Viewpoints – Design Thinking

This season's Viewpoints series for 100archive looks at the theme of Design thinking. In the concluding piece of the three-part series, Mel O'Rourke looks at Design Thinking from the perspective of overseeing a design and branding studio practice.

So what is design thinking, anyway?

When I was asked to write an article on design thinking, I had to look it up to make sure that what I had always assumed it to be, wasn’t actually something very different. Surely design thinking is about working through human problems and using design to help solve them?

There are many definitions of design thinking online. Google it and top of the pile is IDEO founder David Kelley, “In its simplest form, design thinking is a process, applicable to all walks of life, of creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems; it is not limited to a specific industry or area of expertise. It can be as effective in technology or education as it may be in services or manufacturing”.

That all sounds on the money. How about his Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the’s definition, “providing a glue that brings teammates together around a common goal: make the lives of the people they’re designing for better”. Ah precisely, this all makes sense.

For what it’s worth, since we started in business back in 1996 we’ve always taken this approach to projects, large and small. Working through ideas collaboratively to figure out how best to solve problems with the end goal of making lives easier or better for the people we’re designing for is a way of working that every design practice worth its salt undertakes. As designers, we intuitively go through a set of cognitive processes which ensure a result which has been rigorously tested, works effectively on various different levels, and ultimately, solves whatever the problem was in the first place. 

“"For what it’s worth, since we started in business back in 1996 we’ve always taken this approach to projects"”

In the world of visual communications as in other disciplines, design typically refers to the pleasing aesthetics of the end result. Universal principles of beauty such as The Golden Rule, Rule of Thirds etc., influence our thinking as to whether something is beautiful or not. We recognise if type hasn’t been properly crafted, kerned or set, if colours don’t quite gel together as a palette, if code has glitches which disrupt the use of space or function on-screen or if a print piece is of poor quality. However, this is just one aspect of the design process, making things look good. Before this step can take place, the complete understanding and hypothesising of how the solution needs to perform, adapt, influence and grow in the eyes of its users is paramount in order for the magic of visualisation and creation to occur.  And so, my humble definition of design thinking would be the process of understanding people who are perhaps not you and using research, brainstorming and general people-watching to build a picture of what could make their lives easier and how expectations could be exceeded, creating that solution and finally testing it to make sure it works effectively in both the here and now and for the future. This process can be summed up in three words; research, creation, validation.

Unfortunately, bad design is found in all walks of life and we only have to step outside our door to see examples of where design thinking hasn’t been a part of the process. We see posters which look beautiful but communicate a message poorly, directional signage which confuses us, websites which are difficult to navigate and continuously bring you to the wrong place…the list goes on. A particular bugbear of mine is the lack of thinking that goes into the design of most of the country’s shop fascia…they hurt the eyes in the same way that long nails dragged across glass hurts the ears. It creates a general impression of laziness and a sense of an 'ah sure that’ll do' attitude. Even Apple, for all its focus on design and function, manages to still invoke murderous intent when we the user are confronted with its Apple ID verification across multiple device notice…grrrr.

Collectively, poorly designed things make us sad and slow us down. Also the misuse of the term ‘design thinking’ by some corporates and governments to mask a lack of actual design thinking is pretty soul destroying. It’s even more depressing when we think about the impact this lack of design thinking has on the planet. Just look at the devastating image of the plastic blanket of rubbish taken off the coast of the island of Honduras in the Caribbean. Sometimes it feels like we’re just filling the planet with crap that nobody wants or can use. This is the reason why smart organisations are taking the notion of design thinking seriously and investing in it as we no longer can afford not to. 

“"smart organisations are taking the notion of design thinking seriously and investing in it as we no longer can afford not to"”

As a studio, we strive to do our little bit with every project we take on. With clients that don’t understand or see the value of design thinking, we try and educate them about the many benefits of entering a process where both parties work together to create something that will have a positive impact on their business and on the people who will eventually come in contact with the work we’ve produced. Like any commercial entity with mouths to feed, it can be difficult sometimes to stick to principles and not get swayed by budgets and restrictions that are part and parcel of any design project. However, by choosing to do the right thing as we know it with every project, irrespective of budget, and walking away if we feel we can’t positively contribute, we have been very fortunate and have found that the work finds us. Going that extra mile makes all the difference.