Veronica: And I’m Veronica Collins, and together we’ll be discussing themes of connection making and culture shaping, delving into how to create meaningful change from a business standpoint and a human perspective.
Kevan: Today we’re exploring Design Thinking. Depending on where you come from, design thinking may be a buzzword, or your best friend, or a brand new idea. People love it, people hate it, or misunderstand it entirely. We believe the package of design thinking contains toolsets and mindsets that serve as one of our best chances for building resilient organizations that can adapt for the future.
Veronica: Today we’re going to be talking Design Thinking and all it’s implications with our very own Stanley Lai. Stan is Domain7’s Design Director who believes in design and it’s ability to transform society and the world we live in for the better. Something he likes to call consequential design.
Kevan: Stan has been a sergeant in the Singapore Armed Forces, a designer at Olgivy and Mather, and has done award winning design work for startups and tech firms, from Asia Pacific to the UK to Vancouver. He’s currently taking his Masters of Strategic Design and Management at Parson’s School of Design, The New School. Thanks for joining us, Stan.
Stan: Very glad to be here.
Kevan: The topic of Design Thinking has been kicking around our offices for quite a while, but lately there seems to be a renewed focus on revisiting it, and maybe even challenging aspects of it. It seems that it’s in a space right now that it’s coming under some critical scrutiny, but is also being revisited as something worth paying attention to. Where are you at today with your perspectives on Design Thinking?
Stan: I think Design Thinking is in a really interesting space and environment right now. It wasn’t too long ago when I think back to just a couple years back, and in some of the startup environments that I’ve been in, and how much of a struggle it was for designers to talk about, “You need a seat at a table,” or “you’ll need it to be respected or need it to be taken seriously.”
Personally, for me, for example, I haven’t had to have a lot of those conversations anymore, of having to go up to someone and convince them or explain to them what design is or Design Thinking is. I think we’re in the position where most business leaders would recognize, or at least have heard about design and design thinking, and what the value of it is to their businesses and to organizations.
Kevan: It sounds like you’re saying design now has a seat at the table. The work isn’t about convincing people that design is a field and needs to be respected. It’s more of a question of, how are we going to bring our understanding of it to bear towards some of the bigger challenges that are ahead of us.
Stan: Yeah, absolutely. The conversation’s becoming a lot broader, and the people who are participating in it are getting more diverse as well, so definitely very, very interesting.
Kevan: And it seems that at the same time, it just seems like maybe design thinking hasn’t actually achieved the penetration and adoption that we think it has. I was hearing a story this week from a professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, of a kind of business case challenge that was held at Royal Roads, where business schools from across Canada sent delegates to participate in this design challenge, about the future of infrastructure and city transport. So as the students went out to do their field interviews, and to do their research work, the professors were gathered around the table back on campus, and what this prof was saying was… He was really surprised to find that there were so many business school profs from all across Canada at that table for whom this was their very first exposure to design thinking.
Veronica: So it sounds like we almost have three different things happening here with design thinking. There’s the design practitioners who have been working this way for a long time, and were in the trenches early saying “design is not just a coat of paint you put on your product at the end, it’s the way that you can innovate and problem solve,” and I remember some of those early days feeling designers pain around the table with that, and it seems like we’ve moved past that. Most people seem to understand that design’s not just a coat of paint.
Design thinking has emerged, it has become sort of a business trend. So then you have the design practitioners, you have the business community that is embracing design thinking as sort of this new buzzword, with articles everywhere, and then you have the business leaders who maybe haven’t even… Maybe they’ve heard the phrase, but beyond that, they’re just not exposed to it, so it’s almost this three-tiered sort of layers of familiarity with it.
Stan: I think there’s absolutely a spectrum that people have, and different stages of their journey of understanding or learning what this stuff is really about.
Kevan: One of the things that I think would be great would be to actually define design thinking as we see it. There seem to be so many different interpretations and understandings and models, and having a bit of a common language around it, what we’re referring to when we say design thinking, I think would be really helpful for listeners… Maybe we can start with you, Stan. How would you define design thinking?
Stan: Design thinking, to me, as I understand it, or as I like to talk about it, is really the practice of problem solving and solution finding the designers have been using for decades. It’s really looking at that practice and the success that designers have had in problem solving, realizing that all of us, in any sort of work that we do, are solving problems, and can the design methodology, can the the practice of design have value to the way I solve problems.
Kevan: Veronica, what sort of definition do you work from when you think of design thinking?
