Design Thinking

Chastity Fabry

Executive Summary

Reprint: R0806E

In the past, design has most often occurred fairly far downstream in the development process and has focused on making new products aesthetically attractive or enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising. Today, as innovation’s terrain expands to encompass human-centered processes and services as well as products, companies are asking designers to create ideas rather than to simply dress them up.

Brown, the CEO and president of the innovation and design firm IDEO, is a leading proponent of design thinking—a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way. In this article he offers several intriguing examples of the discipline at work. One involves a collaboration between frontline employees from health care provider Kaiser Permanente and Brown’s firm to reengineer nursing-staff shift changes at four Kaiser hospitals. Close observation of actual shift changes, combined with brainstorming and rapid prototyping, produced new procedures and software that radically streamlined information exchange between shifts. The result was more time for nursing, better-informed patient care, and a happier nursing staff.

Another involves the Japanese bicycle components manufacturer Shimano, which worked with IDEO to learn why 90% of American adults don’t ride bikes. The interdisciplinary project team discovered that intimidating retail experiences, the complexity and cost of sophisticated bikes, and the danger of cycling on heavily trafficked roads had overshadowed people’s happy memories of childhood biking. So the team created a brand concept—“Coasting”—to describe a whole new category of biking and developed new in-store retailing strategies, a public relations campaign to identify safe places to cycle, and a reference design to inspire designers at the companies that went on to manufacture Coasting bikes.

Thomas Edison created the electric lightbulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. The lightbulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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