During one of our first design thinking classes I made the following notes: “Design thinking is a holistic and sustainable approach to problems. Design thinking aims to gain inspiration from people by looking at and listening to them. It uses prototyping to quickly make things real and story telling to evoke empathy”. I further wrote down that in Design Thinking success is not measured in money and numbers but in usage and reaction from the people.
“PERFECT!” was my initial thought, “That is easy, it makes absolute sense to me and is exactly what I want to do”. It seemed so obvious to me what this definition meant and what to do with it. As outlined in one of my blog posts, however, my experience with this Design Thinking project differed vastly from my expectations in the beginning. There was definitively a huge gap in my experience between the theory and the practice.
In the following I am going to discuss in more details my experiences during the Designing a Business module and critically reflect how these experiences had an impact on me and my future career goals.
I am a yoga teacher with a background in management, and a great interest in personal development, holistic health and mindfulness. From past work experiences I know that people who work in the fields of holistic health, mindfulness, personal development etc. are usually great in what they’re doing in terms of working with people but lacking business skills to make a sustainable practice out of their profession/passion/calling. In the future I see myself on the interface between management and small to medium size businesses that work in the field of mindfulness, personal development etc. I hope to support those businesses to become self-sustainable by using Desing Thinking methods and tools.
Coming from that standpoint, I was highly enthusiastic about the holistic and sustainable aspect of Design Thinking. I hoped that our group would work on a sustainable and useful product that would follow a suggestion by Dr Rodrigo Lozano from the University of Leeds: “New ways of learning are needed, which actively and consciously engage in the use and protection of natural resources, and the safeguarding and improvement of societal well-being, for this generation and future ones” (Lozano, 2011, pp. 205-206). When we first started discussing our ideas for a product, half of the group members said that they wanted the product to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. And then we came up with the SpeaCup sticker, a disposable sticker that you stick on a disposable cup that has been printed on with an ink that is not biodegradable. So what happened to holism and sustainability along the way?
Looking back I can easily identify three major reasons for why they got lost on the way: first of all the time pressure and limited resources. It is often argued that exactly these two components are fueling creativity (see e.g. Catmull or Kelley & Kelley), however, as Teresa Amabile points out “[m]oreover, creativity often takes time. It can be slow going to explore new concepts, put together new solutions, and wander through the maze” (1998). The second reason for our product not being the glorious eco-friendly and sustainable product that I had imagined is that even though one half of our group expressed the wish to do something sustainable, the other half simply didn’t care about such issues. And with three against three and all the other things we had to deal with, the topic somehow slipped away. The third reason lies – in my opinion – in the very set-up of the Design Thinking class.
I have to admit that I am disappointed at myself for not being more persistent in the first place on the matter. I feel I wasn’t fully myself when we made the decisions in the way Rob Grundel describes in one of his blog posts: I was functioning as the student but neglected other parts of my personality. Even though I do see the fun aspects of our product and understand that the business model we came up with is feasible and makes sense from a business point of view, I realize now how difficult the whole process was for me due to the fact that our product simply contradicts one of my dearest core values. In a way I cared less about the SpeaCup stickers because I knew it wasn’t something I would do in real life. But here was the dilemma: the assignment was to do something real. Not to pretend to run a business but actually run it. Not to try things but do them.
In the end two of the biggest lessons learnt for me emerged from that dilemma. The first lesson for me was to realize that in the future I have to stick to my core values more from begin with. As soon as a project that involves the collaboration with other people is on track and under way, it is difficult to change the destination.
The second lesson I learnt from this is how important it is to commit to something even though it might not be the project of my dreams to a hundred percent. After realizing that our product wasn’t at all what I had hoped for I went through a phase of dismalness. Because I didn’t completely believe in the product, I didn’t see the point of investing my time and energy in it. However, it became obvious that this attitude made things worse and even more exhausting. After I read an article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on cultivating confidence, I decided to change my outlook on the project. Kanter argues that “[n]othing succeeds for long without considerable effort and constant vigilance” and further that “a key factor in high achievement is bouncing back from the low points” (Kanter, 2011). As soon as I decided to look at the bright side of things and realized how much I could learn from this experience, things got going again and became much easier and indeed more successful. And in the end I can say I am proud of the work we achieved and am glad about the gained experience.
After mentioning my biggest disappointments about my personal Design Thinking experience and the lessons I learnt from it, I will now move on to other things I learnt or that stood out for me along the way.
As mentioned in the beginning, Design Thinking gains inspiration from looking at people and listening to what they have to say in order to come up with a solution that serves the people. It is easy to assume that most people would give an answer that is similar to our own answer and that answers reflect the actual behavior of people. Through the interviews we conducted and the interaction with our customers at the trade fairs I realized how wrong that assumption is.
