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A Conversation on Design Thinking

Last month, we convened our Senior Advisors to a roundtable on design thinking. Facilitated by ESI Senior Vice President Lee Huang, we discussed what design thinking is and how we could infuse it more systematically into what we do, from the inception of a project to the delivery of a product. Off the record, the conversation yielded some great nuggets of wisdom.

To expend on this conversation, we asked our resident experts in design, Hilary Jay, Natalie Nixon and Benjamin Olshin, to answer a few questions about the state of the field and how it could be leveraged moving forward.

How do you define “design thinking”?

Hilary Jay: To do that let’s begin with defining design, a confusing word at best. Both noun and verb, design includes the act of designing and a thing itself. To design describes a process, an approach, a way of looking at a problem, a method of inquiry. For the purposes of this discussion, we can limit our line of inquiry to the for- and non-profit business world, as opposed to, say, realms of psychology or politics or entertainment. But regardless of subject content, design thinking is an inquiry-based system that results in empathetic, evidence-based, humane-centric solutions.

The phrase “design thinking” or “design thinker” are weak terms, unfortunately and often cause confusion in that they do not adequately describe the proposition or value of the act. Additionally, “design” carries the stigma of fashion and aesthetics, seemingly flimsy and inconsequential occurrences or products. When we define design as the single thread that runs through everything, the weight of both noun and verb grows exponentially. Design is political as a country’s flag; complex as any city plan; religious as every icon; romantic – or narrative – as the Seven Wonders of the World. Design is the basis, the bottom line, from which all else springs. 34118776344_976d1dce92_b

Given that foundation, we can approach design thinking through the following principles: empathy for all users, disciplined and repetitive prototyping, tolerance for failure, and stamina for process. Taken together as a process of inquiry, companies of any size and/or IRS designation can arrive at qualitative and quantitative solutions for creating fluid, responsive, and ultimately intuitive organizations and organizational cultures.

Design thinkers are in fact designers themselves, though not in the traditional sense. Their work is to establish an elegant mash-up comprised of researched facts, cultural mores, established stakeholder values, empathy for the users, and finally, repeatable, verifiable results. The design thinker sees connections that may be less than apparent to the uninitiated eye. “The secret to all victory lies the organization of the non-obvious,” alternatively credited to Oswald Spengler and Marcus Aurelius. In other words, the value of ferreting out seemly disparate associations (aka the design process or design thinking) leads to unique, client-based solutions.

The goal of design thinking is the elegant solution, a term employed by engineers, mathematicians, and software developers, to describe resolutions that are both simple and effective, and that meet the greatest number of desired criteria.

Natalie Nixon: I define design thinking as a problem framing process as much as it is a problem solving process. Ultimately it requires shifts in mindset. It is a great tool to add to one’s toolkit because of its human-centered approach; it is very complimentary to quantitative research methods. There are 4 components to design thinking that I like to highlight: (1) empathy, (2) lateral thinking, (3) prototyping and (4) story.

Empathy means that we necessarily move beyond focus groups and surveys, to also incorporate qualitative research methods such as observations and interviews. Lateral thinking is the ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate areas — for example, this great essay, by Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker, is about what healthcare can learn from the Cheesecake Factory restaurant. Prototypes are rough draft ugly mock ups of a concept — you can prototype experiences and services and test your ideas for new & improved versions with real or intended users to get feedback early and often. And finally, story: storytelling is what distinguishes amazing brands from just okay brands.

Benjamin Olshin: In its proper form, “design thinking” is about “process thinking”—that is, how does one do things? How is a project carried out? In short, for a product, design thinking must answer these questions: (1) What materials are needed to make a given product? (2) What’s the history of this product? (3) What’s the socio-cultural context in which this product appeared? (4) What are the design possibilities for this product? (5) How does this product fit in the context of users, sustainability, energy use, and so on? (6) How does this product relate to other existing products? (7) What is the branding/marketing appropriate for this product? (8) What is the production facility necessary for this product?


Where has it made a difference?

