Getting behind design thinking

The following is a sort of transcript of a presentation made in Sydney to a breakfast hosted by Project Leap (and the designers behind the project, Collabforge). The topic was ‘design thinking’. The event was filmed so if you prefer a visual-audio (and abridged) version of the below, it’s here.

Australia’s flirted with the idea of design thinking for a while. But for a long time, we didn’t really have a burning platform. We’d escaped the GFC, had a few decades of unbroken economic growth. It was hard to see that we were lacking anything.

Events change quickly. Australia’s facing some big challenges. Big challenges demand new partners and new perspectives. Smart businesses are inviting their workers to co-design strategy. Citizens are co-producing policy. Companies ask customers to design new products.

Daily, we’re reminded that Australian innovation is not a nice to have, but a must have. These are challenging times for business. So it’s understandable that some are panicked by just how to transform. Centor Architectural or Tindo Solar have been transforming for the last few years. But progress is patchy. Design Integration programs and ‘Voucher’ schemes team businesses with researchers and innovators in a case management model that’s valuable.

What I like about Project Leap is that it makes transformation seem possible by investing in the skills and capabilities that makes innovation real. Project Leap seems premised on the idea of scaling up (often state-based) case management to a shared, national innovation platform.

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The UK’s Sir George Cox says that ‘design makes innovation real’ and I thought this was a nice starting point to explore how design brings ideas to life. To do that I’m going to talk about the skills and capabilities that I think sit behind design thinking.

Design thinking is broadly understood to be where design and strategy meet. It’s the thinking and doing behind a design result – a product or thing.

Harvard, Stanford, Forbes and Bloomberg are all deciphering how designers work to understand how things actually progress – new products and ways of working around barriers and blockages. There’s a hunch that design thinking can help businesses create value by creating things people want, instead of competing on lowest cost to shift more units people are just happy to put up with.

The UK’s Design Council has a really simple outline of 20 design methods that help discover, define, develop.  Locally, UTS, Swinburne and RMIT are probably leading our research in design thinking. Cochlear, Commbank, NAB and Westpac all use design thinking to develop capabilities and products, and a really interesting new multi disciplinary design community is putting the User Experience back in to focus through new fields of service design, interaction design, product and web; adding to Australia’s industrial design, architectural and product engineering capability.

I can’t talk about design thinking without starting from a designers perspective. I’m an architect and I see how most designers use design thinking without thinking. Some can step back from a project and describe how they work, but for many it can be hard to distill it in to a method for others.

Design thinking has brought back to life old techniques like ethnography which is about understanding why people do what they do. Understanding how people behave is more likely to produce products people want but can’t describe. It’s what Tim Brown calls turning need in to demand.

There’s techniques to do this. Designing for the User Experience often combines field research with the use of personas to give a human dimension to a design problem back in the studio.

Incidentally I think the studio environment is a really important part of making design thinking work.

The studio environment is where these capabilities come together where the really important work of generating ideas, happens. The idea of the studio describes a kind of inter disciplinary collaboration that combines a soft form of leadership with fearless generating and testing of ideas against a problem. In management speak, the studio works because it’s a shared activity around a shared problem.

Design thinking is not new, but still gets argued over. On the one hand, organisations like IDEO publish great pieces like this, and help make a complex process more comprehensible. On the other, there’s (valid) suspicion that design thinking institutionalises something that only works because it remains fluid and responsive to changing conditions.

Whichever framework we reach for we need to ensure it’s not a rote guide, but something driven by creative relationships, empathy and collaboration.

Increasingly, what makes a designer ‘tick’ is being better understood, and being used beyond just the ‘product’. Designers are being brought into government, into boardrooms and into business strategy.

Design thinking is used in business; is one of those new drivers for social innovation. It sits behind the best new product innovation and is being used to develop better public services in Tax, education, and banks, by policy makers and the next generation of business leaders (like Telstra’s Catherine Livingstone who writes about design thinking progressing ideas to technical and financial viability only after considering the human aspect here).

So what’s the common thread? For me it’s the mindset, more than a specific skill set.

For me, this mindset is described in 3 core capabilities; boundary spanning, integration, and visual thinking

Boundary spanning

Boundary spanning is what Sean Ansett calls the ‘gatekeeper of innovation in partnerships’.

Sean Ansett was GAP Clothing’s partnership director for 6 years. His work was about managing GAP’s supply chain to meet consumer demand. His challenge was to redesign his supply chain to suit the changing needs of GAP’s customers. For Sean, this meant working across unions, governments, suppliers, multinationals etc. Supply chains worked slowly. By the time change happened, consumers had moved on. So his challenge was to move more quickly across his stakeholders.

