Design Thinking Demystified: an Interview with Clark Kellogg
Image: Major Tian
or the last few years, companies across the world have been obsessing over ‘design thinking’ to solve complex problems. Design thinking, as the name suggests, derives its basic principles from the discipline of design. Unlike most previous problem-solving approaches, it is human-centric, collaborative and driven by experimentation. Many companies, such as consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, GE Healthcare and Philips Lighting have adopted design thinking processes.
Yet as a concept, design thinking is hard to understand, and even harder to implement. Implementing design thinking often requires rewiring the organization, which is set in the old ways of going about its business. During a recent visit to Beijing, Clark Kellogg, a “recovering architect” turned design thinker, helped unravel the many mysteries of design thinking and its implementation in this interview.
Kellogg, a partner in San Francisco Bay Area-based consultancy, Collective Invention, teaches design and design thinking at UC Berkeley in both the College of Environmental Design as well as the Haas School of Business. He is a director of the Spark Design Awards.
Q. We have heard all kinds of definitions for design thinking. To your mind, what is design thinking all about? Why has it become so popular?
A. Design thinking at its core, I like to think, is simply an application of advanced common sense. At its core, design thinking is a different way of looking at problems, understanding problems and then going about solving them. The alternative to a linear thinking process that is taught in analytic business systems is one in which we are using simultaneous thinking and more broadly based thinking, generating many more alternative solutions for evaluation. And doing so without all the rigid linear thinking processes. Design thinking is no better nor worse than any other kind of problem solving framework, it’s just a different one–a new toolset.
Why has design thinking become popular? It is because the nature of problems companies and societies are facing has become so complex that the prior ways of looking at problems has been outstripped by the complexity of current issues. And so we can’t tackle things like global warming, clean air, fresh water, economic interoperability and data avalanches the way we have been solving problems in the past. We call these ‘hairball problems’ or ‘wicked problems’. They are so complicated, so filled with ambiguity and so many indeterminate parts of the equation that we need to look at them from a different perspective. Design thinking offers us one tool to approach problems in a more holistic way.
Q. In what ways is design thinking different from linear thinking?
A. One of the reasons that this is named design thinking is that it has come out of the discipline of design. It isn’t design–it’s using the methodologies of design to solve problems. Some of the key elements of design thinking–there are some strange ones and there are some very straightforward ones. Comfort with ambiguity is one of the major ones. What we know and what we learn from any professional design discipline are things like visual literacy and the capacity to be more comfortable with ambiguity. By that I mean that all problems don’t have to be neatly and tightly wrapped up and resolved rapidly. Instead there’s a broader acceptance and comfort level with simply not knowing.
Another element of design thinking is to be more empathetic and more curious about the nature of problems. And being able to defer judgment about ideas as they come along.
Another element of design thinking that we have extracted from the design profession is a spirit of optimism. One of the things that is an element that isn’t often spoken about is, when you ask designers, ‘Why are you in this business? Did you come into this business because you wanted to create ill will in the world or to make the world a worse place?’ No, there’s a sense that, in fact, we can make things better through this kind of work. So there’s a spirit of optimism about design and design thinking that helps to keep ideas fresh and the search for new ideas going forward.
Q. You mentioned ‘hairball problems’ which I really think is a problem of our generation. Things are not so clearly defined any more. So, when we talk of tackling these problems through design thinking, how do we really start? How do we frame the problem, which is messy and not clearly defined?
A. That’s such an interesting point because if we can’t understand the problem, two things will happen. One is we will simply make the problem fit our solution, and if we can’t do that, we will reframe the problem in a way that may or may not be an accurate reframing. By using a design thinking approach to hairball problems, we go into it recognizing there is a certain amount of complexity that we don’t understand. At the heart of this is the unembarrassed recognition that we really don’t yet know the answer. Moreover, we don’t even really know the question. We spend more than half of our energies in the innovation cycle on understanding the question. If you get the question right, the answer is easy. Too often, in our rush to solve, we don’t spend enough time figuring out what it is we need to be asking. We call this part ‘problem finding’, and then ‘problem solving’.
There’s an old saying: ‘If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.’ And so it is with these hairball problems. Too often faced with them we reduce the problem to something on a smaller scale with less complexity–something we can get our arms around and then easily solve. Of course, we are then solving the wrong problem, and typically, we’re solving at too low of an altitude. So we are creating a solution oftentimes with unintended consequences. That solves a short-term problem but doesn’t address the underlying, larger scale issues. We have a strategy called ‘The Five Whys’. It is the sequence of asking ‘why?’ about a problem five times. By the end of that fifth ‘why?’ you are typically at what we call a root cause. And so by peeling back the layers of the question to a deeper level, we usually find that the real issue is something quite different than the outside layer of the onion.
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