Most people we asked if they would buy SpeaCup stickers before we had the actual product ready said they liked the idea but were hesitant to say they would buy/use it. That changed drastically as soon as we had the first prototypes. At the first trade fair we were sold out before the fair was over. We simply showed people how SpeaCup stickers work and people who seemed hesitant at first ended up buying stickers after they saw our demonstration. By listening to the feedback we got after that trade fair we were able to produce new stickers with new slogans that were suggested by the customers.
Not only talking and listening to customers is essential but also talking about your idea to other people can be really helpful. Before taking the Design Thinking class I always thought it is a better to develop an idea first and make it public only when it is completed. Through the class I learnt that the opposite is the case. It is much easier to get feedback on an idea right from the beginning. The longer you hold on to your idea without sharing it, the more attached you will get to it and the more it will hurt to change the idea or realize that it doesn’t work.
Through working on the SpeaCup stickers I realized that it is much more productive to share ideas with other people and get feedback as soon as possible and I have already integrated that habit into my own work.
In the beginning of the class I liked the statement that success in Design Thinking is measured in usage and reaction of the people rather than in monetary terms. I still like that idea but after getting real with SpeaCup I can say that this idea is rather idealistic and probably meant more in a symbolical way. Of course it is more important how people use a product than how much the product costs respectively how much the company earns selling the product. But it is equally important that designers/entrepreneurs can live of their businesses. Therefore money does play an important role in Design Thinking. Also simply due to the fact that products or services are sold on markets which are part of a wider economy, and as Thorsby points out ““value in the economic paradigm is ultimately expressible in financial terms“ (Thorsby, 2008, p. 30).
At the beginning of the course I was convinced that I am good at social media use. And I was probably right about that in regards to my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts. But I had little to no knowledge of how to use social media properly for a business. I had never used Twitter, let alone an URL shortener or other tools to track social media activities. However, through the assignments of the Designing a Business Module I quickly became comfortable with using Twitter and YouTube, tracking my posts, and most importantly blogging. Even though I sometimes struggled to blog about the Design Thinking experience (due to the fact that I wasn’t always a hundred percent convinced of the work I was doing) in an engaging and enthusiastic manner, I highly appreciated doing it as it showed me how important it is as a business to have a professional and consistent Internet presence. Based on my blogging experience gained in the class I am currently working on my own business blog Yoga, Bliss & Mindfulness.
A memorable class that stood out for me was the story-telling workshop with Rob Grundel. Telling an exciting, authentic and convincing story to your clients is such an essential part of running a business, especially when you try to win new clients. Rob’s own story and the way he told it was inspiring and his tools and advice certainly helped our group to tell the SpeaCup story. In relation to what we learnt about social media, I realized how important story telling is also in the digital world. “[D]igital storytelling (is) the practice of telling a story through the use of digital media” (Daskolia et al.). As a team we implemented that insight by creating the SpeaCup video using storytelling to explain our product.
Last but not least I want to mention how over time not only my skills developed and I gained more insights on Design Thinking but also my definition/idea of Design Thinking itself developed further. I read and discussed many different aspects and definitions of Design Thinking and came to the conclusion that the following definition by Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, describes Design Thinking best for me. He says that Design Thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”.
This definition perfectly sums up some of the conclusions I made through out the past six month. When I use Design Thinking methods in the future I will use my sensibility to find out what my clients need. Technological feasibility is important in order to generate profit for myself while serving my client the best possible solution that has value to him/her and fits the market – and thereby will be profitable for him or her too.
Amabile, Teresa M. (1998) ‘How to kill creativity’, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Okt 1998, pp.77-87.
Brown, Tim (2008) ‘Design Thinking’ Harvard Business Review. June 2008. Available at: https://hbr.org/2008/06/design-thinking (Accessed 22.4.15).
Catmull, Ed (2014) Creativity, INC. Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. London: Transworld Publishers.
Daskolia, M., Makri, K. & Kynigos, C. ‘Fostering Collaborative Creativity in Learning about Urban Sustainability through Digital Storytelling’. Environmental Education Lab & Educational Technology Lab, NKUA.
Grundel, Rob (2015) The Work Out. Available at: http://www.robgrundel.com/the-work-out/ (Accessed 22.4.15).
Kanter, Rosabeth (2011) ‘Cultivate a Culture of Confidence’ Harvard Business Review. April 2011. Available at: https://hbr.org/2011/04/column-cultivate-a-culture-of-confidence (Accessed 22.4.15)
Kelley, T. and Kelley, D (2013) Creative Confidence. Unleashing the creative potential within us all. London: William Collins.
Lozano, Rodrigo (2011) ‘Creativity and Organizational Learning as Means to Foster Sustainability’, Sustainable Development, 22, pp. 205-216.
SPEACUP Movie (2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K46SeZgiyTk (Accessed 22.4.15)
Thorsby, David (2008) ‘Globalization and the cultural economy: a crisis of value?’, in: Anheiner, Helmut & Isar, Yudhishthir R. (Editors) The Cultural Economy (The cultures and globalization series 2), London: Sage Publications.