How might Experiential Graphic Design Embrace Design Thinking?

Post it notes ready for the SEGD 2016 Design Thinking Workshop in Seattle

Design Thinking is Becoming a Driver of Innovation

The design profession developed as a response to the Industrial Revolution, a way to return some sensitivity to the mass production of goods as craft industries were overtaken by mass manufacturing. Design humanized and brought beauty (through color, materials, form and clarity) to products, packaging and communications, and helped make sense of the industrialized world; design developed from a craft-driven activity in the sense that it concerned the improvement of artifacts. By the middle of the 20th century, however, design was focused on finding solutions to user's problems. And by the end of the century the process of design was starting to be described as separate from the output of design – still most often an artifact of some sort. A user-centric focus, rapid prototyping, and quick iteration approach are at the core of the distinct "Design Thinking" approach to problem solving, and design's ultimate strength.

If you consider that only 1-3% of inventions succeed, and that most do not have a clear insight into the needs of users, it start to become more clear why user-centric Design Thinking is becoming the driver of innovation in today's world. Unlike invention, innovation starts with a clear articulation of a real user problem. Youngjin Yoo, PhD, who teaches design thinking and digital innovation in the Department of Design & Innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management, says, "A great design begins with a compelling problem. Who are the innovators, then? Innovators are those who are unhappy with the current situation that everyone accepts as given. They are the ones who keep asking, 'Why not?' They are the ones who wonder, 'Can an alternative reality exist?'”

Design Thinking

Design thinkingis a powerful methodology for flexible thinking and innovation. It is a disciplined approach to reframing user problems, sketching and prototyping ideas to solve those problems, and applying the logic of possibilities before implementation.

Design Thinkinginvolves several general steps that often overlap rather than happening in sequence:

1) identify the user problem that needs to be solved

2) research the history and existing conditions through immersion in the subject, defining user needs, and questioning existing thinking about the opportunities and challenges

3) ideate, or exploring multiple perspectives and creating and considering many possible solutions

4) create quick prototypes, fast and early, test the most promising concepts

5) refine the best solution

6) implement it

The Value of Design Thinking

Design Thinking (integrative/abductive reasoning) as a process distinct from business thinking (logical/analytical thinking) or engineering thinking (logical/deductive thinking) is finding a meaningful place in today's organizations.  Their commitment to uncovering new and innovative ways of doing business is evidenced by the increase in the number of designers sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. Many major corporations and management consultanciesare acquiring design studios and increasing their design staff. P&G has hired more than 300 designers and IBM has invested $100 million in hiring design talent and launching interactive experience labsas part of their efforts to create a “design-led” culture.

The value of Design Thinking is now so broadly recognized that it is embedded in the DNA of the world’s most successful companies like Apple and Coca Cola, and even the U.S. and other Governments are integrating it into their problem solving and innovation efforts. Business schools are developing programs to teach management-by-design. Who would have believed Design could make so much progress toward delivering higher value in such a short time?

Design Thinking's methodologies and skill sets are being employed to tackle many of the world’s largest social and poverty challenges. The U.S. Government, for example, has tapped design firms for their thinking on a wide range of topics, from web design for the Social Security Administration to making government buildings more sustainable. The White House has a Senior Policy Advisor for Making, who is actively supporting Design Thinking and the maker movement. The Australian Taxation Officeis using Design Thinking to reshape the entire national tax system. A new community justice system in Liberia was created using a Design Thinking approach.  Many other governmentsare adopting Design Thinking, including some of the early pioneers such as the U.K. and Croatia (which has made design part of their constitution) and claim it has helped them leapfrog forward.

In the non-profit and non-governmental organization world too, innovators like the Greater Good Studio are bringing Design Thinking to bear on realms that have historically not benefited from it, from school lunches to regional transit and world health.

Clearly, many types of organizations are improving their effectiveness to solve problems using the principles of Design Thinking and many of the problems involve space. For this reason there is a real opportunity for Experiential Graphic Design, the discipline that created experiences and solves problems that connect people to place to engage in a whole new set of user needs that go far beyond the spatial orientation problem. This is especially true as digital technology becomes widely deployed in place, bringing with it the power of data, data that can help to solve many user needs relevant to a particular spatial context.

Why the obsession with Design Thinking?

Maybe because, as Dr. Yoo says, "No matter how tough the problem is, the current situation can get better if we work to see it through the different lens [of Design Thinking]." Design Thinking fosters new alternatives, game-changing ideas and innovation-driven user-problem solutions. Design Thinking expert Kevin Budelmann, co-founder of design strategy consultancy Peopledesign, says the lines between maker and user are blurring more and more all the time: designers are spending time discovering what users need and users are making their needs known--and impacting the making process themselves--by a variety of means that include digital technology, 3-D printing, web platforms, social media, etc.  This creates a demand not only for high design, but high levels of personalization, responsiveness and empathy toward the user.  Businesses are acknowledging that Design Thinking's human-centered, user-focused approach works.  As IDEO’s Tim Brownsays, “Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.”

How does Design Thinking Apply to XGD/EGD?

Microsoft Hololens Designer Miko Charboneau says, "When you watch users struggling to do something, "those are opportunities, we can innovate around those opportunities."  So far, industrial designers have pioneered the use of Design Thinking as it relates to products and services, as have graphic designers when it comes to communication. When we talk about the built environment, there is still a huge opportunity, and who is more adept at identifying what user struggles can be solved through design than experiential graphic designers?

As Dr. Yoo and other Design Thinking proponents point out, designing and delivering unique and powerful experience is a next-frontier growth opportunity, replacing mere product selling. Apple and Kodak transformed hardware products into experiences that met the needs (often unarticulated) of consumers. Companies like Coca Cola that pursue an experience-oriented strategy deepen relationships with customers, expand control over the value chain and change the value proposition of their products and services.

Opportunities abound for practitioners of experiential graphic design who adopt and expand Design Thinking as a service offer in their practice, especially as they seek to proactively expand the types of problems they tackle for their clients to include a lot more of the user's problems when experiencing the environment. This can enable access to new revenue streams for experiential graphic design firms. Wayfinding, for example, has been evolving beyond a system of objects (posts and pylons) that improve spatial orientation to include apps and maps as well as seeking innovative solutions that decrease user stress and confusion, support a client's brand, and increase user satisfaction with an organization.

Design Thinking being introduced into the broader business/governmental/social culture has greatly expanded the number and type of problems that designers tackle over the past 20 years. Why should it not do the same within the experiential graphic design profession? General interest in Design Thinking is evidenced by the growing number of Google searches for the term which have doubled in the last two years. This is very good news for the elevation of the value of the design profession.

Isn’t it time that Experiential Graphic Designers claimed their piece of the vastly expanded design pie?

See a recap of the SEGD Design Thinking Workshop at the Seattle National Conference, which attracted by far the largest attendance for any of the learning sessions this year.


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