Hilary Jay: Obvious responses aside (Apple, Nike, UPenn real estate expansion) we can look to our neighbor at Jefferson, Dr. Stephen Klasko, and his response to fixing a broken healthcare system. He started with the fundamentals: inside medical school classrooms and in the hospital emergency room. Consider, what do a medical school and a design and liberal arts university have to do with one another? Natalie will undoubtedly have a lot of thoughts on the merger of Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia University. By joining forces, the single entity offers awesome empathy-based, design-centric medical education. Klasko nailed that while working at the hospital level to reinvent the ER experience for doctors, nurses, patients, and family members. In this place of high anxiety and elevated blood pressure, research is being done to quell emotional and physical discomfort, raise service efficiencies, as well as health outcomes. To achieve this, all ER functions are being assessed: work, traffic and space flow, procedures and policies – all the things stakeholders require to be intuitive, accessible and effective.

Design Thinking (1)Natalie Nixon: Design thinking is making a difference in healthcare – think of the Mayo Clinic and their team of service designers as well as at Penn Medicine’s Center for Healthcare Innovation; in government: our federal government has integrated design thinking at the VA and at the Office of Personnel Management; and in financial services: For example, Fidelity Bank has a vice president of design thinking. Design thinking helps organizations connect on meaningful levels with clients and end users because it requires us to start first with their needs, and then dial everything back to the organization. It ultimately has an effect on culture internal to an organization. You start asking new sets of questions — that have a positive impact on profitability, efficiencies and productivity.

Benjamin Olshin: Well, you can see design thinking wherever there is good design, for example in terms of quality products. Look at everything from the classic Vespa scooter to the Braun SK55 radio / turntable. But design thinking — a sincere focus on process — has also created great systems, such as the Japanese high-speed rail system and the Taiwanese public medical system. In all the cases, the thing really works.


What do you see as future opportunities in the field?

Hilary Jay: I imagine you might get by now that my worldview is that success is a matter of design. We can’t brush our teeth, apply our makeup, dress ourselves, get to work, gather for a meeting or share thoughts effectively, efficiently or even joyfully (yep, that’s important!) without design. Everything is design, or designed. There is no future without it. But more to what the question might be getting to, there are whole new industries emerging that will prosper by design. Take the marijuana industry. The depth of needs is vast: from the consumer to the grower, the dispensary owner to the medical researchers, product distributors to banking industry. And many more fields like media, marketing and advertising; real estate development, construction, material suppliers; educators on all levels; facilities and research will have tracks – if they don’t already – in the successful creation of this industry. What are we waiting for?

Natalie Nixon: Well, I am biased, I think all sectors need a healthy dose of design thinking added to their repertoire! I would love to see more cities incorporate design thinking/strategy into municipal governance. It would go a long way in improving challenging issues such as jury duty attendance, tax revenue collection and public housing.

Benjamin Olshin: There are plenty of products that could use a redesign, as Dieter Rams knew. More critically, however, given the situation of the world today, there are many systems that need design thinking. The education system, the way we deliver aid to the poor, our political structures — all of these components of society (and many more) need a dissection into the key questions noted above, and a redesign (and rebuild) centered on, again, process. The ultimate goal, whether one is designing a product or a system, is quality, long life, utility, and, in sum, good design.


Jay, Hilary
Hilary Jay is an award-winning curator, journalist, and entrepreneur. In 2015, she founded Blackbird Consultants and in the past months worked with the City of Philadelphia, U.S. State Department, UNESCO and Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation on a Creative Cities bid for Philadelphia.

Natalie W. Nixon, PH.D. is a hybrid thinker who’s consulting and research interests are at the intersections of creativity & strategy and business & design. At Figure 8 Thinking, LLC, she helps organizations ecclerate innovation and growth by developing meaningful strategy through design thinking and ethnographic research.


Benjamin B. Olshin, PH.D. possesses extensive experience in cross-cultural management consulting, organizational development and executive training, program and project evaluation, branding and design, and science and technology policy.

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