Category Archives: human centered design

Culture eats innovation for breakfast

There are often times when I come to a sudden halt and find myself feeling stuck or unable to produce or execute work that I otherwise may feel confident and comfortable to complete. This happens to everyone at some point in their career, and more so in creative ones [see imposter syndrome]. I found myself asking what exactly was the difference between projects and moments in my life where I excelled, versus others where I perceivably fell short- particularly in design and other creative endeavours.

I concluded that in situations where I did not perform to my best there always existed the following:

  • a perception I had of myself
  • a perception I assumed others had of me
  • direct and imposing authority / a reduction of autonomy
  • ambiguity over direction
  • inability to control or effect change

This is not at all surprising. To offer an extreme example, the Stanford prison experiment largely encapsulates the above characteristics. This experiment portrays how placing sensible people in a particular environment (embodying the above) can influence destructive interactions and inspire a culture which results in negative behaviours.

Most (if not all, it seems) companies and leading C-suite executives proclaim that they want to foster innovation and design. Strategists barge into meeting rooms like stormtroopers armed with powerpoint proposals, ready to fire graphs and vision statements that will lead in the mission to become ‘creative’ and ‘disruptive’. As sound as a strategy may be, influencing innovation is rarely effective when as a top-down piece of company prose- as the old argument goes.

In many strategic initiatives a comprehensive consideration of culture is commonly absent. Capability is considered, but often confused as culture. At best, initiatives titled ‘change management’ are sprinkled into consideration. To enable new ideas, a clear culture-building approach is imperative to success, one that implies an us rather than impose a versus them. The very title change management is almost antithesis to this way of thinking.

[Back to my above experiences]

I realised that my actions were heavily impacted by the environment I was in and this was affecting my mindset. Behaviour changes mindset, and the right environment influences the right behaviours. When we talk about generating a design thinking culture and/or fostering an innovative organisation, we cannot curate this type of behaviour without first observing the environment and culture that pervades.

Innovation is fundamentally risky and creative. A hierarchical organisation with a lack of transparency, direction and autonomy provided to its employees will not allow for creativity, risk, and thus innovation, to manifest. All of the design and creative toolkits in the world wont save your ‘disruptive’ business strategy.

Rather, compliment strategic direction by implementing advocates who represent and support the right behaviour, attitude and mindsets you wish to emerge. Don’t give them wanky names like ‘change agents’ or ‘experiential strategists’- this again just reinforces the power dynamic and distinction between the corporate strategy and its employees. Instead, place these advocates into each team, to the frontline, and ensure that at each level there is a person who has been approved with creative autonomy and clarity to effect autonomy, creativity and culture-change through clear mentorship and support. Call them a friend, perhaps.

Design Wars

Heeeere we go again. We are moving forward, i promise.

Design thinking took a bit of a dive in 2012 after some negative critiques (et tu, Bruce?) but has recovered in recent months with a resurgence of literature and discussions on the topic. Mainly driven by academia, design thinking is *slowly* becoming a household name, particularly thanks to new government initiatives happening globally; APS Innovation Plan, the European Commission, to name a few.

Lucy Kimbell, an intelligent and all-round respected researcher, recently published a blog post on the situation of design thinking in public services. The post comprised of comments made by herself to the  Design Commission Inquiry into Redesigning Public ServicesI was alerted to this post during discussions with @TaylorHaig whom suggested i have a read. There was just too much to say about the subject over Twitter so i took to WordPress. Take this as my comments on Lucy’s comments on the design commission inquiry.  Of course i would also love to hear your comments on my comments on Lucy’s comments, too.

One of the first things to address is that even if you’re in design, it’s incredibly hard to define what design is. […] And even if you look at the academic literature on design, there are two major distinctions, which then come out – is design about giving shape and form to things? And that thing could be a physical product or it could be a digital interaction. Or is it about making change happen?

