A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions

Monday, December 21, 2009 16:39

Interdisciplinary collaboration and rapid prototyping for design-driven innovation at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design

It is widely acknowledged that design is a powerful tool for changing human behaviour and shaping our environment. This realization has revolutionized the design sector in recent years, not only offering innovative business models and opportunities for post industrial economies but changing the way we perceive design. No longer viewed as purely a commodity but a deeply human process, the scope of design has widened, now creating entire systems to tackle complex global problems.

‘Design thinkers’ are the new generation of designers working in the field under the framework of ‘Design thinking’, – an intuitive way of thinking that deploys cognitive skills, methods, tools and techniques garnered from the cross-pollination of various disciplines – to create systemic solutions for problems.

Ashwin Rajan, Interaction Designer at Fjord Oy, Helsinki, and Marcia Caines, the editor of Cluster, had a freewheeling chat about what it means to ‘think design’ for high-impact solutions.

Would you say the framework of design thinking deals prevalently with ‘thinking’ or ‘design’?
This framework is grounded in design and communication, but its title suggests that it is more a way of thinking that can be transferred, applied, or ‘taught’. The ability to learn or apply these skills and methods need not be limited to designers, and can be applied in fields that designers would not traditionally be called to participate in.

In our initial talk, you mentioned ‘thinking like a designer’… could you elaborate on that a bit more?
Well, people trained in design methods and processes bring a unique skill set to real-world problem solving and innovation. They offer a radical approach to all kinds of issues, especially those that need addressing at a systemic level.

Increasingly, design is an interdisciplinary discipline, rather than an isolated subject with strict boundaries or practices

These skills are different from that of a scientist or engineer, in the sense that it’s not about mastering a body of knowledge and then readily applying it to recognized situations. Rather, designers increasingly integrate techniques and methods borrowed from other disciplines like the social sciences and humanities, technology, performance and theatre, art and filmmaking to discover unmet needs and develop ideas to address them.

Translating a less analytical way of ‘thinking’ into reality must be a risky business: how does a ‘design thinker’ deal with the unpredictable?
As it turns out, the “unpredictable” is good material to work with! At the cost of being a bit abstract, I would say that thinking design is about being both analytical as well as synthetic, and really in developing a successful negotiation between the two as you go along. A designer deals with the unpredictable by being proactive rather than reactive in response to a problem. The way forward is to build or prototype several interconnected ideas rather than try to perfect the definitive solution the first time round.

In thinking this way, the task becomes one of turning lacks – limitations – into resources and advantages. This means that the designer’s real contribution is precisely at the point where the thinking is translated into reality, where the rubber meets the road.

This challenge is often addressed by means of a core feature of the design process – collaboration – by connecting complementary ideas and competencies, and building bridges between subjects and domains that at first glance do not seem to intersect. Increasingly, design is an interdisciplinary discipline, rather than an isolated subject with strict boundaries or practices.

In practical terms how easy is it for people from different disciplines to engage with each other in the design process?
Framework generation from insights gathered through ethnographic investigations is a critical phase in the human-centered design process.

Collaboration is not the easiest thing to achieve. When working with multiple stakeholders, it is important to frame the problem or set priorities beforehand. For instance, we could ask, what are the ultimate goals of the exercise: are we looking to make a certain human impact, or do our priorities lie in business aspects such as gaining efficiency, or maybe in advancing a certain technology?

To explore such challenges successfully, you need participants who are competent in the core problem areas, but also those skilled in interpreting human behaviour and culture. The differences between participants is key and enriches the pool of competencies. Designers often anchor this process, but it is not about the sole designer coming to the table with a brilliant solution. It is about a group of people – with deep competencies in their own areas – coming to the table with an intent to ‘design their way forward’, together. This is part of the core offerings that companies like Fjord bring to projects. Our work at the Cross Innovation Academy in Germany is one such endeavour.

Doesn’t the increasing significance of interdisciplinary collaboration call for a discipline of interdisciplinarity?
Well, yes it does, and you are looking at it! That’s actually a nice way to put it – a discipline of “interdisciplinarity”. That design is a distinct discipline with strong philosophical underpinnings has long been understood. I realise that as a contemporary designer I have much to learn from historical methods and processes. While the foundations of the discipline have not shifted radically, this is a truly exciting time for design in that we are seeing a repurposing, a remaking of the applied aspects of the discipline.

Is this change reflected in the state of design education?
Yes indeed, there are major changes happening along these lines in design education. Where traditionally design classes gathered students from similar backgrounds, we are now seeing more inter-disciplinary collaboration. At the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, where I trained, we have students from every conceivable design background collaborating on real-world projects, often working on briefs supplied by companies such as Intel, Nokia or Novo Nordisk. The CIID program has shown that the method can provide really interesting new paths to solutions for companies in very different industries and markets.

Is the collaboration with non-designers – or co-design – accounted for in these problem-solving strategies?
Oh, absolutely! That’s a critical part. The growing field of Human-Centered Design is one of the strongest design approaches we have at this time. And while the ‘human’ in HCD is usually translated as ‘user’, for me it signifies the whole range of stakeholders on a project, the user being one of them.

There are several methods in the human-centred process that include working with non-designers. Some approaches mandate the designer stepping out into the world of the people who use the product or service, and actually “solutionizing” by designing things with them on-the-fly. Other approaches are about inviting people into the studio to participate in more controlled workshops with very specific goals.

