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Idealog—in the ideas business

Rethinking design with IDEO’s Tim Brown

IDEO's Tim Brown could be considered the 'father' of design thinking. Rethinking design, however, was his key message at this year's Better by Design CEO summit.

Tim Brown, IDEODesign thinking can be applied to every aspect of a business system, he says – pricing, cost structure, partners, competitive strategy, growth strategy.

But Brown says we need to move beyond the idea that our work is ever finished. Like the lean startup model espoused by Eric Ries, he argues pivoting and evolving is the key to surviving complexity and volatility. Faster iteration = faster evolution.

"Planning is problematic," he says, citing urban planning and its failures a an example.

Brown floated the concept of using a "genetic algorithm" in design, essentially a set of instructions for an idea, selecting specific traits for what you want to achieve And he introduced a new philosophy he's crafting, what he calls a Darwinian approach, in which "design is never done".

He proposes focusing on interactions between things, and not the things themselves ("verbs not nouns"), and asking "will this help me get where I need to go?" Similarly, he cited to need to be designing for information flow, in an increasingly data-rich world; taking an experimental approach, not necessarily a typical UX blueprint; taking a leaf from (who else) Apple and its focus on simple, "insanely great" products; and responding fast to changes (we can, apparently, learn something from viruses. Who'da thunk it?).

Afterward, Brown sat down with Idealog afterwards for a more in-depth talk.

Can design thinking be incorporated into our education system? Should it?

It is, and I think that more and more programmes around the world, whether it's design schools that are morphing to broaden out or business schools taking on this concept of design thinking or even undergrad programmes starting to see concepts of design thinking beginning to creep into different programmes around the world – and high schools also.

It's slow and there's different interpretations of it and different ways of thinking about it. But this idea that creative problem solving is a useful skill set for anybody to have is beginning to embed itself in the broader social psyche. I think we certainly see it from the number of kids, of university grads, that come work in the kinds of the things we're doing. There's a high degree of enthusiasm for it.

I think it is being taught; I think it can be taught more. We overly focus perhaps on instructional and analytical education. And not that that's not valuable but it's not the only thing. I don't know what its like here in New Zealand but certainly in America and Europe we've seen an unfortunate constriction of resources that are available for more artistic creative forms of education. Unfortunately we've built this mindset that there's only one form of education that's high value and everything is is sort of peripheral. I just don't believe it's true and it's going to take a while to sway governments in particular, funding bodies, regulatory bodies.

Top-down? Bottom-up? A bit of both?

It's inevitably a bit of both. Different organisations tend to play that balance differently. In my personal view the more complex the problem the more you need to embrace both emergent approaches and top-down. Top-down works at certain moments in the process, when you've identified relatively simple and clear problems or goals. Even when you've recognised something complex and you need to motivate an organisation to do things, that's when leadership and storytelling and motivation matters and that's often a top-down kind of activity.

But even that won't work unless it can tap into a broad enthusiasm and dedication that the organisation has. No amount of top-down leadership will help you if you've got an organisation that's unmotivated, disengaged, uncreative.

What does the rise of big data mean for designers?

We're already starting to see it affect design and design affect it. We've seen a shift in the last few years from when the only form of big data was very detailed insights. It can still be in that form but relatively simple.

There's the likes of A/B testing like Google and Amazon but we're starting to see this idea of data visualisation and the idea that you can bring a lot of rich data and display it in ways that show new insights and lead to new innovation.

And design's playing a role in that, it's a design process, so we're seeing really interesting things from this crowd in the US, visualizing.org. Another example is the LinkedIn network map.

There's this sort of mutual relationship between big data and design. Big data is revealing behaviours, opportunities, that design can respond to in really interesting ways. And design is impacting the way we think about how we present it.

As more companies wake up to conscious capitalism, more people are seeking out those organisations to work for.

We're seeing this shift at the grad level – all these people going away from some of the obvious traditional Wall St jobs and looking for new roles and careers that are more meaningful. I suspect the data shows that organisations that have more of a sense of purpose ultimately have less employee turnover.

I think we all have a right to do something that's meaningful. But we have to search it out and I think we have a responsibility to equip ourselves with the abilities it takes to engage in a meaningful way. And again for me a lot of our inability to do that is a failure of the education system or society. Companies have a responsibility for providing a sense of purpose. They're leaving enormous amounts of value on the table when they don't do that.

Listening to you talk about unlocking latent creativity I couldn't help but recall the massive series 'Everything is a Remix'. What are your thoughts on creativity and originality?

I think we suffered in the 20th century from a rather simplistic view of creativity. Modernism developed this point of view on creativity, this sort of tabula rasa view of creativity, that everything had to be a completely new idea.

Now of course that was a mythology that we created for ourselves. Modern architecture, modern design, modern painting, it was all about this ground-up redefinition of everything. But it was never really true, it was never really realistic and it was never really effective.

Now I think with this remix culture in the way the internet allows us to blend and mix whether it's music, visually, ideas, stories, whatever, now it's obvious that it's a far more fluid concept. Creativity and innovation is fluid – it goes from the collective impact of many many many incremental changes to the individual impact of some completely left of field disruptive innovation. They're both important and everything in between. It's all going on and it all needs to go on all the time.

I'm not sure I believe one is better than the other, I believe we need the whole system. Our IP and legal systems have a hard time keeping up with that but the fact is we're seeing more and more of it. Look at the open source stuff. It benefits from lots and lots of incremental improvements all the time. Wikipedia gets better every day and that's as valuable, in fact some would argue it's more valuable, than the occasional big disruptive idea.

And even the things that look disruptive are often remixes. The iPod was a remix; it wasn't a fundamentally new idea. But it was the right remix at the right time at the right level of thoughtfulness and elegance. There are some attitudes that any old remix is fine but actually there's a level of thoughtfulness to the best remixes and the best remixing. And I think design in many ways is a remixing process and always has been.

You talked about genetic algorithms – how does that fit in with your other view, that we can never truly plan design for the future?

What intrigues me about genetic algorithms is you start with a broad intention – "I want to create a thing that broadly does this thing as well as it can do". You really have no idea what that specific solution's going to b.

You can use a piece of technology like an algorithm to slowly over time, through generation after generation, to get you toward a better and better version of what you want to achieve. But the end result is a bit of a surprise. I might never have imagined an architectural facade developed using a genetic algorithm – and lots of them are being done that way now – would end up looking just like that. But it achieves all the wind load and temperature load and mechanical properties I wanted it to. But I never imagined it would look quite like that because this algorithm ended up determining that.

It's like nature; nature builds these things – leaves, flowers, trees, cows – that are a surprising result based on a sort of known goal, depending on your religious or spiritual tendencies. There's both intention and surprise. The leaf is trying to capture as much sunlight as possible but it's evolved in a way that would have been unpredictable. Yet that's the perfect leaf.

I find that creatively energising. Even when we use relatively sophisticated technology there's no inevitable outcome. The outcomes in themselves can still be surprising. I love that. It's creatively exciting.

I think when we start to apply this notion of improvement and generation we actually will end up creating things we could never have predicted. Plus the results of using this technology have their own beauty, which is not man-made in a sense because we couldn't have conceived it out of our own brains.

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