Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Why we should leave design thinking to designers

Design thinking is the business buzz-phrase of the year. This I judge not on its novelty (it originated in the 90s*), but on the sheer weight of design thinking books now littering my desk. This is not to belittle its worth. Design thinking’s growing prominence is a welcome shot in the arm for both innovation and customer value.

In essence, design thinking is a process that allows businesses to match their boring analytical sides with creativity and intuition. It sprinkles old, dysfunctional products with designer dust, creating “user experiences” that fundamentally define brands. It's about using creativity to change behaviour.

I spent most of last week talking to a variety of design luminaries, most of whom displayed a messianic reverence for Apple designer Jonathan Ive. Those iPods are pretty, right? But Apple’s nod to design thinking goes way beyond white earphones. As Stewart Emery and Robert Brunner write in their book, Design Matters,

“Close your eyes and imagine you are holding an iPod. Now take away iTunes, take away the ability to buy the song you like for 79p without having to pay £100 for a dozen more that you don’t want, lose the ability to create playlists, cut out the packaging, take out the ads, delete the Apple logo and close all the stores. The remaining question is: do you still have an iPod?”

To a designer, that iPod in the palm of your hand has its own form of communication. Design language is the term designers use to describe how a product makes the customer feel. It is what happens when a product’s form and function fuse to elicit an emotional response.

According to Brunner and Emery, design language “is the consciously orchestrated work of a designer”, the way your product speaks to its target market.

BMW is one company fluent in design language. That’s largely thanks to the efforts of the Dutch designer Adrian Van Hooydonk, who assumed responsibility for all the company’s car designs in 2004.

Back in 2004, BMW was expanding its range, producing more cars for more markets. But was there a central message BMW could hang on to? A consistent product vision for all BMW cars? Van Hooydonk decided he wanted all BMW cars to appeal to the type of consumer that wanted to own “a drivers’ car”.

His strategy perfectly illustrates the inherent balance of design language, where form is just as vital as function. The design team had to produce beautiful cars, but looks had to be supported by performance, otherwise the customer experience would be compromised. “A car shouldn’t look like it can corner well if it can’t.”

How a BMW car speaks to its owner, in the way the leather interior smells, in the soft thunk of the door as it closes, in the way the wheel feels as it turns, its solidity at high speed, its reliability, these are all elements of its design language. They elicit an emotional response in the driver, but more important, they are inextricably linked to BMW’s marketing strategy, to build “a driver’s car”.

Design thinking, which puts the user at the heart of a product’s development, is partly about the transmission of design language. What message is your product sending to the customer? What does that message say about your brand? What does it say about your strategy?

Design thinking is also credited with the creation of innovation and discovery. Design tools such as networking, brainstorming and fast prototyping are all essential components of the creative process. But discovery also comes from an ability to pose new questions while others revel in predictability. If you walked a designer around the shop floor of a customer services call centre, his or her first question would not be to do with operational efficiency, it would be about why the product creates so many customer questions in the first place.

Companies such as BMW and Apple didn’t break the mold. It’s eminently possible to build businesses that balance creativity with predictability and efficiency, but most chief executives just aren’t very good at asking tough questions. As design consultant Lydia Thornley puts it:

“There is an element of otherness that design thinking can sometimes bring in... It’s that level of questioning, slightly outside of the comfort zone, that can unearth an issue that nobody had thought about, and suggest ideas that might not otherwise emerge.”

* According to Roger Martin, the phrase is actually a little bit newer than that. Martin told me Design Thinking first emerged as a concept during a series of conversations he had with Tim Brown in 2002.