This is where i refer to Buchanan’s orders of design practice. I know, i know. I have posted about this many times before but there is significant value in stratifying design practice. This stratification of design allows us to better define what currently constitutes design (thinking) practice and what may be involved in the future. It also allows us to work around the tricky topic of definitions as Lucy has mentioned. In response to the above comment, design is a field that is lucky to be malleable enough to adapt and evolve quite rapidly and in parallel with the current speed of change (this can be for better or worse), but I don’t see design as EITHER ‘giving shape’ OR ‘making change’ – it is most definitely now both. Understanding how it can be both is made easier through understanding the layers of design practice. I am going to apply kind of a critical realist analysis to describe and expand upon existing stratifications of design:


If you like you may use this pyramid but with reference to moi as it is used as part of my thesis

Now you may think i have completely side stepped the issue of what exactly is design and doing design? Sure, we need (or would like) a snappy sentence that can summarize the actions, thinking and craft for the whole onion of design. Lucy quotes the famous line from Herbert Simon:

everyone who devises courses of action, to change existing situations into preferred ones, is doing design.

There is a reason this quote has kind of become the quintessential snapshot of design practice. It is thus far the best summary of what fundamentally constitutes doing design. The problem with this quote is its very broad. Is a graphic designer changing existing situations into preferred ones? Yes. Is an architect? Yes. Is a woman who devises her morning routine to change her physical appearance into a preferred one using make up and wardrobe mastery, doing design? Well, technically, yes. Lucy continues along this train of thought-

And if you say that to a doctor they think ‘well I diagnose and then I’m trying to change the state of the patient – which has a physical effect – so yes’. But then you have this problem which some designers go into of saying actually ‘design is everything’. If you push it that far you are saying design is everything, and therefore designers can tackle anything. Which is not necessarily the case. So that definition on the one hand seems right, but it also alludes to this question about design and management – are they really different?

So the problem we have here with this appropriate and famous quote from Simon, is that it is so general that it could be broadly applicable to pretty much any intentional action. This is where Lucy rejects the idea of ‘design is everything’. Unless we devise a new quote for design practice, design will be seen as the governing force behind pretty much anything. Kind of like gravity. But if we try to ‘design’ a new definition of design, it must be broad enough to allow room for adaptation and evolution and confined enough that it has its own identity. Designing a definition for design IS the ultimate wicked problem (oh the irony!). This is now where i need to point out that Simons quote only describes one half of design practice- the act of designing. It does not define the thing (noun) that is a design or objects that together make up particular designed thing. To answer this issue, as Lucy describes, we need to get into characteristics which make up what designers do- what is it that makes their work classify as design practice? And what characteristics make a designed thing?

is it design? is it art? (excuse the crude mobile phone sketch)

is it design? is it art? (excuse the crude mobile phone sketch)

Traditionally, design did have a very clear practice. Its not so much that traditional design practices were rigid and ‘boxed in’, it was that the designers knew their place. It wasn’t until the emergence of ‘higher’ level design practice that things started messing with peoples heads. If you look at traditional design areas such as industrial/product design, graphic design, architecture and fashion design, each sub-discipline knew what it needed to know in order to intentionally act to design a meaningful outcome. The characteristics of doing fashion design were dealing with textiles, understanding the body, stitching, creating garments, etc. In graphic design you work with typography, white space, publications,  logos and branding- graphic designers generally don’t deal with the contours of the body. With the exception of packaging, graphic design is essentially confined to 2d collateral.  There are technical rules and specifications that need to be adhered to in order to adequately complete each traditional design practice. Traditional design crafts have clearer guidelines; the final output is tangible and largely dependent on the ‘designer’ and/or design team. What technical guidelines are present for complex design practice; that which does not necessarily involve tangible outcomes and involve a larger number of co-creators (stakeholders)? What guidelines must this area work within? What techniques need to be learned in order to create appropriately designed outcomes? Once we sort these details out, we will be better able to define what exactly constitutes doing what Buchanan describes as ‘higher order’ design and design thinking.