Veronica: I think of it as sort of a toolbox, a set of exercises, sort of thought experiments that you can walk yourself through to sort of uncover this freshness in yourself and in your team, and a good source of innovation, but also of just listening to yourself, anew, and to the people around you, a newer way to sort of get rid of the hierarchical habits we might have. It’s vulnerable, but it’s also fun, and energizing.
Kevan: I love that. It sounds like you’re describing not just a method of solving problems, but a method of engagement that changes the way teams can work, the way you bring yourself to the table, the way you’ve framed the challenge overall.
Stan: Yes, you’re absolutely right, and I think mindset is just really the heart of what good practice of design thinking looks like, or design methods. There is a typical understanding of what professional designers do, right? Do you think of graphic designers, folks who are building magazines, building apps, building websites, crafting and creating things, and those are the designers, and I might be a teacher. I might be an accountant, I might be not a craftsperson, and if I’m not a designer, and I’m not doing anything within that space.
And I think that is the key thing that I like to try and correct with the understanding of “let’s go back to basics about what the word ‘design’ really is about,” and the term “design” is about making something. It’s about creating a blueprint for how we could achieve something, or we’ll be creating something.
So design thinking starts to introduce some of the methodologies and approaches for how people have been successful in solving those problems. The different ways of processing and looking at information that you need to gather and understand, and so one approach that has been very popular in the last couple of years is this whole idea of human-centered design. Designing from the standpoint of the human, of the person, of people, and using them as a starting point for how you want to go about understanding the problem.
And there are other areas as well, as we step into a natural extension, I think, of design methodology and design thinking in a lot of ways is the idea of innovation. How do we go about making new things? How do we go about looking at discovering new possibilities and new approaches? And again, the human-centered approach has a lot of value there, but as well as the idea of iterative development, of taking things in small bites and small pieces, taking small steps that build up to a bigger whole, each time learning and building upon the work that you’ve done before. Whether you succeed or fail, you still learn, and when you learn, that contributes to the work that you’re gonna continue doing.
And so all of that has very big implications for the way that we want to work.
Veronica: I’m just thinking back to the first time I encountered design thinking, which was through Stan, actually. We were working together, and he suggested, I think, a design thinking lab within our company to test out some of these ideas, and what I loved about it was that it sort of magically brought together these two really difficult things to practice in companies, especially companies where there’s a very entrenched culture that you’re trying to move incrementally. It felt like a way to sort of just leapfrog some of the cultural barriers to actually using these toolsets to experiment with unleashing creativity, uncovering voices within our company that were often not heard, and listening to our users and our customers in very concrete ways where we would get feedback, and that would affect our work very quickly, and then we would get to sort of validate whether or not what we had done was an active listening of their actual needs.
Those are some really big cultural challenges that you can wrestle with for a long time, trying to solve, or you can run with a design thinking workshop or experiment, and get to experience this shift in a very sort of all-of-a-sudden way. You can go through a workshop, go through a process, and you can say, “we just practiced an entirely new way of working, and some of these cultural walls that we’ve been banging our head against for a long time trying to move the needle on, we just were able to experience what it would be like if we found new ways of listening to our community, both internally and externally.”
Kevan: When you say that, Veronica, it’s really interesting in that design thinking is often experienced as a one time moment. An experience, a workshop, an afternoon, and then what? Then you go back to the regular ways of working, right?
Veronica: Yeah, definitely.
Kevan: Stan, one of the things that you’ve been exploring recently is how to encourage organizations to develop a culture that can actually support innovation in the long term. It seems to be that if you’re truly embracing a mindset of ideation and innovation, if you truly want to say yes to your people, bringing great ideas to the table, if you want to be an organization that pushes the frontier of what your company stewards, that you’d want this to be more than just something that happens in an afternoon, and then you default back to your old ways of working. So what does it take for organizations to actually grow cultures that don’t just do this as a one-off, but for it to become part of it’s DNA?
Stan: I think a big truth for us is, that quote by Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” There is a culture piece that is extremely critical to the way that we pursue innovation, the way that we pursue how we stay ahead of our competitors, and culture’s not a very attractive thing to talk about, in a lot of ways, in a business setting, because it’s squishy. It’s soft, it’s intangible. It is about the relationships between people, and how do we define that? How do we make that concrete? How is it something that we can invest in? Design thinking, in a lot of ways, starts to address, somewhat, those questions, and some of those problems.
The Design Management Research Institute did a lot of researching into the space and looked into how design helps organizations succeed, and organizations that have succeeded, why have they succeeded? And they broke that down into three phases, three tiers in which organizations have adopted design.
We have the design as aesthetics and function, where you look at design is about the futures and the stuff, the tangible things.
