Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Transformation Design and Design Thinking

In the early 70's I was a design student, and had discovered something called "environmental design"—what I thought was an extra dimension of interior design (my field at the time) that would help people have particular emotional and mental experiences within spaces designed a certain way. Now, I suppose we'd call it feng shui, but I was so excited about the idea then that I scoured the country for colleges where I might study something of this nature. What I found was California Institute of the Arts in LA, a brand new school founded by Walt Disney, and an experimental program called "social design."

I got a scholarship, and off I went! The program was a combination of regular design—industrial, interior, graphic, urban planning, architecture—with the soft sciences like psychology and sociology. We focused our creative minds on redesigning the elevator so people would talk to each other inside, or redesigning the doctor-patient relationship, or the funeral. The hidden benefit was that it taught me a great deal about becoming a professional intuitive—which I had no idea I was preparing to become.

Cut to today, and Daniel Pink's new book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. In an interview with Oprah, he says, "In many professions, what used to matter most were abilities associated with the left side of the brain: linear, sequential, spreadsheet kind of faculties. Those still matter, but they're not enough. What's important now are the characteristics of the brain's right hemisphere: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking. These skills have become first among equals in a whole range of business fields." The whole interview is quite interesting, and validates all the work we intuitives have been doing, trying to mainstream intuition into business and government.

After reading the interview I remembered that I had been fascinated with the work being done by IDEO, by David and Tom Kelley, and Tim Brown. They call their innovative process "design thinking," "business design," or "transformation design." In an interview in Fast Company, Brown says (I've edited a few snippets together. . .), "In order to do a better job of developing, communicating, and pursuing a strategy, you need to learn to think like a designer. Unfortunately, many people continue to think of design in very narrow terms. Industrial products and graphics are outcomes of the design process, but they do not begin to describe the boundaries of design's playing field. Software is engineered, but it is also designed—someone must come up with the concept of what it is going to do. Logistics systems, the Internet, organizations, and yes, even strategy—all of these are tangible outcomes of design thinking.

"Regardless of whether your goal is to innovate around a product, service, or business opportunity, you get good insights by having an observant and empathetic view of the world. You can't just stand in your own shoes; you've got to be able to stand in the shoes of others. Empathy allows you to have original insights about the world. It also enables you to build better teams."

So here we are—here I am—thirty some years later, back full circle to "Social Design"! And I am still fascinated with the application of intuitive, holistic perception to innovation—an endeavor whose time has come—again—as Obama prepares to tackle the most serious problems we've had in hundreds of years. And we can all be part of the solution. We've got to get our innovation muscles going, though, and that means challenging the staus quo. I remember one of my design professors assigning us the task of designing a chair. He said, "And do you know what your first question should be? You should ask: Why a chair?

You'll find me writing about innovation alot this year, as it feels like the big new thing. I also welcome any links to articles or resources you might find in your surfing.