Come join the rebel alliance…


Most recently, Donald Norman did a double-somersault backflip and decided that yes, there is such a thing as design thinking and yes, it is actually quite special. Similar to what I have mused about in previous posts, Norman admits that design thinking is not a cognitive practice unique to designers, but displayed by those who ‘question the norms’ and thus break out and innovate. Having the father of user-centered and human-centered design, and previously the worlds biggest design thinking skeptic, admit to turning a new leaf for design thinking is a pretty momentous occasion. Does this mean that in spite of all of the skepticism and backlash in 2012, professionals are starting to realise that there is in fact merit in the art of design thinking? Will this be the return of the Jedi?

May the (design) force be with you.

A Brief History of Design Thinking: How Design Thinking Came to ‘Be’

This is where things get a bit hazy. Design Thinking and all that it stands for today did not directly come out of the history I outlined earlier- it simply proves that design thinking has a history. Design thinking was a realisation through the evolution of different (collaborative) design process methods that were developed to improve and extend design to other areas of practice.

From where we left off…

What happened from the mid 1980’s to date was a race to discover new methods for improving business, service and design. Each methodology can be traced through history and analysed independently should you wish to interpret historical readings in context of the method under investigation. I will highlight an example of what I mean as we move along.

The purpose of analysing this period was to understand the evolution of major design process methods and to discover from this evolution the moment when design thinking was realised as a new approach and a way of thinking that underlined all other methods before it. It must be noted that through this development there was no clear linear progression of methodologies that arose, as many were developed at the same time in different faculties and industries. I have taken through much reading a very generalised approach at attempting to create a chronological understanding of the evolution of major design process trends. The purpose of doing this is to objectively clarify the history and evolution of design thinking which has been muddy and conflicting to date.

And it all started with….Participatory Design

In the early days, participatory methodology was seen most commonly in urban planning until recent developments in design gave this method its name. As i stated earlier, one could very easily trace the history and development of participatory design in and of itself- independent from design thinking. For example; If you want to get nit picky about history, participatory design can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic.

Plato was known to seek advice from his people

Grass roots democracy was once the heart of participatory methodology and is an established method used for centuries for the development of a harmonious society. But i am here to discuss how this and other methods (each with their own unique history) have come together to form the evolution of design thinking.

Back to the Future

Fast forward from Plato to the 1960s. During the design methods movement, participatory design was gaining momentum through research. Dubbed the Scandinavian approach, participatory design was about integrating end-users into the development (prototyping) phase of projects. Technological developments during the end of this decade saw participatory design shift from a social method to a technological one. Prior to the adoption of PD in technology, systems design was the go-to for engineers prototyping within an iterative framework.

The timeline of Participatory Design

As PD progressed into the 1980s, it became synonymous with the emerging field of interaction design. Many of the techniques used in PD were borrowed from science, such as usability testing. Others included mock-ups, prototyping and even role playing.

The Pitfalls of Participatory Design

One of the main disadvantages of participatory design is its negligence towards user experience and stakeholder input. Usability was king, but emotional response to gadgetry was largely ignored. In many instances user testing was abandoned, when users decisions conflicted with those of the stakeholders and the designers.

In response to this end-user dilemma, discussions surrounding co-design (co-operative design) or collaborative design began to take place. This alternative method aimed to transform passive users into co-operative designers.

User-Centered Design

The most significant contribution to the transformation of user development in design was introduced by design theorist Donald Norman. Donald re-defined participatory design into what he coined as user-centered design. User testing became less about usability and more about a users interests and needs. Norman favoured user-control and humanised participatory and system design by “making things visible”. This was to ensure users could discover errors and have control over resolving them.

Donald Norman aka The Godfather of User-Centered Design

Another significant shift in ideology from participatory to user-centered design was the placement of user at the center of the development process. It highlighted the benefits of understanding user experience over user testing. Owing some of its methodology to behavioural sciences, user-centered design emphasised experience over efficiency and adopted a more humanistic approach with the involvement of the user throughout the development of a product or system.

The differences between PD and UCD

User-centered design grew out of speculations towards elevating users from guinea-pigs to co-developers of systems during the participatory trend. This new methodology incidentally spread into broader areas of industry and practice.

