Diverse applications of design thinking across businesses
Great design can come in many forms, and not always akin to a slick iPhone. The result of great design can look like anything from an energy snack to an airport security system. And the process to bring it to life can be rigid and systematic or free-flowing and unplanned.
These ideas form the premise of Jay Greene’s book, Design is How it Works. Greene has spent most of his career as a tech journalist for titles including BusinessWeek and The Seattle Times. Along the way he became fascinated by the different ways that successful companies approach design, so he decided to investigate the subject in depth, interviewing a range of companies – large, small, public and private – for the book. We caught up with him ahead of his trip to Australia to speak at the AgIdeas International Design Forum Business Advantage Breakfast Seminar.
Jay Greene: Design thinking is one of those phrases that folks throw around a lot, and I think different people might have different ideas of what it might mean. But I think of design thinking as the practice of applying the skills designers use to create products and services that solve all sorts of business challenges, even ones that don’t require a focus on aesthetics. Designers intuitively use creativity and empathy to create something that has an emotional connection with customers. They observe potential users using the product, they prototype concepts, they collaborate with colleagues and they test theories and they come up with all kinds of novel approaches to new products. It’s something that all businesses can do, it isn’t just about designing a product itself, it can be about designing a service.
There’s a company called Ideo, it’s one of the big design consultancies of the world, they did this cool thing where they used design thinking to reimagine the way airport security is done in the US, they’ve worked with the transportation security administration to improve the process of going through airport security. So they’ve used design thinking to create this service that has nothing to do with some shiny object, it’s using design thinking to really improve a process.
M: What do you think are some common misconceptions about design thinking and design in business?
JG: One of the core tenants of my book is a lot of companies look at Apple and think, ‘That’s the way to do design, Apple does great design’, and they do, they do fantastic design. But the truth is that isn’t the only way to do design. Too many companies look at Apple and think, ‘I’ve got to mimic what Apple has done’. If you look at companies that do design well, and I focus on some in my book, they take all different approaches to doing design well. Lego is a fascinating company – their design process is really rigid, it’s really laid out in a very almost formulaic way. But they do design really well. There’s another company I focus on in the book called Ace Hotels, which is a cool, small hotel chain, it started in the US, but they only have about seven hotels. It’s kind of a seat-of-your-pants kind of design; it really relies on the ingenuity and the creativity of a handful of people, and they don’t have a particularly rigid design strategy. My point is, there isn’t one simple way to do design. It really depends on the vagaries of your market, the people you have on staff, it depends on who your competition is, all sorts of different approaches. One approach doesn’t work for everyone.
M: In a way that makes it scarier for companies because they’re out there on their own. How do you work out what kind of design culture you need in your organisation?
JG: That does make it scary. What I wanted to avoid in my book was this notion that there’s a simple solution. I think anyone who’s trying to sell you that is really trying to sell you snake oil. There isn’t a simple solution, but there are some sort of thematic things that you can follow, and I think part of it is really being true to yourself. But you have to invest in a culture of design – I think the companies that do design consistently well have CEOs that embrace the importance of design, even if they aren’t designers themselves. That means they give employees a mandate to take risks and come up with the most innovative products and services. In doing so they accept the occasional failures as the cost of being creative. One of the things you often find these companies doing is they don’t bury these failures; they don’t bury these missteps – they use them as a tool to help employees learn. I think too many companies pay lip service to all that kind of stuff. CEOs say they embrace risk but then they shoot down the most creative ideas because marketing data doesn’t exist to support that business plan. That in turn leads employees to pursue these incremental advances and they aren’t really risk taking even though they like to think they are.
M: So there are a lot of people talking about valuing design and risk-taking but not actually doing that in practice. What are some of the benefits of being a design-focused organisation?
JG: I think the big one is that you avoid this trap of commoditisation. If you look at the global economy these days, commoditisation happens on this incredibly broad scale and you see companies that want to try and compete on cost but that’s a really dangerous game, so the ones that do really well, they’ve all succeeded by creating better experiences for their customers. And again, Apple’s a great example, but you look at all the companies in my book and they’ve done really well, they avoid the commoditisation trap by designing these wonderful experiences for the customers. Customers in turn crave their products, they’re loyal, and companies that do that build these durable bonds with their customers.
And let’s be clear as well, there are companies that don’t design particularly well and they can compete in commoditised markets. I’ve written over the years about Microsoft for example, and Microsoft is a company that has a virtual monopoly on desktop operating systems. They’ve been able to commoditise rivals and succeed. So there are companies that can do that, but it’s a really really hard business to do. Then again, design is really hard as well, right? So you have to work out what’s best for your company. The idea of competing in a commoditised market strikes me as just as challenging, just as scary as competing in a market where design is more interesting, where you can build more loyal fans. And to be honest, as an employee, I’d much rather work for a company that’s coming up with wonderful designs than trying to come up with a better way to undercut the prices of its rivals.
M: Totally. So what are some companies that do this really well? Obviously you spoke about some of the companies in your book – I’m guessing you chose them because you thought they were doing really well at implementing design?
JG: That’s right, and what I wanted to do was pick companies that were big, medium, small, privately held, publicly traded…
M: There are a couple that we don’t have in Australia.