At Fjord, for instance, we have developed highly specific methods that take advantage of implicit or unarticulated knowledge and the needs of users, clients and other stakeholders, in a workshop setting, to come up with breakthrough ideas for solutions.

In the ‘design process’ design takes precedence over other modes of engagement. To what extent, if any, do you think that ‘design thinking’ appropriates disciplines such as sociology and anthropology?
Prototyping can be used to explore the most valuable aspects of both tangible products and intangible services

Social disciplines are becoming increasingly critical in the initial parts of the design process, especially when the approach is human-centred. But the extent to which they are effective can vary largely between projects. The objective is to try to appropriate methods from anthropology and sociology without becoming overly dependent on them. If used well, such methods can provide a solid basis for design, and maximise human impact.

Qualitative research from this field comes into its own when it complements other research approaches, such as quantitative data studies, demographic data etc. Anthropologists are great at gaining a contextual understanding of the personal, social, and environmental issues that influence the use and ultimate value of a solution.

For instance, the value of a mobile phone in a busy Tokyo square would be very different from in a seaside village market in South India. For a company looking to innovate in emerging mobile markets, identifying interesting contexts is driven by more quantitative metrics – like technology adoption patterns, price and affordability, or the perceived return on a technology investment. But how do we find out what’s really effective in these contexts unless we have someone immersed in these native environments, skilled in discovering the implicit drivers of use and technology adoption?

As a result, designers are appropriating skills from the social disciplines, and learning how to come back to the studio armed with the riches of field knowledge to inform their design solutions.

How can the value of design thinking be accounted for in terms of intangible goods or services?
Service design is broad-based new discipline that exploits the design thinking approach to provide solutions in service areas like healthcare, public infrastructure, education, entertainment and many other service-centred fields.

It’s interesting that while products and services are still considered distinctive from each other, they are merging in interesting new ways to deliver holistic experiences. Services exploit the capabilities of products to deliver value for users, and in turn product capabilities are shaped more and more by the services that are delivered through them. As a result, it is no longer possible to design either of these without a systemic understanding of the product-service ecosystem.

designers are appropriating skills from the social disciplines, and learning how to come back to the studio armed with the riches of field knowledge to inform their design solutions

At Fjord, for instance, we focus on the creation of digital services that can be delivered seamlessly across mobile, desktop and television platforms. We are able to generate intangible value through a deep understanding of tangible products and technology, deep connections with the context of use, human needs and expectations, and by thorough clarity in terms of markets and business viability.

The BBC iPlayer is only one of the services from the Fjord stable that has been recognized for being exceptional in the mobile arena.

The design of more sustainable cities is crucial for the future of mankind; can design transform the ways cities obtain food, water, energy and materials, to foster a re-inhabitation of urban space?
I do think design can play a major role in redefining these larger systems. But instead of a top-down, exhaustive and all-encompassing approach, the design approach would be to prototype localized solutions that have significant ripple effects across communities. Such solutions would be based on empowerment and ownership at the level of the individual, stimulating social entrepreneurship, and testing several low-cost solutions with the potential for a high impact. If a handful of such solutions with low entry-barriers can be refined and deployed, chances of widespread adoption and a combined maximized impact are higher.

For example, at CIID, we worked with Intel to understand emerging consumer behaviours around the ‘smart grid’ – the energy infrastructure of the future – where the line between suppliers and consumers of energy is increasingly blurred and energy is produced, sold, and traded at multiple points, instead of being strictly sent down the pipe from a fixed seller to a fixed buyer. Using ethnographic methods to study the various contexts and behaviours of energy consuming communities, we were able to come up with a wide variety of interesting new solutions in terms of how power production, consumption and management could be transformed and made more efficient.

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13 Responses to “A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions”

  1. Inger Lise E. Greger says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions – http://shar.es/aOfQ6

  2. uberVU - social comments says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bikobiko: rt @jranck A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions http://bit.ly/8Z87qq

  3. Alexey Karlov says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions http://j.mp/5uO3R7

  4. Johan Eklund says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    A Discipline of Interdisciplinarity; Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions http://bit.ly/8Z87qq via @bikobiko @jranck @ideahive @crehmzola

  5. Soulsight says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    A conversation about design thinking. http://bit.ly/6RVHT7

  6. Nicolae Halmaghi says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    A simple eloquent non-pandering look at understanding design thinking from a new source. via @Soulsightmadrid http://bit.ly/7pJOFw

  7. topsy_top20k_en says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    rt @jranck A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions http://bit.ly/8Z87qq

  8. Kristina Tool says:

    December 22nd, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    Design Thinking Q&A and challenges/benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration and unpredictability http://bit.ly/66XK5I #in

  9. Adam Little says:

    January 4th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Former CIID co-pilot and current Fjord designer, Ashwin Rajan, talks about design thinking on Cluster. Check it out! http://tiny.cc/c61f2

  10. Martin Polley says:

    January 4th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    ERT @nonlocal: Former CIIDer & Fjord designer, Ashwin Rajan, talks about design thinking on Cluster. Check it out! http://tiny.cc/c61f2

  11. Mapa Digital says:

    January 11th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    A Conversation About Thinking Design for Systemic Solutions


  12. John Monberg says:

    November 23rd, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    A nice conversation about interdiscplinarity and design thinking: http://bit.ly/hbHpjZ

  13. elizabeth keller says:

    November 23rd, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    RT @jmonberg: A nice conversation about interdiscplinarity and design thinking: http://bit.ly/hbHpjZ

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