To face new challenges, designer and CEO Tim Brown says we must shift from “consumers” to “participants,” and move “from chasing numbers to serving humans.” (More)

This is a two-day series based on the book, Change by Design by Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO Corporation. Today we will explore what Design Thinking is and tomorrow we will talk about what Design Thinking offers as a tool to change the world.

The Patient’s Experience: An Entire City

I bought this book based on listening to a Minnesota Public Radio interview with a doctor from the Mayo Clinic who had partnered with IDEO to rethink the patient experience. I was captivated listening to a doctor speak with such passion about design thinking. What he said was that much of the patient’s experience of Mayo was really the experience of the city of Rochester, MN so they were partnering with the city to make it a wonderful experience. Whoa! I was impressed with the calm and certain delivery of a medical doctor saying that partnering with the city to redesign the city was an important part of delivering health care. As you can imagine, I did not change the channel.

I found much in the book that resonated with my career of trying to change the world of work in a way that people mattered. The author learned, three decades ago in design school in England, that “people were more important than profit.” I was hooked. This is not a critical review but an attempt to share what I see as a glimpse of a possible future. This has practical implications for political activists. Brown outlines a process for engaging people that is not unlike how we speak of talking with Fred. Many of the thinkers we have read about on BPI are covered in his book; Lakoff, DeBono, Haight, Dawkins, Schwartz, Heath, etc. This book is an integrated way of thinking about the idea that we’re all in this together.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is about putting people first to solve our common problems. It starts with a “design brief,” a question that calls for answers. But the question will often be clarified during the process by talking with the participants, both those who will craft and those who will use the answers. Many of the early examples in the book are from work with corporate clients. As the firm evolved, IDEO began working with NGO’s and non-profits in the developing world. When the book was written, they were working with the TSA to redesign airport security. Design thinking is a people-centered way of thinking and rethinking our world and its problems and not a prescription for increasing market share or incrementally improving efficiencies.

“Design has the power to enrich our lives by engaging our emotions through image, form, texture, color, sound and smell.” In design thinking, Brown writes, we “use our empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.”

He writes about how we live together and how we solve problems together. Chapter Two is titled, “Converting Need into Demand, or Putting people First.” Chapter Six is titled, “Spreading the Message, or The Importance of  Storytelling.” Sound familiar?

Three spaces:

Design thinking occupies three overlapping spaces and is not sequential. The three spaces are:

1. Inspiration – insights gathered from every possible source;

2. Ideation – insights translated into ideas; and,

3. Implementation – the best ideas developed into a concrete, fully conceived plan of action.

Brown speaks to the moods associated with different steps in the process, which anyone who has worked with groups would recognize. There is the burst of optimism associated with collecting ideas followed by the frustration in trying to synthesize them. (Hello, Democrats.) There is the pragmatic optimism of the beginnings of implementation which are “punctuated by moments of extreme panic” which really rang true for me. (Hello, ACA.)

He speaks to convergent thinking, the Western way of taking inputs, analyzing them and converging on a single (best or right) answer. This was the school experience for most of us. He contrasts this with divergent thinking that is all about creating choices. He acknowledges that the constraints of time and budget often lead us to obvious and incremental choices.  He also thinks that the time spent on inspiration gives us better choices from which to choose.

Stories, Pictures, and Prototypes

Brown’s statement “Data are data and the facts never speak for themselves” stopped me in my tracks. Policy-wonk Democrats could learn from that statement. It was followed by the concept of the designer as a master storyteller creating a “compelling, consistent and believable narrative.”

For those of us short on patience, consider this exchange with Eames of the famous recliner, a design icon. Someone asked him if his chair was conceived in a flash of inspiration and he replied, “Yes. Sort of a thirty year flash.” The Eames brothers spent years testing and tinkering with a wide variety of materials in their attempts to create ergodynamic furniture.

One of the facets of design thinking that really appealed to me was biomimicry which is the idea that we can learn a lot from nature. He has a chapter on what we could all learn from the honeybees. He talks of community and working together. He also writes of the importance of a climate of optimism because cynicism smothers ideas before they have a chance. (Hello, Frustrati. Hello, Non-Cynical Saturday.)

Did you know that Nobel Prize winner Stanley Cohen and the founder of Gentech, Herbert Boyer spent an evening after a boring lecture filled conference drawing pictures on a napkin of bacteria having sex? I didn’t know that either but it helped convince me that pictures and visual thinking are an important part of design thinking. Brown says that “Design thinking is functionally relevant and emotionally resonant.” Is not that the description of what we wish to achieve when whispering to Fred?

Did you know that the prototype for the first Apple computer mouse was the roller ball from Ban Roll-on deodorant affixed to the base of a plastic butter dish? Brown is an advocate of quick and dirty prototypes that allow people to see the idea in action, however crude that prototype might be. People often respond to a verbal description with a nod or a shrug. They respond to a prototype with ideas for what it might do and how to improve it.

Experiences, Values, and Culture

He gives examples of how our consumer driven economy has changed some basic experiences. Once upon a time making music was a family activity. Someone played the piano and others sang along. Sheet music was a big industry. People gathered round the radio to listen to music and news. Now people have iPods and it is rare for people to gather round the piano for sing-alongs. I am happy to report that people still sing around campfires. I do like “Kumbayah,” as corny as that may seem. My kids have a wonderful repertoire of old time songs: “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “Amazing Grace,” and “We Shall Overcome.” I love hearing my grandkids sing the same songs. They are cultural memories and values in storytelling via music.

Speaking of values, Brown tells the story of Japan’s approach to complying with the Kyoto protocols. They had a goal of reducing emissions by 6% in one year. They used the design thinking process to plan their attack. They surveyed all sorts of experts and got a list of 400 everyday activities that cause or reduce CO2 emissions. The 400 were reduced to 6 key practices including: raising the thermostats in summer, lowering them in winter, turning off the faucet while brushing teeth, shaving, or showering, driving less aggressively, making eco-friendly purchases at grocery stores and ending the use of plastic bags. They came up with a campaign of “cool biz” for summers and “warm biz” for winters. They had a fashion show featuring the prime minister to make casual, lighter weight clothes acceptable for summer office wear. Companies and their employees got “cool biz” badges and the corporate cultures changed. Their goal was to generate a national conversation and it worked. With those six practices, the Japanese met their energy conservation targets.

That strategy worked in Japan because it was designed for the Japanese culture, a key element in design thinking. We ought not rush to print up “cool biz” badges here and hope for the same results in the U.S. For an idea to work here, design thinking says, it must be designed with an understanding of our culture. And ideas that work here may not work everywhere else. Change by Design is filled with examples where understanding the culture was essential to crafting a solution, defining and solving problems by putting people first. Brown says there is an important transition “from chasing numbers to serving humans.”

The New Social Contract

Brown thinks “the new social contract” is “we’re all in this together.” He cites three major shifts.

1. Consumers expect to have a say in what they buy and how it is made and the line between products and services is blurred.

2. Design thinking is now being applied to complex systems.

3. “There is a dawning recognition among manufacturers, consumers, and everyone in between that we are entering an era of limits; the cycle of mass production and mindless consumption that defined the industrial age is no longer sustainable.”

Here is Brown in his own words at a TED conference:

There is an inherent challenge in taking a way of thinking, a process, and turning it into topics for discussion. Here are some questions to get us going:

1. How well do we do as activists on a local level of gathering input from voters and passive Democrats?

2. Do we have a collection of stories about why we are Democrats that are emotionally resonant?

3.  If voting is a verb, to we have plans to motivate people to act?  Even locally since that is where we operate. How can we do this better?