What is design thinking and why does it matter?

What is design thinking, and why should innovators pay attention to it? Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, the new book by Ideo CEO and president Tim Brown, does an excellent job of demystifying this concept, and explaining why it is an important form of strategic innovation.

Like open innovation, design thinking is a hot topic these days. But what is design thinking, and why should innovators pay attention to it? Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, the new book by Ideo CEO and president Tim Brown, does an excellent job of demystifying this concept, and explaining why it is an important form of strategic innovation.

Most often, Brown points out, innovation tends to be technocentric. To differentiate their products from those of their competitors, companies add incomprehensible new buttons and features to their widgets – which confuse consumers and deliver only fleeting competitive advantage. Or firms spew forth innovative new developments from their R&D group, without a clearly defined focus on their core customers – and are then forced to ramrod these cool new technologies down the channel with expensive marketing campaigns that try to convince customers that they must buy it.

What’s missing from these innovation strategies? The human factor:

“Design thinking… match(es) human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business. By integrating what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable, designers have been able to create the products we enjoy today. Design thinking takes the next step, which is to put these tools into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as designers and apply them to a vastly greater range of problems.”

“Design thinking taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It is not only human-centered; it is deeply human in and of itself. Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional resonance as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols… The emphasis on fundamental human needs – as distinct from fleeting or artificially manipulated desires (think marketing) – is what drives design thinking to depart from the status quo,” he adds.

Rather than being brought into the product development process late in the game to add attractive window dressing to an already developed product, design is increasingly being called upon to play a more strategic role, helping to create out-of-the-box ideas at the front end of the development process. And, significantly, Brown explains that design thinking is now being applied to a broad range of challenges that go well beyond developing the next Swiffer or iPod.

I’ve made it through the first several chapters of Change by Design, and I can already tell that I’m going to love this book. It highlights an important business strategy that all innovators, regardless of industry or company size, ought to understand and think about how to look at their business challenges from a fresh set of perspectives.

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