How Design Thinking Can Reinvent the World

How Design Thinking Can Reinvent the World

Tim Brown once designed a fax machine that was redundant within a few short years, leaving him with the thought that maybe design wasn't all that important.

"Somehow making things look a little bit better, a little easier to sell, a little easier to market was not all that useful in the world," said Brown, who heads the design firm IDEO. "By focusing on just a thing, I was being sort of incremental."

Over the last century, the focus of design gradually narrowed from the systems level to the product level, Brown told business leaders Tuesday at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, reducing opportunities for the kinds of innovations that can reinvent the world.

"But it hasn't always been that way," Brown said. "I would suggest that by focusing less on the design of an object and more on the process of design, and design thinking as a process, design can have a far greater impact."

Brown pointed to Isambard Brunel as an example of the potential for design to both meet the needs of people and also stretch technology to the limit. Brunel designed railways with the intention of creating the "experience for his passengers of floating across the countryside."

"He didn't stop there," Brown said. "He didn't just want to build the best railway journey that he could, he actually had this idea of building an integrated transportation system where it was possible to get on a train in London and end one's journey getting off a boat in New York."

Brown described how one of the core principles of design is integrated thinking -- the ability to hold a set of tensions and opposing ideas in our heads, generating new ideas that are superior to previously considered alternatives. Designers, particularly in the realm of sustainability, are constantly balancing desirability, viability and feasibility.

Yet despite the recent shift to object-level design, there is a growing movement back toward systems thinking, Brown said, with people increasingly applying the process of design thinking to complex problems.

For example, he pointed to the need to first understand human needs and behavior in order to design the right solutions. Brown noted how a Berkeley, Calif.-based hearing aid manufacturer delivering its products to the developing world had to overcome the lack of technicians typically needed to install the devices.

Once there is the concept, it is necessary to then prototype the idea in order to speed the design process. Brown pointed to a famous eye clinic in India that used prototyping to fine-tune its manufacturing processes, allowing it to build low-cost or no-cost lenses for cataract surgery.

Once a prototype is created, it is essential to then bring participation into the equation, not just consumption, Brown said, citing how Kaiser used designed thinking to improve the process of nurse shift changes. Having nurses change shifts in front of patients, rather than out of sight at nurses' stations, reduced shift change times from 40 minutes to 12 minutes. The move also increased patients' confidence and boosted nurses' happiness.

Finally, Brown said, the solutions need to be introduced to the world to reach scale.

Going back to Brunel, Brown said that people tend to think about problem solving as making choices from an existing set of alternatives.

"What design thinking does is encourages us to diverge, to search for new choices rather than simply taking the ones already available to us," Brown said. "I think that is essentially a useful process."

Photos by Goodwin Ogbuehi,