From Unthinking Design to Design Thinking

I recently spoke to a person who has successfully started to integrated design thinking into his organization. He re-emphasized the word “started” because he feels his organization is still making the journey. Even so, his organization is already starting to see the benefits of design thinking.
His organization runs a number of hardware retail outlets with a traditional male dominated consumer. Through his persona brainstorming activities, his management noticed that despite the differences in persona types, a large group of their customers are female. Recognizing a business opportunity, they ran a series of advertising campaigns (with assets) targeting females and getting them to visit their stores on Thursday nights, a traditionally slow night in retail, for workshops. The results were beyond their expectations. Not only did they double their revenue for that night (tangible), they manage to grow their brand goodwill (intangible) with a non-traditional base of customers.
Unsatisfied, I asked him if he could quantify this design thinking effort. How much did you spend on design thinking, and how much revenue did you get from that expenditure. I wanted a hard number, or even better, a ratio.
What I got instead was perhaps one of the best explanations on the implementation of design thinking, that both designers and business people can understand.
His answer was, “Zero. We did not spend anymore money than we normally would.”
I was puzzled. How was it possible? No additional investment in design, but with results? If that were true, how wonderful would that be!
Depending on how you look at it, there was actually an investment in design, but from his point of view, it was budget that was going to be spent on graphic designers, retail designers or advertising agencies anyway. He said, “We moved from unthinking design to design thinking.”
In his mind there was no difference between “design doing” and “design thinking”. They go hand in hand, in fact I dare say, one and the same. The difference here was that design became strategic. In other words, this magic happened when design moved from just design doing to a structural and strategic effort that is aligned with the business strategy.
Many companies utilize the disciplines of industrial, graphics and communication design haphazardly or in silos. Design thinking unifies them all. Fortunately, getting design to work strategically requires nothing more than a mindset, process or culture change. Sounds pretty simple, but this is one of the hardest things to change and implement.
Unfortunately, if you want to survive in today’s competitive market this is something you will need to do right away. It is better to bite the bullet now and take it one step at a time, and not when your competitors are lapping you and your struggling business gives you no room to maneuver.

3 Comments
  • Zac

    March 18, 2011 at 3:34 am Reply

    Great work here- really like the article… creative thinking gets results!

  • yushi

    March 18, 2011 at 10:43 am Reply

    really like the quote here from”unthinking design to design thinking.” I guess this also reminds us as designers, that designers are not equipped design thinking with only the designer label. We should and must deliver or perform as a design thinker.

  • Brian

    March 25, 2011 at 10:29 am Reply

    @zac: Indeed, but it is the re-framing of design thinking itself that is needed.
    @yushi: This is one side of equation and a problem that I find needs to be fixed before DT can take off.
    Thank you both for leaving your thoughts!

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