Monday, October 19, 2009

Design Thinking

>> BCN Design Week Campaign

It’s extremely difficult to exist in Barcelona without noticing some element of design every few minutes – a striking poster, a network of walkways around a park, a coiled stack of churros. But as if that wasn’t enough, Barcelona has its own Design Week, and this year it happens to be at the end of October (what luck!). Among the many Design Week events is a conference on “design thinking.” I’ve run into this term before, usually equating it with “the thought process of a designer”. But what does that mean? Can we really find a “typical” way of thinking in the world of design? I decided this concept was worth a bit more research.

As it turns out, “design thinking” involves much more than the mind of the designer, and may actually challenge our very notion of design. As Tim Brown notes in his new book “Change by Design”, design thinking is an interactive, collaborative, nonlinear, human-centered approach to solving problems. It’s a move away from intellectual exercise to actual experience, as well as a change from design-by-designers to design-by-all. Or, more accurately, design-from-all. The notion that good design must be achieved by the expert who knows how to apply all the rules is replaced by the idea that good design comes from many people (the more the better) and rules are just barriers to innovation.

This all sounds very abstract, but the applications of design thinking are real, and pretty exciting. Rather than limiting design to making things more attractive or easier to use, design thinking encompasses a much broader range of approaches, ideas, and systems to make a better human experience. Brown gives an example of a Japanese bike company that wanted to try something new to jumpstart a lagging business. Instead of starting with the bike (adding specialized features, developing a slick new look) it considered the experience of bike riding. Many people have fond childhood memories of riding a bicycle. But the majority of them keep these memories stored away alongside the dusty, unused bikes in their basement. Why don't more adults ride bikes? A team of designers, marketers, engineers and social scientists worked together to answer this question. They identified several real concerns that kept adults away from bikes: anxiety about entering a professional bike store, confusion about the many bike accessories and parts, worries about safety on the road. Designing a better looking bike was not going to help – this team decided they needed to develop a new, simple bike riding experience. The end result was an innovative “coasting” bike that hid an automatic gear-shifting technology in a basic bike framework – no confusing handlebar controls or cables. Advertising campaigns included phrases like: “Chill. Explore. Dawdle. Lolygag. First one there’s a rotten egg.” The company even worked with local communities to post safe riding routes on the web. The coasting bike was hugely popular. This project was not just a bike re-design, it was design thinking applied to bike riding – and its success shows just how powerful this type of thinking can be.

The implications of design thinking could be immensely helpful as we go about solving other human-centered problems like health care, education, or security. Taking a step back from small-scale objects to community (or global) experiences may be the only way we can begin to move forward on these very critical issues.

More on design thinking after the conference...

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