JG: That’s right, I’m sorry about that. One of the things that was important was to make sure that the companies that I wrote about were all successful; I didn’t want to write about a company that did a really cool design that tanked. So Lego’s a fun one, they’ve done enormously well by focusing on design. Virgin Atlantic is a fun one, that’s service design, they’ve been very successful by making travel fun. I mean, how often are airline trips fun? But they’re really good at it. Flying on their jets, it’s a fun experience and you want to go back. So I think there are a number of companies that have figured out how to use design to be financially successful.
M: It’s kind of just about being different as well I suppose, as opposed to, because I think that when people hear the word ‘design’ they often think it’s about being beautiful, but maybe that’s not necessarily what brands need to go for?
JG: If you want to talk about another misconception, I think the idea that design is just about trying to make something beautiful, that’s not enough. The title of my book actually comes from the Steve Jobs quote. It’s a longer quote but it ends, “design is how it works”. He talks in there about how design isn’t just about putting this pretty sheen on a product at the end of the development process. It’s about creating an experience for people – design is how it works. There are a lot of companies that say, “We want to do great design” and what they do is come up with a product and at the very end of the product development cycle they hand it to a designer and say, “Okay, make it look nice”. And that generally isn’t going to be a successful approach to doing great design. Design has to be part of the thinking of the development, the thinking at the beginning of the development process.
M: That brings me to my next question actually, which is about organisational structure. What’s the best way to set up your team, or does it depend on the company? And your thoughts on outsourcing to agencies versus keeping it in-house?
JG: I hesitate to talk about best ways, because again, a lot of that depends on the company and the market it’s in and the people who they have on staff. What I would say is: the companies that do design well typically have CEOs or senior executives who are committed to this. So I don’t want to say it’s a top-down strategy, but it requires a company that is really willing to create a culture where folks can take risks, try things, where they can be innovative. Now, risks can fail and you don’t want to fail too often, but you definitely want to have a culture that embraces the idea that you can be innovative and you can take these challenges, because you often will come up with these best products where you can push to that envelope.
Do you have designers in-house or do you use design consultancies? Both of them can work, and some companies that do design well actually use both. I don’t think you have to say, “Design consultancies are a bad idea because they come at the end of the process”. What I would say is, if a firm uses a design consultancy, don’t hand them a brief at the end of the development process and say, “Okay, make this pretty”. Invite them in at the beginning and have them work on the concept with you. I think most design consultancies would tell you the exact same thing.
M: Do you have any other advice for marketers and people running businesses that are thinking of adopting design thinking?
JG: We talked a little bit about this already, but one of the ideas is that design is something that can happen in companies with products that aren’t necessarily beautiful products. One of the companies I focus on in the book is a company called Clif bar. They’re energy bars, the kind of bars that runners or hikers might pack. What’s interesting to me about them is if you think about the product you make, nobody’s going to look at a Clif Bar and think, “We need to put that up on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art”. It’s a food bar; it’s not aesthetically beautiful. But what was fascinating to me at Clif Bar was that the designers there use the same tools as everyone else to come up with a product that works well for their customers. They do ethnographic research on runners and hikers and cyclists to understand their needs. They prototype concepts to test those theories, and they come up with products that the customers really crave, even if they never knew to ask for them. There’s a product they’ve made called the Luna Bar, which is a women’s specific bar, and it has a little bit less of the protein of the bar that men would typically get, because this is a generalisation but women generally don’t need as much protein, and they put in other things that women might need like iron or folic acid, and things that women would want. What’s really interesting about that is when Clif Bar first started talking about that bar their suppliers were like, “Don’t do that, you’re going to cannibalise your sales” but they actually expanded the market. They came up with a whole new product that women actually responded well to, and the main product, the original Clif Bar, kept selling really well as well. It’s not a product that you look at and think it’s a beautiful shiny object like an iPhone; it’s a food product, but they use the same process to make it a terrific product that customers crave.
M: Do you have another example of a company doing research to understand the customers’ needs so well that they design something that the customer doesn’t even know that they want until they see it?
JG: There’s a company that I focus on in the book that is OXO, they make kitchen products, gadgets for the kitchen. One of the most iconic products they make is an apple peeler or a potato peeler. The way this thing started was the guy who created the company, a guy named Sam Farber, was watching his wife peel apples, she was going to make a tart I think. Anyway, she had mild arthritis and was really struggling with that peeler, you know, really cheap with the dull blade, that I know I have in my kitchen drawer, it’s not really comfortable. He literally saw this and realised he could do something better. But what was fascinating was his wife didn’t know to ask for something better, the peeler she was using was the only kind available. So he did a lot of research and in that case, worked with smart design which is a design consultancy that OXO works with, and a few months later they came up with a peeler that kind of has a meaty rubber handle to hold onto and a really sharp blade. It’s super easy for not only his wife but anybody who uses a peeler to shave right through those apple skins, and it’s been a huge seller for OXO. No one knew to ask for that because it didn’t exist. But it took a creative mind in Sam Farber and ethnographers and all sorts of folks who could work on grip and product design to come up with a cool product that folks actually wanted that would sell well.
M: There’s a lot of research that goes behind it and a lot of creativity. Thanks for all of that.
JG: Thank you so much.