Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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If you think of design it may bring to mind images spectacular statement architecture or artwork. It might be an iconic product design such as Apple’s iPod.

Consumers expect good design as standard. Companies realise the value that effective design can create. Design thinking, however, is different again.

Design vs Design Thinking

Tim Brown, author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation defines it as the shift from old-school design where designers become involved at the end of the process. Now designers work alongside businesses and organisations. Together, they tackle intangible strategic and behavioural challenges.

Brown is the CEO of IDEO, the global innovation and design consultancy. Brown and his colleagues have worked on numerous client assignments where design thinking skills have been instrumental in breakthrough outcomes.

Tools and skills typically employed by the design thinker include visual tools like sketches, mind maps and prototypes. They also use brainstorming, build on the ideas of others and encourage creativity. They have permission to fail, experiment, and take risks.

The first part of the book details, through case studies, anecdotes and insights gleaned, Brown’s recommendations. These show how to use design thinking to infuse a more creative problem-solving approach to businesses, products and services.

A lesson from Shimano

A great example is Shimano. This Japanese manufacturer experienced flattening growth in their high end racing and mountain bike segment. The company’s gut instinct was to consider other market segments.

An interdisciplinary team of designers, engineers, and behavioural scientists worked on the project. One major insight was that 90% of Americans no longer ride bikes whereas 90% of them did as children!

The team found that for many people cycling was now an intimidating experience.Dangerous roads, as well as high tech bikes and equipment put people off. In addition, the lycra-clad athletes working in bike shops were intimidating.

This led the team to create a whole new type of low-tech weekend bicycle named ‘coasting.’ The idea was to encourage Americans who had loved riding their bikes as kids to take up cycling again.

The group also created a different in-store retail experience for independent bike dealers. This was better suited to weekend cyclists. They also worked with local governments and cycling organisations and created a PR campaign that included safe places to cycle.

Within a year of the bike’s launch ten bike manufacturers had signed up to produce coasting bikes. What would previously have been an exercise in design became an exercise in design thinking.

Design thinking in action

Brown breaks this case study of design thinking in action into three key overlapping innovation phases:

  1. Inspiration: What’s the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions?
  2. Ideation: This is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas.
  3. Implementation: This is the path that leads from the project room to the market.


He goes on to say that innovation through design thinking must have two key elements. Firstly, it must occur within a set of constraints. This includes economic viability, with the more traditional business-minded rational/analytic approach maintained as well as the design thinking approach. Secondly, good design and the resulting innovative outcomes need to be human-centred.

What this means is the real understanding of what users want and need even when they can’t actually articulate their concerns themselves. Brown argues that Henry Ford’s famous remark – If I’d asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said a faster horse – was absolutely right.

Traditional market-research tools such as focus groups and surveys are unlikely to produce breakthrough findings. Brown recommends close observation of users in their natural habitats.

Methods employed by IDEO and others include following users around, making videos of them in their routine, and recording conversations with them. An IDEO employee, working on a hospital project feigned a foot injury. He checked into an emergency room with a hidden video camera to really appreciate the patient experience.

Bank of America case study

An additional case study which reinforced the value of really understanding users’ often unarticulated needs included analysing people’s spending habits to create a new Bank of America service that helped them to save.

An insight gleaned by observing the very common behaviour people have of putting loose change in a jar resulted in the ‘Keep the Change’ account. When customers paid with their bank cards they had the option of having each  purchase rounded up to the nearest dollar and the difference depositing in a savings account just like throwing spare coins into a jar.

Brown also recommends ‘thinking with your hands’ or building quick and easy prototypes to test ideas as this shows how a concept will meet real-world needs. Critically, he avoids the trap of presenting design thinking as a panacea. In the second part of the book Brown moves beyond offering advice on how to become more innovative as a business.

He talks about the necessity of a new ethos in how we operate as a society and the use of design thinking to help achieve that. What we need are new choices. That means  new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that results in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them.

Human-Centred Design Toolkit

Brown gives some very impactful examples of IDEO’s design thinkers using their skills to help the lives of people in extreme need. Working on projects for non-profit organisations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they set about creating accessible design for social impact and this resulted in the Human-Centred Design Toolkit.

This toolkit, designed with developing countries in mind, involved IDEO going into the field in Cambodia and Ethiopia to research projects such as irrigation technology and market information for farmers. The initial applications for the toolkit were agricultural projects. Since then it has been used on a medical project and a water transport and sanitation project in India. IDEO has also received reports of designers using the toolkit in Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Design thinking can support conventional management

A strength of this book is that design thinking isn’t held up as the panacea to solve all challenges. Rather it’s envisaged that, partnered with more conventional management thinking of logic, rationality and analysis, badly-needed new ideas and fresh thinking can be achieved.

Secondly, many of the tools and insights are immediately applicable, even if you don’t work in a creative organisation. Although design thinking may be perceived as the management phrase du jour, the concept itself of expanding our capacity to understand the world and our relationship to it and taking a human-centred approach to create sustainable change is a good thing. Combining it with more conventional management thinking could create great things.

Isobel Tynan is a senior Learning & Talent Development Professional and AC accredited coach. She has 15 years experience within the professional services and engineering sectors in the UK, France and Ireland. As an accredited coach with the Association for Coaching, Isobel coaches individuals transitioning into new roles and taking up leadership positions. Isobel has a particular interest on the career advancement of females in the professional and financial  services. She has guest lectured in DCU on this topic.


Anne Sexton

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