What is Design Thinking, really?

We all want to live in a beautiful, effortless world, where everything works like it was made just for us. It’s not surprising, then, that Design Thinking is having a resurgence.

Great design might solve a problem in a beautiful, simplistic way – the greatest of designs fits seamlessly into our lives, and becomes instantly indispensable. That only happens when you truly understand the person, the problem, and the environment, and that’s what Design Thinking is all about. It’s also what we’ve been doing at Happen everyday for the past 11 years.

At its core, Design Thinking is a highly iterative, human-centric approach to problem-solving that seeks to avoid bias by gathering as diverse a team as possible and questioning everything we thought we knew. In a world where the power of connectivity means people expect services and products to be instantaneous, tailored and personalised, I believe we need this type of approach now, more than ever. We can’t afford to stick to our biases and remain in a design rut.

The basic elements were first put forward by economist and computer scientist Herbert Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 – but it has been iterated upon ever since. In my 20 years working in innovation I’ve seen it adapt and evolve, taking from ethnography and sociology, cherry-picking learnings from the worlds of business, technology and science. The approach is as much about learning about people, their behaviour and their environment, as it is learning about our own creative practices and biases as innovators, and actively evolving them. In a very neat, design-oriented way, it’s a perfect circle feeding itself.

Industry is also taking note, and the principles have been applied in healthcare, business and the arts. Tech giant Oracle invested $43 million in the Design Tech High School last year, a place that extolls the five principles of Design Thinking at every stage of learning: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. These can be carried out in any order, and align pretty well with the four stages of Happen’s own approach – focus, immerse, reveal, exploit (FIRE).

So what is Design Thinking, really? When most people hear the term, it conjures up images of something sleek and elegant – pared-back Scandi design, elegant chairs and minimalist vases. So simple, so sexy, so… now. Sounds great, right? It also sounds a million miles away from the messy reality of the innovation world I’ve lived and breathed for close to two decades. But what Design Thinking does well, is give us a structure to try and make sense of that chaos.

“What Design Thinking does well, is give us a structure to try and make sense of that chaos.”

Martine Barrie, Happen Australia

Empathise/immerse are both about living the customer’s experience. This stage makes it clear that engaging effectively with people isn’t just a skill, it’s a mindset. It’s about curiosity, humility, and a yearning to understand. For Happen, this is about getting out there ourselves and living an experience alongside consumers. This almost always takes place in their home, or in store – ideally with the client present. It’s a vital stage for helping remove biases and define/focus in on the problem and business case. It’s also key to identifying what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called ‘wicked problems’ in the 1970s – a problem that is incredibly subjective and therefore impossible to identify by solely relying on facts and figures. ‘Wicked problems’ have no definitive answer, and so designers began to lean on social and human sciences to find solutions. We’ve taken this further, creating tools specifically to help us do this. Our StarMaker algorithms can search any public dataset, from social media to reviews, to find emotive words that signify consumer excitement or frustrations. The results are endlessly surprising, and help us rapidly shed our biases and get into the mindset of millions of people.

In the define/focus stage, it’s all about condensing that problem. At Happen, we might run a workshop that brings together people from different disciplines and backgrounds, using illustrations, prototypes and visual exercises to make the topic more real. We like the ‘gallery walk’ Design Thinking uses at this stage. Teams write down the data they think is most relevant on large posters, including photos and quotes from interviewees. These are hung around a room for teams and clients to circulate and add notes. It helps people step outside their own field of view and is a great visual tool for bringing the issues to life – a practice we share.

At the ideate/reveal stage we take stock, collaborating with stakeholders to reflect on our findings and hone solutions. For us, those solutions must of course be commercially viable. We’re called Happen because that’s what we do: make things happen. If it won’t contribute to the bottom line, it’s on to the next great idea.

Then comes the exciting part: exploit/prototype and test. This is where the iteration comes in – we will repeat again and again, till we get it right. It’s something we’re bringing into every element of our work at Happen. For example, we always speed date with consumers at the end of a workshop – but how about meeting up with them again a day or two later, once the ideas have percolated? Like the Design Thinking approach, we also make sure we have a real product or design to interrogate at this stage. It might not be market ready, but holding, touching or viewing a precursor helps us iterate faster.

So do we practise Design Thinking at Happen? Sure – we’ve been using similar principles for years, learning and adapting our processes as we go. But the reality is no one set of principles is a catch-all for problem-solving. Like any structured approach, Design Thinking is a helpful checklist for staying on track. It helps innovators change habits – and we don’t just mean consumer habits, but our own. Design Thinking or FIRE act as the checks and balances on our own creative minds, so we never fall into a rut and never stop looking for extraordinary solutions in ordinary places. The important thing is to not think of their structure as something rigid, but fluid. Lean on it, sure, but don’t be afraid to change.

Above all, our approach to everything must be human-centric. But what does that really mean today? Almost 50 years ago, Herbert Simon said: “Most of the complexity of his behaviour may be drawn from man’s environment, from man’s search for good designs… The proper study of mankind is the science of design.” We tend to agree.

The reality is human needs, thoughts and feelings are a mass of countless messy and conflicting data points. A structure simply helps us focus and make sense of that. Anything that helps us look for the less obvious connections, is good in our book.