Will design thinking make your workplace architect redundant?

It is one thing to think like a designer. It is quite another to attempt a workplace design project without a professional to make it happen

There has been growing momentum in recent years for non-designers to enter the design space – for engineers, entrepreneurs, managers and social scientists in particular to think and act like designers by adopting ‘designerly’ ways of thinking.

The trend is known as ‘design thinking’ and it has caught hold across a wide span of design-based activity, from delivery of public services to development of consumer electronics.

Ever since Tim Brown, chief executive officer of the global innovation consulting firm IDEO, set out the stall for design thinking in a Harvard Business Review paper in 2008, the subject has been having a tangible impact in business circles.

Several business schools, led by Stanford University in Palo Alto where IDEO are headquartered, have set up D Schools to explore the topic.

And Tim Brown’s follow-up book Design for Change: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (2009), has further broadened the debate on what Design Thinking actually means and how its key principles work in practice.

In its simplest form, to think like a designer involves a number of basic things, such as: showing human empathy with people rather than being scientifically neutral; adopting a participatory mindset rather than an expert one, so you can ask the dumb questions and challenge accepted wisdom; and making use of design tools and skills such as visualisation and prototyping to share ideas, elicit and incorporate feedback as part of a co-design process.

The big question is how much impact design thinking might have in the workplace design field, where its influence to date has been less evident than in other spheres.

To shed some light on the area, here are my own five top tips for bringing design thinking to the creation of better work environments:

1 Look and learn

A primary characteristic of design thinking is to be patient, to go into the field, to observe and record in a sketchbook or with a camera, without preconceptions. So much business thinking is based on preconceived ideas, benchmarking, existing market ‘knowledge’ and an over-awareness of barriers to change.

When asked to design a new product, service or communication, designers look at things in a fresh and sometimes naïve way, asking the stupid questions and behaving like participants in a process, not experts. That way, they look and learn. So bring out the inner-anthropologist in you. When it comes to the workplace, don’t be afraid to walk a mile in your employees’ or your visitors’ shoes. You’ll be amazed at what you find out and how it might recalibrate your thinking.

2 Prototype early and often

The prototype tends to mark the final stage before production in default business thinking: this is what it is going to be like. But design thinkers treat the prototype differently. They build and test and experiment in an iterative loop, revising rapidly from one prototype to the next to learn about what will work.

Remember that James Dyson experimented with more than five thousand prototypes before perfecting the dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner that built his business empire. So try things out first – and don’t fret if they fail. You’ll discover a lot and succeed sooner by prototyping often.

In the workplace, that means experimenting on the periphery of your organisation, not at the centre where a highly visible failure can be damaging. Find the right sites and teams to   prototype new spaces, services and systems, gather feedback, iterate and move on.

3 Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate

Business managers are often specialist in a particular field – and their thinking bounded by that field of expertise. But designers tend to take a more generalist approach that means lessons in one sector can be applied to another. One of the central tenets of design thinking is a willingness to cross-pollinate – to take ideas from one area and apply them in a totally different context.

Can the pit stop tyre change process in Formula 1 racing be translated into the team dynamics in the accident & emergency department of a hospital? Can the typography associated with prayer books help to sell shampoo? Can aerospace technology be inserted into an ergonomic office chair? Yes, they can if you are willing to be open-minded and cross-pollinate – designers Stumpf and Chadwick certainly pulled off the cross-pollinated chair trick for Herman Miller with the Aeron.

4 Think visually, not in words

Many professonals rationalise or justify design decisions by writing long reports with lots of words to wade through. Design thinkers use images. Their way of thinking is visual. Simple diagrams, photo-evidence, development sketches… all of these help to communicate ideas and support effective and collaborative design decision-making. So when it comes to workplace redesign, let the pictures do the talking. Document the ‘before’ as well as the ‘after’. Boil things down to essential maps and diagrams.

5 Know the limits of design thinking

As a designer thinker, you are looking and learning, you are prototyping early and often as you test designs with users, you are cross-pollinating ideas from one sector to another, and you are thinking visually at every opportunity. Great! But that doesn’t make you a designer. The fifth top tip for design thinkers is to know the limits of design thinking.

Even when you have collected a wealth of user evidence and formulated and tested your innovative new approach, you will still need the services of a professional architect or designer to help make your new workplace project a reality.

Designing is a professional craft that takes years of training and experience to perfect. Design Thinking is something different – it is, in my view, a useful bridge between designers and those who commission and use design, a shared set of perspectives or values so that everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction when it comes to making the project a success.

Design Thinking is in some ways a route to creating better-informed design briefs for workspace projects. It helps clients to make better decisions around design – but it doesn’t turn them into them designers. So it won’t make your workplace architect redundant overnight.

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