Sean describes Boundary spanners as ‘tempered radicals operating on the fault lines’ of their own organisation. What’s great about them is they have a tendency to interact with others like them – also interested in the overlaps between organizations. Forming new partnerships.

The ‘boundary spanner’ exists both inside an organisation – and outside it.

Networks form around them, so they can connect up people who might not otherwise meet.

They’re translators – so they bridge and broker to create shared understanding

They influence, engage and educate so they bring stakeholders along

They’re multi channel thinkers so they crunch verbal and non verbal data

They’re emotionally intelligent so they have open minds, empathy and integrity

Boundary spanners are critical to design thinking because they exist in many places at once. They’re divergent thinkers that are stimulated, not stifled by vast sets of information.


This is the ability to see many things at once; even when they compete, and – importantly – to synthesise complex and competing data into something better.

An essential part of the integrator’s capability is holding back judgement while the fuzzy is coming in to focus. Integration is the ability to deal with ambiguity and opposing alternatives without selecting one over the other, but making a synthesis of the options that’s superior.

Integration isn’t about simplistic reduction. Integrators want to know that the full range of factors are in front of them. They want to know they’re asking the right question so they can be sure they have the right entry point, the right partners and the right tools to reach for. Especially when the problem is a complicated one.

Like, how do you start solving a problem like kids asthma at school? Easy – improve access to inhalers and medical training for teachers. Only it’s a bit more complex than this. Research shows an increase in incidence of asthma in kids where playgrounds are on busy roads, thanks to vehicle emissions. So is the problem with the child, the school yard, or the road? Should government tackle it through health? education or transport? When the question is complex, you need to invest in the question if you have any hope of a complete solution.

The integrator starts by actively seeking the problem before solving the problem.

Visual thinking

Visual thinking is about thinking with your hands – converting concepts into ‘things’.

I suspect it’s the ability to think visually that ultimately distinguishes design thinking from any other type of creative analysis or scientific enquiry. The ability to use an intuitive grasp of human factors makes it possible for some to make that leap from problem seeking to problem solving.

The tools of visual thinking include sketching which can help rapidly prototype ideas to help decision making. The idea behind rapid prototyping is that it can take an idea to the next level and it can reveal glitches before they go to the board room or out to public. An architect or industrial designer will do this lightning fast as they continually overlay butter paper and redraw the object.

Røde microphones brought manufacturing back onshore so they could better connect design ideas with prototyping on the factory floor. UTS Bike Tank asked the public to commit ideas by making quick, cheap models of their solutions to encourage people to think with their hands.

Tim Brown describes it as ‘seeing’ your way through a problem. Brooklyn’s Makeshift Society sees it as ‘making with your mind, thinking with your hands’

Sketching or making gives everyone a direct chance to solve the puzzle. It’s hard to collaborate if an idea remains in someone’s head. In really simple terms, thinking visually – sketching and making models – is a first premise for collaborating.


The studio

Finally, for business and government especially – there’s often a really important piece of infrastructure missing which makes design thinking really hard.

That’s the space where this collaboration can happen.

Because design thinking needs collaboration, you need a place where collaboration can happen.

Because design thinking has a practical focus, you need a place to make stuff.

Because design thinking is visual, you need a place to hang, stick and post things.

This isn’t how much of Australia’s corporate world is configured. That’s why individual workstations are giving way to break out spaces, team spaces and lock away labs that teams can use to deep dive over the course of a few days or weeks, not just a 2 hour minuted meeting.

“No longer an anchor for individual work, the contemporary workplace plays a more active role in communicating organisational values and providing a hub for collaboration”.

What happens in the studio environment is an integral part of design-based innovation. And just as design thinking is being brought in to business, so are some of the elements of the studio. This is the part that classic design thinking frameworks sometimes fail to mention.

If capabilities drive collaboration, then the studio is where that collaboration often happens.

Studios are where the task takes the focus.

It’s where experts mix with generalists, and disciplines share insights.

It’s where many disciplines shares individual expertise to build insights that cross disciplines.

Making design thinking work involves 3 essential capabilities, and one essential piece of physical infrastructure;

1. the ability to span – inside and outside a problem, a business or an environment

2. the ability to crunch complex, competing alternatives in order to produce something better

3. the ability to generate an idea, solution or way to move around a problem, barrier or blockage

and finally, a curated studio environment where it all comes together.



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