A beginner's guide to design thinking

What is design thinking and how can your business benefit from it?

Even as recently as the early 00s, design was considered by many to be an aesthetic output relegated to narrow silos like R&D, product design or advertising. Fast forward to 2017 and the picture is vastly different. Design has taken centre stage to the point where you can barely move for companies calling themselves design-led.

From multinational conglomerates like P&G to disruptive startups like Airbnb, “design thinking” is the new brand. But what exactly does it mean to be a design-led business? There are entire university courses dedicated to answering this question but in the meantime, here's our beginner's guide for the uninitated.

What exactly does it mean to be design-led business?

A design-led business makes design a key part of its core business strategy. This can take the form of prioritising design over other business imperatives, for instance the way that Steve Jobs did when he instructed his engineers conform to Jony Ive’s outrageous product designs. The top down approach doesn’t work for every company, however, which is why the latest definition interprets design-led business as creating an environment that allows design thinking to flourish throughout the entire enterprise.

Ok, so what’s design thinking then?

Er… thinking like a designer. In seriousness, the goal of design thinking is to equip people who are not trained as designers with creative thinking tools in order to better address business challenges. Design thinking places a high emphasis on people and for this reason design-led businesses are sometimes referred to as human-centred businesses.

Why are companies investing in design thinking?

Design thinking can help businesses to overcome many challenges. From rethinking product parity to improving customer engagement, design thinking tools can be used by anyone - not just designers - to solve the problems facing their team or the business as a whole. The focus on the end user often leads to customer-centric innovation. When married with rapid prototyping, design thinking can give companies the edge in today’s constantly evolving social and technological context.

How does a company become design-led?

It depends on the corporate culture. The goal is to graft the methods and principles of design thinking into the DNA of the company. This may require training staff in design thinking tools. Another important factor is to instill a customer-centric mindset. At Airbnb, there is a dedicated user advocate (someone who represents the customer) in every project team. Many Fortune 500 companies are installing “chief customer officers” to represent the customer at board level.

In summary

To quote IDEO, a trail blazer for design thinking, "[it] brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable". Combined with the pull towards the circular economy, this is an exciting era for design. Don't get left behind! Get in touch to find out how design thinking can make a difference to your business.