TIM BROWN on the evolution of Design Thinking
One of the world’s leading design thinkers ponders the meaning of creative leadership.
You have said that, at its best, design creates relationships between people and technologies. Please explain.
When I use the term ‘technologies’, I mean anything that is constructed by human beings — whether it’s an ipod, an automobile, a rapid transit system, or an organization’s methods of communication. Herbert Simon said that whenever we shape the world to meet our needs, we are designing. For better or worse, we also shape nature to meet our needs. In each case, by better understanding the needs of those you are trying to serve — and expressing those needs in the form of insights that you develop and prototype — you can end up with new and powerful choices.
The issue is, we don’t always get to the shaping part as early as I would like. Sometimes, we let a technology take its own path for too long, before we realize that we can shape it to meet our needs — instead of being affected by it in a passive way.
One of the key tenets of IDEO’S approach is studying ‘emergent behaviour’. How do you define that term?
In our practice, we are particularly interested in the behaviour of ‘extreme users’. If you take the bulk of behaviour around whatever you are focusing on — whether it be commuting, shopping or some other activity — and draw a bell curve, the extreme edges of that curve represent emergent behaviour. These users often find ways to work around
the system and do things in a novel way. As a result, studying their behaviour can be very useful in terms of informing possibilities for the future. We’ve found that collectively, ‘behaviours on the edge’ often inform ideas that become larger scale.
Roger Martin has said that on its own, data cannot help us understand the future; it can only help us understand the past. How do you react to that statement?
I don’t think for a moment that Roger is suggesting we ignore data; I think he is saying that we need to do things differently today. In the past, we often depended upon data as a sort of ‘instruction set’ for the future. But in a world where innovation is in high demand, as indicated, we need to focus most on what is happening at the edges — the ‘weak signals’ among a particular group of consumers. That is the best way to inform your questions and imagine the future — whether that be product innovations, new organizational approaches or future business models.
In a world where operational competitiveness is the goal, and not innovation, you can still take an algorithm and say, ‘This is what an optimally-efficient version of X looks like’. But that approach only works in an environment that is relatively stable and predictable. In that world, you can get away with using data from the past to portend what to do in the future — because you are assuming that the future will be no different from the past. This is what a lot of companies have done. They live in a world where it’s all about competing operationally, and hence, their improvements are only incremental.
However, in the world of massive change that we live in today, everyone must compete creatively. In this worldview, clearly, data about the past cannot algorithmically tell you what to do next. If the context of the future will be different from the context of the present and the past, then data about the future is obviously going to be different from data for both the present and the past. Having said that, data can still be extremely useful when it comes to informing which questions you should be asking to lead you to whatever your version of the future is.
In an unpredictable world that is as volatile as it’s ever been, the best way to think about the future is to assemble the things you do know about and then wonder what things will be like in the future. Thankfully, one big piece of this puzzle is fairly predictable, because human behaviour doesn’t change very much.
In an increasingly digital world, what new skills are being demanded of the design thinker?
Like everything else, the medium of design is evolving. I was trained as an industrial designer, so my media was metal, plastic and production lines; but I happened to get trained just as the world was computerizing, so, my interest back at design school was, ‘What is that experience going to be like?’ I happened to fall into a company that ultimately became IDEO, where one of the founders, Bill Moggridge, had already coined the term ‘interaction design’. He realized that there was going to be a new medium for design: The digital experience.
Suddenly, as designers, we found ourselves trying to imagine how we could manipulate and work with this new media. ‘The software experience’ entails all the things that software does on screens or through other kinds of user interactions. That journey has been going on for 30 years, now, and it is constantly evolving.
Today, we have other media that are now ‘designable’, including AI, data and machine learning. These are not just technologies: They are media that we can design with to create user experiences. If we think about a particular kind of data, and doing X or Y with it, we can create a response that helps a user achieve whatever it is that she wants to get done. That’s still what a designer does: It’s no different from crafting something useful from a piece of plastic or wood.
AI and machine learning are not just technologies: They are media that we can design with to create user experiences.
Today, we’re seeing an explosion of technology companies delivering digital experiences in one form or another, and most of them recognize that their task is to shape their technology to meet peoples’ needs. As a result, many have built an in-house design capacity. I’ve seen this with my own eyes: The number of designers in Silicon Valley has gone from a few dozen when I first got here in the late ‘80s, to tens of thousands today. Increasingly, people recognize that Design Thinking generates momentum through iteration and prototyping, and that it strengthens insight around what works — and what doesn’t.
Another exciting area is Biology. We’re starting to see early indications of new materials that can be built from physical materials, like cells and DNA. That’s another new medium for us to use. So, one big shift is that we need to embrace and learn how to design with all these new media.
