How Design Thinking Helped Create the Light Bulb and Tesla

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 3 min read

The design thinking process has been a playbook for innovation strategy for a long time. Even before design thinking was articulated as a well defined process in the second half of the 20th century, its principles have produced remarkable inventions. From Thomas Edison to Tesla motors, human centered design has been the driving force behind innovations that have revolutionized businesses.

1) As pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article, when Edison created the electric light bulb, he thought not in terms of a single device but a whole marketplace. He focused on his customers’ needs (in other words, human centered design):

“Edison’s approach was an early example of what is now called ‘design thinking’—a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered ethos. By this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, or what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported. His approach was intended not to validate preconceived hypotheses but to help experimenters learn something new from each iterative stab [“make it real fast”]. Innovation is hard work; Edison made it a profession that blended art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.”

2) Elon Musk and Tesla Motors are reimagining the car, both in regards to its energy source (electric) and its driver (AI). Tesla has also embraced the principles of design thinking. It participated in the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Customer-Focused Innovation program in 2009.

Tesla was featured in a week long project “to immerse participating executives in the practice of corporate innovation and ‘design thinking’.”

Like Edison’s focus on not just one invention but how the light bulb could change civilization, Musk and Tesla understand that the car is about more than transportation. It’s about creating a sustainable future for our planet. Don’t just think about a product in isolation from a larger ecosystem. Think about how it functions within and can possibly even transform that ecosystem.  

What Edison and Tesla understand is that by designing products quickly, you’ll make mistakes that you will learn from. This is a critical insight of the design thinking process. But I think Woody Allen said it best, “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Right on, Woody.

Let’s have a chat about how design thinking can drive innovation in your company.