design trends

How to Think Like a Designer

September 29, 2015
by Toby Bottorf

This September, Harvard Business Review announced on its cover the evolution of design thinking. Apparently, the way we work is now a legitimate thing in business. Designers everywhere should be excited at this newfound legitimacy; we have long aspired to earn a chair at the table (a Herman Miller chair, please). However, the evolution we see is primarily in how design methods have been better understood and valued by business, not any recent and radical transformation of design methods themselves. We’ll take it.

The reasons to incorporate designers’ ways of thinking are clear and compelling. Businesses today operate in an age of customer control, and designers have always been closer to customers, as people, than the business community. That makes design methods more valuable to business. HBR’s cover should more accurately read “The evolution of business thinking.” Welcome to design thinking, and the methods contained in that general framework.

designers have always been closer to customers, as people, than the business community

Design thinking is a broad umbrella term for a number of methods and approaches to innovation. To commit deeply to “design thinking” as a set of methods also requires changes in how to think. I want here to highlight two.

Design thinking is consilient thinking.

Consilient thinking is the capacity to make inductions from unrelated data sets and converge on strong conclusions. That’s a how a multidisciplinary team of designers works, by putting together pieces of a puzzle to get to breakthrough insights.

(It is also the kind of thinking that gave birth to the field of epidemiology, vividly told in Steven Johnson's history of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London).

Consilient thinking differs from conventional business thinking in a couple of key ways: it looks for compelling evidence rather than proof, and it is non-linear.

Evidence, not proof.

There is an uncomfortable difference between evidence and proof. At Continuum, we often need to reassure skeptical clients that our research will generate deep insights, in spite of a sample size that is not statistically valid. For ethnography, an N of 5 is plenty. We illustrate this with the example of Sir Isaac Newton. He did not need a statistically validated number of apples to fall on his head to arrive at his breakthrough in understanding. Singular, vivid examples can drive the development of transformative insights. It is enough if they lead us to strong and testable hypotheses.

Sir Isaac Newton did not need a statistically validated number of apples to fall on his head to arrive at his breakthrough understanding.

Good strategic designers are comfortable with ambiguity. That is not the same as comfort with vagueness. It is the ability to reconcile apparent contradictions, and to zero in on ideal solutions from very different vantage points. On all projects, we aim to design for—which is to say, define success as—customer appeal, market viability, and our client’s organizational capability.

To design for multiple outcomes often means working on separate parts of problems independently. There is no converging on strong conclusions without first starting broadly. This is not only non-linear, it is often divergent. To think like a designer is to be broadly curious about the potential for insight and connection. We speculate and explore because it builds stronger critical thinking. All great ideas start out as impossible ideas. But so do all terrible ideas. It takes practice to tell them apart. One way to identify the potential of an idea is to critique it from multiple very different vantage points.

Design thinking is humanistic.

The adoption of design thinking should lead business processes away from requiring proof in advance to approaches that are based more on exploration and interpretation. This is good news, as it is the right vantage point from which to address a space of growing interest to business that is inaccessible to quantitative reasoning. That is, designing for emotional effects.

The second big requirement to thinking like a designer is radical empathy. Ethnographic research is a valuable method for gathering insight from people, but the more valuable result is a personal realism that accepts their messy, complicated lives as they are (no different from yours and mine!). We meet people on their terms, and it is a lesson in humility. The work we obsess about for 50-odd hours a week may warrant mere minutes of attention a week from customers. We need to earn it.

We meet people on their terms, and it is a lesson in humility.

Businesses talk often of customers’ “lack of engagement,” but this is not a problem customers themselves would recognize. From their perspective, they are engaged with the services in their lives as much as they want to be, or can afford to be, given conflicting priorities. A business’ customer engagement challenge is often a consumer’s complaint about relevance, quality, or timing. They are never “using it wrong.” We need to redesign it so that it works in their real lives.

Consilient and empathic thinking represent two essential ways that designers think.

Of course, design is doing more than thinking; it is a way of framing and solving problems that is oriented toward making. We work through problems with our hands as much as with our heads. To unlock the value of design thinking takes action. We welcome a future HBR article on the latest business dynamic: the culture of prototyping. That’s evolution.

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