But what Sabine Junginger and the Design Management Institute, what she realized is that there are two other levels that design operates in, that design thinking contributes to, which are a far better indicator about success of any organization about how they leverage design. And that is design as—one, an organizational driver. How it influences and impacts organizations. They kind of coin it in a really nice way as a connector and an integrator. It becomes, as I like to talk about it, the common language for collaboration. It creates these new means for people across silos to kind of come together and be able to work on problems together, using design thinking as that connection.
And they have that third tier, which you look at as well, where design thinking becomes about business strategy, about business models, about how you make decisions in a boardroom, with design methodology and design thinking methods and that mindset starts to influence that space of how, for example, you choose which markets to enter into, what sort of products you choose to develop, what are the kind of innovations that you want to be pursuing, and how you go about doing it. Design methods start to influence that space.
I think business leaders, if they’re thinking about the value of design thinking for them, that is a space that they want to be exploring, and that is a space they need to think really strategically about, where design can have the kind of ROI that they’re looking for.
Kevan: What would you say, right now, are the barriers for leadership to be taking design and design thinking seriously for themselves as a professional development opportunity, as a discipline with exploring, as a pursuit that is worthy of a leadership’s time?
Stan: This one’s challenging, because I think every leader, every executive, every domain that they’re working in, they’re gonna have different types of legacies that they would have, different baggage they’re bringing to this, and so there’ll be different challenges they’re gonna face.
Recently, I had an engagement with an organization where we came in, they wanted us to talk about design thinking, and wanted to explore some of this stuff with them, and we started a conversation about culture, and we’d be like, “So how’s your culture going? Where do you think you guys are at? Have you talked a little bit about design thinking?” At it’s end state, it really is about culture. There is a shift in the way that people are gonna behave and the way that people are gonna work together and collaborate. There is changes that are gonna be happening there, and they were extremely worried about that.
We’re like, “Whoa, whoa, we have a culture, we know who we are, we’re not gonna shift, we’re not gonna change those things.” We are who we are, right? And what is really interesting is that once we went in and actually did some training and we did our workshops—we were very respectful about the context of the situations. What I started to realize is that when you actually did it, when you get a chance to experience it, you went in with an open mind, and you’d be like, “This is actually really attractive. This is actually a really nice way of collaborating with my colleagues. It’s a good way to bring together a group of people who have different backgrounds and different experiences, and we can actually work together. We’re really focused on those ideas, and this is a culture that is desirable. “
And again, design thinking is not a monolithic culture, it is not a one size-fits-all that’s going to exist. It will adapt, and it has to adapt to the organization. The design thinking that you are going to practice is going to look different from the organization beside you. You’re not going to be IDEO. You’re not even going to be Domain7. You will be your own organization, but there is a flavour. There is a taste that will develop in the organization that encourages that sort of collaboration, that sort of ideation, that sort of bringing people together. That will happen, and culture change might sound scary, but at the same time, it’s not only about financial outcomes, but it’s also about the workplace environment that we’re in much, because we all want to be valuable in the places that we work, right? We all want to feel valuable. We all want our ideas to be heard. We all want to participate in the exciting new initiatives that organizations are doing.
And design methodologies, applied right, is a great way to bring all of this excitement, all of these desires and energies of everyone on your team into that, and for most business leaders that I’ve worked with, once they understand that, it’s really hard to say no to that, because that is exactly what they’ve been looking for for their companies, for the organizations, right? None of the things that design thinking is trying to achieve are necessarily new, whether about innovation, whether about collaboration, whether about breaking down silos, all of these buzzwords we’ve been talking about for a really, really long time. Design thinking is an approach that helps you to address and succeed in some of those areas, and provides you a framework to move forward in that.
Veronica: A word you used just now that I think is really important is, you said that you went into this organization with a respect for who they were and what their culture was, and is, and I think that word “respect” just really resonates. I see some of the more negative discussions about design thinking arising, as with anything when it becomes a trend. There’s plenty of potshots being taken at design thinking right now, and one of the criticisms I hear is, it can be really sort of young creatives coming in with maybe a lot of arrogance and saying, “Forget the old ways of doing things, forget the experts. You’re irrelevant. Your ways of doing things are outdated. We have all the creative answers, this is the creative way to do things,” and kind of “fall in line,” and I think that’s such a shame, because that’s not what I heard with design thinking at the beginning when you first introduced it to me, Stan.
What I heard was: wow, sometimes from my own experience, sometimes design could feel like this sort of snobby, ivory tower sort of thing where the designers were always right and I didn’t know, and instead it was completely turning that on it’s head, and here was the designer, Stan, coming to me saying, “I really want to hear your ideas. I really want you involved in the design of this solution,” and to me, it was the democratization of the design process that was so exciting. So when I hear you say don’t go into these cultures with a blunt tool or a hammer and say, “We have to destroy everything that was, and completely start anew,” that’s not the point.
