Design and innovation
I am wary of the claim that design
thinking speeds up innovation. Design
and innovation are related, but not the
same. Innovation is concerned with getting a community of people to adopt a
new practice often organized around an
artifact or process created by a designer.
The only time design thinking might accelerate innovation is when the ideation
stage has been blocked by lack of ideas
or by conflicts among key stakeholders.
Master designer Don Norman puts
this point differently. 3 He says designers working alone have a low rate of
technology adoption. Technological
entrepreneurs pursue the business opportunities and work hard, often over
many years, to win the commitments
for adoption. Design and entrepreneurship are both needed to transform
new proposals into adopted practices.
Disruptive innovations, which re-configure entire communities, are
quite rare. When they do happen, they
seem spectacular. Well-designed artifacts are often cited as the causes of
the innovation. But this impression
seldom holds up under scrutiny. Consider the iPhone. The iPhone is partly
a story of design (Steve Jobs had help
from IDEO with the artifact) but it is
mostly a story of entrepreneurship:
Apple miniaturized components, created portable apps, put many sensors
into the phone, generated a community of software app developers, cloned
the Apps Store from the successful
i Tunes store, partnered with AT&T and
later Verizon, created a new class of
data plans for phones, and built a new
operating system—iOS—to support it
all. Apple caused the innovation. The
iPhone was the tip of an iceberg of
practices and business arrangements
that made it work.
Design thinking means to intentionally focus the design around the concerns, interests, and values of the
users. The current strand of design
thinking that has captured much public attention and interest originated
with industrial product design in the
company IDEO founded in 1991 by David Kelley in partnership with several
other design firms.
In 2006, Kelley founded the Stanford Design Center, which has become
an intellectual center for a design
thinking movement. The IDEO philosophy emphasizes that design is a team
sport with three principal values:
1. Many eyes—Design teams include diversified expertise such as
engineering, human factors, communication, graphics, ethnography, sociology, and more. Each team member’s
unique perspective helps the other
members see things they would not
2. Customer viewpoint—Design
teams visit customer places to interview them and watch what they actually do, including their reactions in extreme “stress” cases.
3. Tangibility—Design teams build
prototypes and mockups, try them
out, and learn from the feedback and
There is a big interest in the public
sector to apply design thinking to its
own problems; the standard government approach of one-size-fits-all does
not work for the diverse communities
agencies are trying to serve. IDEO has
helped agencies improve their processes, often with excellent results that
receive a lot of publicity.
Design thinking has also been
helpful in addressing wicked problems. 4 Design teams generate
moods of collaboration, often leading to breakthroughs for resolving
their wicked problems. When the
design team brings together all the
various stakeholders of a company,
they are often able to win the commitments from multiple divisions
of the company to see new ideas
through to production. It should be
noted that design thinking is not the
only successful method for generating collaboration: so also do Appreciative Inquiry, Charrettes, and the
Seasoned innovators work with a
“90% rule”—90% of the work in achieving an innovation goes into the adoption phase. Ideation, where design
thinking produces its value, is the other 10%. But many media reports would
have you believe that design thinking
gets you 90% of the way to innovation.
I take issue with these pundits. While a
collaborative team can get things done
faster, often the design team is not a
collaborator with the production, marketing, PR, and community outreach
divisions of a company.
Putting it all together
Design thinking calls attention to creativity and imagination in the ideation
process, emphasizing collaborative, diverse, customer sensitive design teams.
It also emphasizes frequent customer
feedback from prototypes that elicit
their reactions. Design thinking is already deeply embedded into the software pattern community, which is part
of agile software development. That
community has accumulated a large
set of insights into what makes for successful software design. You need look
no farther than that community to see
how to put design thinking to work in
Computing’s traditional view of
design is strongly flavored by its concern for building artifacts that are
error tolerant or error free. Design
thinking is strongly flavored by its
concern for understanding what job
an artifact does for its users. If the
two kinds of thinking were blended
together, some significant advances
in software design and development
would surely follow.
1. alexander, C. The Timeless Way of Building. oxford
university Press, 1979.
2. boehm, b. get ready for agile methods, with care.
IEEE Computer (jan. 2002), 64–69.
3. norman, d. technology first, needs last: the research-product gulf. ACM interactions 17, 2 (mar.+apr. 2010).
4. roberts, n. wicked problems and network approaches
to resolution. The Int. Public Mgmt. Review 1, 1 (2000).
5. wilkes, m. Computers then and now. (1967 turing
award lecture). JACM 15, 1 (jan. 1968), 1–7.
6. wilkes, m. Computing Perspectives. morgan kaufman,
san francisco, Ca, 1995.
Peter J. Denning ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is distinguished
Professor of Computer science and director of the
Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at
the naval Postgraduate school in monterey, Ca,
is editor of aCm Ubiquity, and is a past president of aCm.
the author’s views expressed here are not necessarily
those of his employer or the u.s. federal government.
Copyright held by owner/author(s).
is already deeply