In recent years, the complexity of the problems we’re being asked to contribute to has gone up, by a few orders of magnitude. We used to design products, which was complex enough; but now, we are being asked to design services, which are a succession of products, moments, touch points and experiences; and we’re being asked to think about designing systems, which are to some degree, constantly evolving and made up of many services, products, ideas and stakeholders. For instance, a few years ago we started working with Innova Schools to design a new school system from the ground up, for the emerging Peruvian middle class. We had to come at the problem from many different perspectives at once, with a highly interdisciplinary team. We’ve been iterating on the design of that system for several years, and it is now beginning to be successful, with tens of thousands of students, and some really fantastic outcomes.
The final thing that’s new is that the context for design has significantly changed. When I first started out, I was certainly conscious of things like the environment — that was one of the things that got me thinking about design thinking in the first place. But at the time, there was no notion of things like the ‘circular economy’ and the kinds of design challenges that climate change presents to us — and the opportunities. That context has changed significantly — as it has for business leaders. Designers and business leaders alike have to be much more aware of the societal context, and their contribution to it, than in the past.
All in all, it’s much harder to be a designer these days, but on the bright side, designers can have a tremendous impact on the resulting system. If you get it wrong and design something with too many steps or too much packaging, you will have a negative impact. But, if you get it right and do some clever things, you can have a very positive impact on the world.
You have said that “Design is never finished.” But, obviously, things have to be launched into the world; what’s the best way to manage this paradox?
Back in the day, Ford would launch a new car, and then it would come back the next year and relaunch it with minor tweaks. The Thunderbird, for instance, went through many iterations, but it was still a Thunderbird. In that sense, design has always been something that is ‘never done’— but it used to be much more manageable, because companies had traditional top-down systems in place to manage those activities over a set period of time. The difference today is that most things are delivered through software, which can change constantly — particularly if it’s informed through data that is collected in real time to improve the user experience. Amazon is a tremendous example of an organization that embeds that idea into everything it does. But even in this case, design is never done, because you’re learning more and more about the effectiveness of what you have created.
As a result, today, you have to think about what you create as a ‘learning system’. It can’t be something where researchers or designers come back every so often and look at ‘how well they did’; that can be part of it, but increasingly, the learning has to be ongoing and constant. If you’re
Collectively, ‘behaviours on the edge’ often inform ideas that become larger scale.
not thinking that way, you’re failing to make use of the most powerful part of technology: That it enables us to continually make things better.
One of the breakthroughs we’re already seeing is the role of AI, and how this technology can constantly respond — based on the data it’s getting — and basically ‘redesign itself ’. There are already examples of that in modern machine-based systems like car engines, which collect all kinds of data as you’re driving, adjusting the way the car reacts and operates. These are systems that are constantly informing themselves — and pretty soon, everything is going to be like that.
How do you define ‘creative leadership’?
Creative leadership isn’t about you, as a leader, becoming more creative. It’s about leading for creativity, which means it is your job to unlock the creative potential of your organization by setting the conditions for people to generate, embrace and execute on new ideas. Another piece of it is, in an unpredictable marketplace, every organization needs to be exposed to disruptive forces. I think of it in biological terms: Any ecosystem that is exposed to a disruptive force will either die or adapt. Organizations with cultures that embrace emergence are more likely to respond to those disruptions and adapt. It’s a leader’s job to create such a culture.
On that note, IDEO recently joined a creative collective— and sold a part of its business—catching many people by surprise. Was this a (proactively) disruptive act?
At IDEO, we aren’t interested in hyper growth; we’re interested in impact. That is why we joined Kyu and sold a minority stake of the business to them. Kyu is part of Hakuhodo DY Holdings, one of Japan’s largest advertising holding companies. Other members of the collective are Red Peak, Sypartners, Sid Lee, Digital Kitchen and C2 International. We will remain an independent entity and continue taking on our own clients — but we can now tap others in the collective for additional expertise when needed (and vice versa). Basically, we wanted to focus our efforts beyond our everyday innovation business, and we saw an opportunity to get involved in emerging areas like Artificial intelligence, Genomics, Robotics and Data Science.
As I said earlier, design is no longer about innovating in terms of products and solving small problems. We will leave it to the IBMS, GES and SAPS of the world figure out how to apply design thinking to their corporate structure. For us, going forward, it’s about tackling more systemic issues.
Tim Brown is the CEO and President of IDEO, and the author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires
Innovation (Harperbusiness, 2009). He advises senior executives and boards of global Fortune 100 companies, chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Creative Economy, and serves on the Mayo Clinic Innovation Advisory Council and the Advisory Council of Acumen, a non-profit global venture focused on improving the lives of the poor. His TED Talks, Serious Play and Change by Design, are available at Ted.com.