27 July 2012
Jesse Grimes
Jesse Grimes

Designers in suits: Tim Brown

This is the second in a series of posts in which we introduce the thoughts and works of those that champion the value of design within the business world. Today’s post focuses on Tim Brown, of “innovation and design” firm IDEO.

This is the second post in a series of “Designers in suits”. Previous: Roger Martin.

Tim Brown is CEO and President of IDEO, which launched in 1991. The design firm came to prominence in the world of product design, but since then has expanded its scope to customer experience design and service design – becoming one of the largest single companies to do so.

Brown looks much further back than the oft-referenced example of Apple’s iTunes/iPhone/iCloud service offering when he wants to point to a beacon of design thinking in action. He goes back to Thomas Edison, who famously invented the lightbulb, but didn’t stop there. He saw that a system of distribution was necessary too, and went on to create that as well.

In his words, design thinking is “… a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Historically, design has been too much of an afterthought, according to Brown:

[It has been] a downstream step in the development process—the point where designers, who have played no earlier role in the substantive work of innovation, come along and put a beautiful wrapper around the idea. To be sure, this approach has stimulated market growth in many areas by making new products and technologies aesthetically attractive and therefore more desirable to consumers or by enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising and communication strategies… Now, however, rather than asking designers to make an already developed idea more attractive to consumers, companies are asking them to create ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires. The former role is tactical, and results in limited value creation; the latter is strategic, and leads to dramatic new forms of value.

But putting design thinking at the heart of an organization requires a concerted effort, and not just the carrying-out of one or two workshops, or the hiring for roles with “design” or “experience” in their job titles.

Here are eight tips that Brown proposes be implemented to bring design thinking into the standard innovation process:

  • Begin at the beginning – Involve design thinkers at the very start of the innovation process, before any direction has been set. Design thinking will help you explore more ideas more quickly than you could otherwise.
  • Take a human-centered approach – Along with business and technology considerations, innovation should factor in human behavior, needs, and preferences. Human-centered design thinking—especially when it includes research based on direct observation—will capture unexpected insights and produce innovation that more precisely reflects what consumers want.
  • Try early and often – Create an expectation of rapid experimentation and prototyping. Encourage teams to create a prototype in the first week of a project. Measure progress with a metric such as average time to first prototype or number of consumers exposed to prototypes during the life of a program.
  • Seek outside help – Expand the innovation ecosystem by looking for opportunities to co-create with customers and consumers. Exploit Web 2.0 networks to enlarge the effective scale of your innovation team.
  • Blend big and small projects – Manage a portfolio of innovation that stretches from shorter-term incremental ideas to longer-term revolutionary ones. Expect business units to drive and fund incremental innovation, but be willing to initiate revolutionary innovation from the top.
  • Budget to the pace of innovation – Design thinking happens quickly, yet the route to market can be unpredictable. Don’t constrain the pace at which you can innovate by relying on cumbersome budgeting cycles. Be prepared to rethink your funding approach as projects proceed and teams learn more about opportunities.
  • Find talent any way you can – Look to hire from interdisciplinary programs like the new Institute of Design at Stanford and progressive business schools like Rotman, in Toronto. People with more-conventional design backgrounds can push solutions far beyond your expectations. You may even be able to train non-designers with the right attributes to excel in design-thinking roles.
  • Design for the cycle – In many businesses people move every 12 to 18 months. But design projects may take longer than that to get from day one through implementation. Plan assignments so that design thinkers go from inspiration to ideation to implementation. Experiencing the full cycle builds better judgment and creates great long-term benefits for the organization.

Here are links to further articles and talks:

Paper: “Design Thinking” (Harvard Business Review, June 2008)

Article: “Strategy by Design” (Fast Company, 1 June 2005)

Brown’s Blog: designthinking.ideo.com

Book: “Change by Design” (HarperBusiness, 2009)

TED Talk: “Tim Brown urges designers to think big” (TEDglobal, July 2009)

The author

Jesse Grimes is an editor of Touchpoint, and has twelve years experience as an interaction designer and consultant, now specialising in service design. He has worked in London, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Sydney, and is now based in The Netherlands with Dutch design agency Informaat.

Design (17), Design thinking (15)