Stan: Yeah, absolutely. That just reminds me of something I used to talk about when we were working together, was this whole term that people always had, when design thinking started to kind of capture the world’s imagination was, we need these design-led organizations. We need design-led organizations, and one of the ways that has frequently been interpreted by a lot of people is that, “Okay, well I guess we need designers in the CEO position. We need designers in the manager positions, and only designers can take on those positions because, look at Steve Jobs, right?” We need that sort of creativity at the head of our organization.
And not to begrudge Steve Jobs, or any other design-led organization who have done incredible work, but that is a narrow slice of organizations, and for the work that they do, that is very specifically for them. I think an important distinction, and a thing that we need to recognize, is that when we talk about design-led organization, when we talk about design-led anything, I don’t think that means designer-led whatevers. It is really about the idea of design, and really about the methods and the mindsets and the cultures that we were just talking about. I think that starts to make a lot more sense, and becomes way more inviting and way more inclusive, and ultimately leads to more successful teams and organizations.
Veronica: What you’re saying kind of highlights the fact, for me, that some of these other arguments that have been going around about design thinking right now, where there’s sort of the design purists who are saying design thinking is nonsense because it’s diluting designer’s true practice to the point of meaninglessness, and then there’s people on the other side saying, “No, you need to democratize the useful tools of design for everyone.” That’s sort of a false dichotomy when I hear you describing this. It’s not, “Well, everybody has to have the depth that a designer does, or it’s completely useless,” or “How can we teach that depth?” Design thinking is pointing to a way of thinking that’s valuable for everyone, and there still is the need for deep design expertise, but that’s sort of a different thing. We don’t have to set these two things up to be enemies.
But I’ve heard you…and I can tell on you a little bit here, Stan…I’ve heard you struggle with the term “design thinking” yourself. I know you’re very immersed in this world, now going to Parsons. What do you feel like is happening that there is so much friction around the term itself, and are we coming to the limits of it, and if so, what’s next?
Stan: I look forward to the day where we stop using the word “design thinking” at all. Where it all becomes this natural process that we all take on, as part of the way we solve problems, as part of the way that we do things, and a part of the way we go about building solutions and building services and building products and whatever they’re doing, because what I think, when it comes down to it is that design thinking is this really accessible way of creating the disciplined process to how we want to be building those things, and finding solutions to problems.
To me, I think what emerges there is, I think we need to recognize about the diversity that is emerging in design, and so a great analogy I like to think about is photography. For a while, photography was an intensely technical process that you needed to use silver plates to capture light, and you need just an elaborate amount of equipment, you need someone who’s deeply trained in the chemistry and the physics and all of that stuff to take a good picture. There was a lot of training involved, and it’s very, very exclusive.
And you jump forward from that, just hundreds of years later, and it’s like, “Well, everyone’s a photographer now, I guess.” We now have cameras in our phones, we all take pictures.
And I think that is gonna be true of design. I do see design thinking as a kind of a trend that’s gonna lift all the boats, so to speak. Everyone’s gonna start adopting design thinking on some level, on some measure. I think it’s gonna be incredibly valuable. Even if it is just a matter of how we become more human-centered in the way we make decisions and start creating things, that in itself, I think is going to be such an important change in the way that we’re going to start doing things together as a society.
Veronica: You said even if it just leads to organizations becoming more human-centered, that in and of itself is worthwhile, and I think of sort of this criticism I’ve seen recently that, “Well, when you break design thinking down to be accessible, it’s kind of common sense.” Be inclusive, be creative…but sometimes humans in bad habits need a trigger to do the common sense right thing. We all know that if we had more human-centered organizations, we would be able to create more meaningful projects and products. We know we would be able to solve more problems in the world if we were more human-centered in general, if we worked together more. So I don’t feel like the problem is that we don’t want that as companies, as individuals, as humans. I think the problem is getting out of our habitual ways of working where we have been more mechanized by the sort of legacy of the industrial revolution to work in ways that aren’t very human, and you need tools to help you break step with some of those not very human ways of working together.
So you’re saying even if it does that, even if that seems like common sense, well that’s wonderful. Finally we’re applying common sense in some of these settings, where we might act one way in our personal lives at home with our family and our friends and other organizations, then we come to work and sometimes act a completely different way because that’s the code at work. That’s the personality you put on at work, and maybe, hopefully a couple decades from now, we’ll look back and say, “Well that was sort of ludicrous. That way of being in the workplace,” and it’s a very sort of utopian hope that I am articulating here, but, hey: could we bring our whole selves to work? Could we be people with other people at work? Could we stop some of these dehumanizing habits? I think if that is the common sense legacy of designers rippling out to other organizations around the world, that’s fantastic.
