The fourth edition of the Nairobi design week kicks off this Sunday, promising an opportunity for creative minds to reflect and share their aspirations for the fast evolving craft industry.
This years’ theme is “Culture and Heritage” and I believe it’s a perfect chance to track the evolution of the design process from merely creating products and services to an essential tool for problem-solving.
A great misconception that exists about design is that it is a purely aesthetic function, a lightning strike of genius, a sort garnish to make things pop or worse still (whisper it quietly) lacking in intelligence.
What may invoke eccentricities at face value is simply a problem solving process. Design animates brands, differentiates class, improves functionality of products and services. I believe it is the balance between artistic expression and practical application of an idea. A lot goes into make things look effortlessly magical.
Design is first and foremost a mindset that privileges us to find innovative solutions to the challenges we face. The fact that designers have an innate talent does not exempt them from following the process. From my experience, the design skill is first practiced intuitively through observation, trial and error before a pattern of operation is established.
The design thinking concept has been around for a while. It has been vilified and glorified in equal measure. Lee-Sean Huang, the cofounder and creative director of Foossa, a design consultancy firm, defines design thinking as a method and a mindset that starts with an understanding of human needs and motivations to define, frame and solve problems.
This removes the lid that relegates design to a downstream process. Design thinking is predicated on empathy, defining (framing the issue), ideation (formulation of ideas), prototyping and testing to find the best possible solution to a problem. Non-designers should not exclude themselves from this process because a design mindset is one that constantly encourages curiosity and has very little to do with innate creative talent.
Design thinking can be employed as a business tool to help organisations find creative solutions for their challenges. Products, systems, and consumer experiences can be developed by deliberately applying design thinking.
This shifts the competitive advantage from an operational approach that measures your ability to be more efficient than the next person, to a creative approach which measures the capacity to innovate and execute.
When working in teams, we tend to focus more on our own deliverables, that we don’t think about the next person and the resources they need to ensure their success. We may be individually competent but fail as a team because we lack empathy which is the first stage of design thinking and the most overlooked. We need to understand how our personal and collective decisions affect the user experience both internally and externally.
The second stage is framing the problem concisely to reflect the needs of the end user so that it inspires the right ideas. Assuming that we already know and can speak for them has detrimental results.
The third stage of ideation should stimulate creativity and encourage divergent thinking. Here is where things literally go off the road and deep into the weeds and I mean that only in the most speculative of terms! Prototyping which is the fourth stage develops a working model.
Stiff timelines and over excitement can botch the process. (What are we waiting for, let’s launch it tomorrow!). We need to be flexible enough to pivot when needed. The final stage of testing assesses the user experiences and address technical and adaptability (mindset) challenges.
Design thinking puts organisations on a path of continuous innovation. Indra Nooyi, currently serving as Board of member of Amazon and former PepsiCo CEO says "Design leads to innovation and innovation demands design.”
Waiting for everything to be perfect denies great ideas agility which is a prerequisite for innovation. The temptation to polish until it shines may be derailed by bureaucracy, defensive thinking and resistance to change. A good idea should be distilled to a minimum viable product (with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development).
Change the conversation
Using design thinking for organisational change is a hard sell because it is more qualitative than quantitative. It is not a turnkey process with the accompanying bells and whistles. Be warned, it gets really messy sometimes and is by no means a panacea. It may be necessary to augment it with other innovation and productivity models for efficacy.
As a design thinking crusader, I believe the design conversation in organisations needs to transcend beyond the one dimensional creation of products or services. Its thoughtfulness, transformational power, versatility, usefulness and sometimes irrationality, can help us keep our finger on the pulse in the age of disruption.
So as we celebrate our culture and heritage through design this week, let us give design more than an aesthetic consideration.