) that should have incorporated the need to think about business models from the revenue generation point of view. The joint MBA/MDes came much later – in fact, Brad Nemer  was the very first student to attempt both these degrees together  in 2002 and that too, both were extremely intensive fulltime programs. It had taken a lot of kicking and screaming internally, if I recall those faculty meetings correctly, to finally create the merger of the two degrees into something a human student could conceivably achieve within the 2 year span.

I know that even back then, many students were planning on taking the basics of finance and accounting but today, in the Spring of 2012, I am surprised to read that business model design with the attendant consideration of revenue models and payment plans are still giving the design students a “blank expression”.  The irony of Melissa Quinn’s complaint in FastCo is not lost on me when you consider that the original Institute of Design – Moholy-Nagy’s new Bauhaus – was reinvented by Jay Doblin himself. (Read that linked PDF, its Doblin’s “A short, grandiose theory of design” that first puts forth the need for design to think about business and its goals) and that Keeley is on the Board of Trustees.

I’d like to end this pondering path down memory lane with Brad’s quote in the 2004 Core77 article:

“I chose the dual-degree path for two reasons. After working in several high-tech startups, where the product essentially is the company, it became clear that no matter how grand the vision, design is managed in the context of business.” He said as he explained his choice of degrees, “So it is critical to understand the basic forces of accounting, marketing, and organizational management, because otherwise even the best designs in the world will go nowhere. The much-celebrated divide between “designers” and “suits” is not only counter-productive to success all around, it’s inaccurate. Once you demystify business fundamentals, they become just like any other design constraint, and are no more insurmountable.”

and leave it to the powers that be at ID-IIT, Chicago to ask themselves what progress they’ve made in this century.

An update: Victor Lombardi tweets (In) Sum: Have we thrown out collaboration? Until we learn to make unicorns, it’s the *team* that needs all those skills

For some context, I’d interviewed him for that very first article as well, back in December of 2004 where he’d said:

“My partners and I view design as a way of thinking which is applicable far beyond the design of products” he explained. “Our clients want to explore innovative business strategies, ways of collaborating, and ultimately to develop their own innovation capabilities.” So while Lombardi’s firm thinks like designers, they work with executives to help them explore the options a more creative approach can offer. “It’s not easy for people to stretch their thinking to encompass both business- and customer-centric points of view, but ultimately this is what we need to do to create innovative, human-centered organizations.”