Kevan: I think that’s where we have the opportunity to see just how radically inclusive design can be. I think some of the areas where design can fall down is when a great idea gets conceived of, but then doesn’t get implemented, and areas where business thinking falls down is where habits are followed without being challenged, assuming the world to be linear and predictable, but in the middle is where there’s so much opportunity for a true partnership that relies on different modes of thinking. The future isn’t just design thinking alone, nor is it just business thinking alone.
It’s almost like an interface. It’s where things literally connect and plug into- I’m thinking of an audio interface, like a console in your living room. It receives inputs, it has outputs, the point is we’re trying to bring in the right things and send out the right signals. It’s not that one approach now takes the reign, it’s we are able to equalize or bring more equity and balance to the perspectives that we’re incorporating so that healthier workplaces and more innovative solutions become possible.
Stan: Yep, absolutely, and that is, I think, one of the most underrated and unquantifiable outputs from design thinking cultures today. Is they think exactly that. Is that, to me, one of the biggest changes, in my mind, and in the way I think from starting to really understand what design thinking is about, and conceiving my own philosophy and approach to it, is really that piece of… “Suddenly I don’t need to feel threatened. Suddenly it is not my job to always be the one that’s gonna come up with the greatest idea.” My job is to create the platform for all of these different groups and people of different backgrounds come in and be able to participate, and so this creation of that platforming environment is really what my job is about.
From a point about a diversification of what design means and what it means to be a designer, and the multitude of roles that’s going to emerge there, that need for professional designers, the people who are going to be in sketch, going to be in Photoshop, going to be in After Effects, creating all these wonderful pixels that’s gonna be onscreen, or wonderful artifacts that we see, handle, and use every day in our lives. None of that is going to go away. That would only grow with a great appreciation for how we craft things and how we put things together.
But there is also this new role and this new dimension of what design means, is that creation of that platform, creation of that kind of protected contextual space where we invite other people within that environment to participate in a work of design.
I think one of the biggest values every designer sees today is about design thinking thinking books are being written from non-design practitioners, from folks of design background, operations background, planning backgrounds, and suddenly speaking to and seeing how design thinking can reflect to diverse roles.
One of the most interesting things, to me, is that they are starting to fill some really important gaps within design thinking. And that is about implementation, as we all just kind of talking about right now. If you look at the typical design thinking processes and workshops and sprints or what have you, that are out there, a lot of it has been very focused around ideation. How do you discover the best ideas? How do you pick the best ideas? How do you decide the winner of those ideas? But very few of them start to step into, “Well, how do we start to make these new ideas real?” What does it mean to go from this idea, this insight that we have in this prototype, into a real business?
And as a business, how do we continue to sustain those things and help them to be operational and repeatable, and make good business value? And I think the way the the field’s developing right now, more people are kind of addressing those gaps and filling those gaps from their backgrounds and their professions and their training. There are problems, and I can go on forever about the problems, and some of the problems are emerging because of those voices too. But let’s not miss the fact that there are real gaps in our understanding and our training, and our kind of current conversations about it, and we’re benefiting from what all these new voices that are entering the space.
Veronica: I love that. I think that was a really wonderful sort of expansion of the idea of, you need a lot of different types of people in the room, but you also need a lot of different types of people in this greater conversation, in the macro conversation, and in the development of this, so that it is truly relevant to a wide array of organizations.
Kevan: Stan, I’m so grateful that you took the time to talk through these aspects with us, from defining design thinking, to challenging and pressing against the limits, to seeing how it can be applied, and then how our organizations can change with it. So thanks for walking us through some of these thoughts and perspectives and opinions. It’s super valuable.
Stan: I’m always open to more conversations. If anyone wants to chat more about this, I’m on Twitter, @_stanleylai, and I’ll be happy to continue conversation with anyone who wants to talk more about it.
Kevan: Awesome. Well that wraps us up for today. Thank you for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed today’s conversation, and that you’ll join us for upcoming episodes as we continue to tackle the complex challenges we face as digital makers, and simply as human beings in this technological moment in time.
Veronica: You can find upcoming episodes at domain7.com/podcast, where you can also sign up for our newsletter. You can find us on Medium at the Connection, and follow us on Twitter @domain7. You can also drop us a line with ideas or feedback. I am firstname.lastname@example.org. Kevin is email@example.com, and you’ve guessed it, Stan is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for listening.