Three Design Thinking Disruptors

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 8 min read

Scrappy startups, small businesses, large companies, elementary schools, and NGOs are using principles of “design thinking” to unlock creativity and innovation.

From education to entrepreneurship, design thinking is a formula for unlocking creativity and innovation. Before we discuss the three design thinking disruptors, it’s important to understand what is design thinking and how its principles drive innovation.

What is Design Thinking?

Originating in the design process, designers have been using this system for decades. Though there are many interpretations, here are some of broadly agreed upon design thinking principles:

1) Rather than getting it perfect quickly, design thinking emphasizes rapid prototyping. Innovation comes from iteration. Test out the prototype, learn from users what needs to be changed. Then rinse and repeat.

2) It encourages working on cross functional teams. Homogenous thinking is inevitable if we only work with like-minded specialists. Design thinking encourages organizations to break down barriers. A team composed of people with different backgrounds will generate more solutions than one composed of people that all have the same expertise.

3) It relies on unconventional problem solving to help people, not only organizations and businesses, fix their problems.

4) It understands the importance of empathy to deliver human centered design. Design thinking helps us develop empathy: a key value for understanding the wants and needs of other people.

5) It cultivates curiosity, something that we all have in us as young children but we stifle and suppress as we get older.

1) Henry Ford

Though the term has only recently become popular (dare I say a buzzword), innovators have been applying its framework for over a 100 years (even if they didn’t call it design thinking). You can even find traces of it in Henry Ford’s Model T design.  

Our first design thinking disruptor used it even before the term appeared. When Henry Ford pioneered the Model T, he forever transformed how we think of transportation. As Todd Olson points out, the Model T “was not a marvel of technology, but of design.” Olson makes the point that Ford designed a simple car that was affordable for the middle class. Ford designed it so that it was as easy to operate as a horse and carriage. He made sure that his design would appeal to humans. The Model T was a true product of human centered design and engineering.

Design Thinking: Delivering Innovation for Over a 100 Years

Recently, companies like IBM, Fidelity, and Infosys have been benefitting from using in-house innovation labs that apply the principles of design thinking.

If Henry Ford was an early adopter of the design thinking process, here are two modern design thinking disruptors who use empathy and rapid prototyping to develop transformative innovations:

2) Microsoft

A juggernaut that helped make computers a household product in the 1990s, Microsoft has leveraged design thinking to “to deliver increased access, reduced friction, and more emotional context to the greatest number of people.” Microsoft calls their version of design thinking “inclusive design.” It is their mission to “empower every person on the planet to achieve more. Designing for inclusivity opens up our experiences and reflects how people adapt to the world around them.” They’ve applied design thinking to a Skype translation tool, social gaming, and the education space.

When put to action, design thinking is capable of creating incredible results for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

3) Nordstrom

Nordstrom has used the principles of design thinking to quickly generate solutions that produce human centered design. The design thinking process is also about “making it real fast” and aiming to build an MVP (minimum viable product). This innovation strategy enables a business to build a prototype that customers understand while at the same time giving customers the chance to give feedback that will allow the business to turn their MVP into a finished product.   

The Nordstrom Innovation Lab Sunglass iPad case study is a superb example of how Nordstrom produced human centered design over a short period of time:

Design Thinking in Schools

Businesses aren't the only ones benefitting from design thinking. Educational institutions are as well.

Schools are great laboratories to test out design thinking in part because curiosity comes to a child more naturally than to adults. In that sense, design thinking innovators are experts in harnessing their inner child to create imaginative solutions to the world’s big challenges.

In addition to children’s innate curiosity, there’s another reason why design thinking is a natural fit for the classroom: Teachers are designers. They design curriculums, course goals, and student projects.

This in turn helps students become designers. Think back to when you made a science fair project in 5th grade. Though most of us remember this experience as an exercise in the scientific method, it was also anchored in the design process. No surprise that it overlaps with design thinking since science fair projects are also an exercise in cultivated curiosity.

Though many teachers may be unfamiliar with design thinking, it easily integrates with their goals once they learn more about it.

Consider the following case study in which a non-profit teamed up with the Hawaii department of education to apply design thinking in the state’s public schools:

Consistent low student achievement results at Castle High School in Hawaii demonstrated the need for a redesign and restructure of the school. Design Thinking Hawaii, a non-profit organization that engages volunteers to apply Design Thinking to big challenges, partnered with the Hawaii Department of Education to reimagine the Castle High experience.” 

“Through a series of mini-charettes, Design Thinking Hawaii has collected the needs and interests of learners, teachers, and families and engaged the larger community to imagine new solutions that could help the school be more effective. The adopted plan captured the community’s priorities in new content and structures, and Complex Area Superintendent Lea Albert is enabling the school and community to prototype and iterate core curriculum, character education, and support services. This is the first public-school model in Hawaii to co-design its offerings with community, targeting systemic educational problems.”

Yep, design thinking brings a lot of value to students’ education. It plants seeds that can transform them into innovators, social engineers, and creative problem solvers. Those are seeds we want to water at a young age.

Take empathy as an example. It’s a value that allows us to relate to other people in a more “human” way. According to one author:

“Empathy is, of course, the root of human-centered design. Leading with empathy builds on the classic definition of 'walking in someone else's shoes' to get us out of our own heads and into the lived reality of others so that we can understand the implicit needs and root causes of the situations in which we work. Leading with empathy means pushing yourself to get closer to people, and to do so consistently, publicly, and with conviction.”

From childhood to adulthood, design thinking helps us reimagine problems. Teaching, designing, and innovating go hand-in-hand because they are about getting your ideas out of your head and in front of an audience. You can then tinker with your ideas based on the audience’s reaction.

Robyn Richardson, a designer elaborates on this in a TEDx talk:

When we are young we have every medium we can think about to represent the world around us. And then it gets smaller and smaller and smaller until you are left with a pencil…So pick up a pencil and draw a picture, take a picture and represent what you think the problem is.

“The innovation in design thinking happens when it’s a team sport. When you invite other people into the room who don’t necessarily agree with you. Steve Jobs said get the most ordinary person in this room and we are going to make something that pleases them. If you do that and you make thinking a practice and you make it a team sport that’s when you start to innovate.”

So from the classroom to the boardroom, design thinking is a powerful tool for generating innovation and collaboration.

Human centered design has been at the core of innovation strategy and thinking for a long time. Some businesses have consciously wielded the design thinking process to disrupt while others have seemingly stumbled upon it. Striving to produce human centered design has proven successful time and time again.  

Yep, design thinking has a nice track record of success. But its potential is not limited to business alone. If we learn its principles from an early age, design thinking process has the potential to cultivate many more innovators in our society.

Want to learn how design thinking can change the way you innovate? Let’s have a conversation.