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Design Works

Design Works

A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Value through Business Design, Revised and Expanded Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Design Thinking at Work

Design Thinking at Work

How Innovative Organizations are Embracing Design
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

Thinking Like a Designer

 

How Design Keeps the Dutch Dry

 

Delft is a quaint Dutch city located about halfway between Rotterdam and The Hague. Sometimes called “little Amsterdam,” its canals, churches, and narrow streets have a way of transporting you back in time (Figure 1.1a). If you didn’t look too closely, you could be forgiven for thinking it unchanged since Johannes Vermeer immortalized it in his painting View of Delft in the 1600s.

 

From time to time, the city’s charms are less obvious. Winter storms batter the North Sea coast, bringing gale-force winds and driving rain, testing the patience of its residents – and the durability of their umbrellas, which tend to flip inside out in the high winds.

 

In a single week in March 2004, Gerwin Hoogendoorn lost three umbrellas to the elements. Frustrated by the experience, the industrial design student at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) set out to improve a product that had been essentially unchanged for 3,400 years. The ultimate result was Senz, a stormproof umbrella designed to withstand whatever nature could throw at the hapless Dutch pedestrian.

 

Hoogendoorn explored everything about umbrellas: their tendency to flip inside out, to block visibility, to poke people in the eye. Umbrellas were a boring utilitarian product that didn’t fulfil their function well – so boring, in fact, that Hoogendoorn had to endure the ridicule of his fellow design students, Gerard Kool and Philip Hess, for even working on such a product.

 

His early ideas included a magnetic field to repel the rain and a helicopter-like device attached to the user’s head. Eventually, however, he focused on the aerodynamics of umbrellas. With no background in aerodynamics, he sought out the help of university contacts with expertise in the field. To build prototypes, he bought a couple of umbrellas, tore them apart, and rebuilt them. He tested his ideas through computer simulation, wind tunnels, and “in-use” tests (i.e., taking them out in the Dutch rain).

 

With Kool and Hess – who, by now, had begun to come around to the idea – Hoogendoorn founded Senz in 2005. The first Senz umbrella was launched in November 2006; its original, quirky design captured the public imagination, and the initial stock of 10,000 units sold out in nine days. In its first year, Senz won almost every major design award and went global in 2007.

 

Hoogendoorn’s design school, TU Delft, is a venerated institution in the design world. A few years ago, I spent a sabbatical there, during which I experienced the Dutch rain on more than one occasion. As a former marketing executive and a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, I had been on a journey to explore “design thinking” for some years. I wanted to know everything I could about design and design thinking. What was design thinking anyway, and how was it different from any other kind of thinking? How was it practised in business and the public sector, and what happened when it was?

 

I felt the best way to conduct this exploration was to immerse myself in the world of design. I hung out with designers. I read deeply about design and design theory. I worked with designers on projects. I talked with designers, design educators, and design thinkers in organizations. I taught business strategy to designers and design thinking to executives. My design journey led me not only to Delft but also to many more places around the world.
I found that designers look at the world in a distinct and interesting way. I found not just creativity but also curiosity, rigour, and discipline. I found some answers – and many more questions.

 

To a designer like Hoogendoorn, what was design thinking? On the face of it, his idea of design sounds fairly simple: “I think good design is an object or a service that exceeds the user’s expectation,” he says in a promotional video.

 

But even if we had a good way of understanding what the user expects, how would we know which problem to work on? Flimsy umbrellas are just one of those everyday problems that seem to plague us. We take such problems for granted and don’t think much about them, much less about solving them. Hoogendoorn’s genius seemed to be in selecting the problem as much as in solving it.

 

Once he had decided to work on the problem, he went back and forth, drawing things, building rough models, testing them, redefining the problem, moving on from ridiculous ideas to more practical ones, and learning as he went along. His approach was exploratory, driven by curiosity.

 

For companies that make consumer products, the ability of designers like Hoogendoorn to find genius in the everyday is inspiring – and perhaps a little disconcerting. Hoogendoorn approached Impliva, a major umbrella distributor, and was turned down before embarking on his own project. It seems to suggest that designers see possibilities that companies don’t see.

 

Many organizations have taken this to heart, wondering what the “secret sauce” of design might be, and whether it could be applied to their own problems. Design thinking has been touted as an answer to this question and has grown from a fringe activity to a central weapon in the problem-solver’s arsenal. An army of consultants and management gurus now promote it as the long-awaited answer to the problem of innovation in organizations.

 

If only it were that simple.

 

Most of my career to date has been spent in large organizations. Exciting as design thinking is – and I still find myself passionate about it – it is not easy to apply. As I have explored design thinking, I have encountered many with a similar passion who struggle to make it work in a large organization. It is such a different way of looking at problems that it can pose a challenge to the prevailing culture and approach.

 

I’ve found that organizational design thinkers face common problems, tensions that they have to manage in order to survive. Fortunately, some are not merely surviving but are thriving. How they do so is the subject of this book.

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