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Designed for Life

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on August 9, 2013

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As you’re waiting for your flight to taxi down the runway, the guy sitting next to you politely introduces himself as Sven, and says he’s a designer.

Well, you think that could mean just about anything.

Perhaps Sven focuses on interiors, and makes homes beautiful. Or maybe he’s the graphic designer known for a poster that went viral during the last political campaign. Could he be a web designer who works for a major website? Come to think of it, with a name like Sven, he might be a product designer whose works appear within the pages of an international catalogs—creating furniture that’s highly useful, but will forever remain unpronounceable.

You bite, and ask him what he designs.

I craft user experiences for global companies, Sven answers.

Suddenly, Sven’s become a much more interesting traveling companion.

Not just arts & crafts

A typical definition of design goes something like this: “To create, conceive, or fashion something, typically through a detailed drawing.” Students who chose design as a major in college can usually count on a lecture from their parents about whether being a “designer” will ever pay off their student loans.

The same creative thinking—the thinking of possibility—that goes into shaping clay on a spinning wheel, cutting and stitching layers of fabric into this season’s must-have dress, or architecting an elegant website, is now being used by businesses across every industry to make their customers’ experiences more intuitive, enjoyable, and desirable.

It’s called “design thinking,” and it can be found at the root of efficient and helpful mobile banking apps, in grocery stores where clerks offer unsolicited assistance to shoppers who look confused, and in assisted living facilities that make environments safe, familiar, and comfortable for residents with dementia.

Defining design thinking

These days, you don’t have to be an art major or even take a single art class to be a designer. Designing better experiences and better products begins with design thinking, or creating an end product by starting from a user’s perspective.

The early stages of design thinking can be found in the ‘60s and ‘70s (or even earlier). It gained traction in an academic setting at Stanford in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and in the business world through the work of design and innovation firm, IDEO, which was founded in 1991. Peter Rowe, a professor at The Harvard Graduate School of Design, authored Design Thinking in 1987, and the term formally entered the lexicon and stayed there.

Now there are dozens of “D-Schools” and other design programs in higher education, and countless organizations—from Fortune 500 firms to Internet startups to hospitals to schools—that use design thinking to solve problems, and improve products and services.

So what is design thinking, exactly, and how does it work? Here are a few definitions:

As a style of thinking, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context (Wikipedia).

Design thinking brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges (IDEO).

A team of design thinkers tasked with creating a new type of classroom desk for school children might begin by brainstorming with kids and teachers (the users) to determine what solutions the desk should provide. A desk with a collaborative workspace and storage area, that’s easy to move, and has wings for flight as well as a refrigerated shelf might make the list of desired features; the last two would probably be eliminated as not technologically feasible or economically viable.

Design thinkers looking to make the emergency room less frightening might climb aboard a gurney with a camera, and record the experience from the point of view of a patient, capturing the barrage of sights and sounds that are familiar to medical personnel, but foreign and scary to patients.

All the necessary ingredients

Solving a problem using design thinking requires just a few ingredients that nearly everyone has (or can develop): the creativity to generate lots and lots of potential solutions, without fear of judgment.

We’re all born with this type of creativity. Children have a tremendous sense of wonder and possibility, but most of it eventually gets lost as ideas are squelched by nay-sayers time and time again.

Gerard Puccio, Ph.D., chair and professor of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, examines Creativity as a Life Skill. In a December 2012 TED talk, Puccio looks at how the creative process parallels evolution, how traditional education can stifle creativity, and ways we can deliberately and actively become more creative.

The future is design

So what’s the future hold for design, designers, and design thinking? The Cambridge Journal of Economics (July 2012) found that it’s bright, indeed. During and just after the Great Recession, it found that Americans in what it calls “the creative class” had a better chance at employment.

Design schools and programs in higher education are all the rage. And even though Puccio finds that traditional education—with its standardized testing and accountability—often stifles creativity, some initiatives have begun to emphasize teaching design to younger students.

Eighth-graders participating in Tools at Schools learn the value of design for solving problems. Said one student, “I used to think that design was really exotic and abstract. Before Tools at Schools the first thing I would think of when I heard the word 'design' was fashion, things that famous female musicians would wear. It amazes me to think back and see how off I was. I have opened my eyes to see that everything around me is designed: the computer I work with, the jewelry I wear and even the pencil I use.”

From the mouths of babes. It doesn’t take a degree from a Design-school to see that the future of just about everything likely lies within design. Perhaps you should spend the rest of your flight speaking with Sven about how he got his current job.

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