Service Design

On the design methodology timeline, service design broke out into the design discipline as a new practice a few years after the turn of the millennium. We can see now that developments through participatory design to user-centered design and the evolution of customer experiences has shaped much of the methodology behind service design. Lucy Kimbell best sums up the development of service design as:

‘[it] Draws on several traditions including product, environment, experience and interaction design” (Kimbell 2009, p. 250).

Kimbell and a few other scholars discuss a new perspective rising in business; from a closed value chain (i.e: we punched out a product we tested on some monkeys and know it works so we can forget about it) to understanding how and what the user **does** with a product (or service); including their journey and experience. This perspective is another  step forward in the evolution of design methodology, for rather than thinking about end user experience of a product or service (user-centered design) attention has shifted to understanding the use, interaction and journey of that product/service after it has left the hands of the provider.

So now we find ourselves labelling all products and systems as one service unit. Kimbell argues that the distinction between a service and product becomes irrelevant, for everything is a type of service that plays a role in ‘value creation’ (Kimbell 2010, p.3). Furthermore, service design extended the definition of the ‘user’ to include all stakeholders and individuals affected or interacting with the service system.

It was with this new approach to product/service systems that the idea of a holistic mindset was made evident. And the holistic mindset behind service design owed much of its development to Ezio Manzini through his research in service marketing and meta-design. Additionally, many of the methods used in service design today have been borrowed and adapted from anthropology and marketing.

Most importantly, it is the holistic perspective of service design that distinguishes itself from all previous design methodologies. Rather than focusing on the ‘end user’ (the customer: marketing/user centered and participatory design), service design seeks to collaborate with all users of a service; building relationships between stakeholders to open up communication for the exchange and development of value and knowledge.

Human-Centered Design

Since the early 1990s, human-centered design and user-centered design were often interchangeable terms regarding the integration of end users within a design process. Like many other design methodologies, human-centered design first began within technological and product system industries and was growing under human centered interaction (a method that is still in use). Human-centered design only started to evolve around the late 1990s, when the development of methods described above shifted from a techno-driven focus to a humanised one.

It was also at this point that we found ourselves with a design methodology that was manifested as more of a mindset than a physical set of tools. William B. Rouse discusses the ideology of the mindest behind HCD in his book, Design for Success: A Human-Centered Approach to Designing Successful Products and Systems. His definition of HCD is philosophical:

“Roles of humans in complex systems, enhancing human abilities, aid to overcome human
limitations and foster user acceptance” (Rouse, 1991 pp.6-123).

Despite contextualising his defintiion within the field of systems and product engineering, Rouse introduces a broader perspective of the ‘user’- one that is closely related to service design but situated in a broader, more socially conscious arena. In its final (and current) phase of evolution, HCD is seen to hold potential for resolving wider societal issues.

HCD is a mix of meta design and service design but closely related to anthropology. It is used more generally in social development than service development.

The broad holistic perspective introduced in service design allowed for human-centered design to redefine its meaning. Coupled with significant social and environmental disasters, it was appropriate after the turn of the millenium that HCD transformed from a method to a mindset, aiming to humanize the design process and empathize with stakeholders. The mindset approach of human centered design re-introduced design thinking, but this time as a mindset used a method for interpreting wicked problems.

Outer circle (blue) signifies the shifts in design theory along the timeline. The inner circle (pink) signifies the methodological shifts in design practice over time

It is interesting to note that the shifts in design theory and practice that have occured since the methods movement in the 1960s have mirrored one another. Design-as-science trend of the 60s and 70s sit opposite and reflect the methodical inquiry into process methods of the 1990s. Similarly, cognitive reflections in design theory during the 1980s reflect (and sit opposite) the mindset movement we are moving through now. Though this may not have been the best way to depict the timeline of design theory and thinking (infodesign nerds get off my back), I chose a circle to deliberately highlight these reflections and the very fact that we have almost come full circle. If this pattern is correct, we should find ourselves moving back into a scientification (did i make that word up?) of design, and it seems to me that we are already beginning to shift into it; as developments in neuroscience turn attention to design thinking for study.

To highlight my prediction on the next phase in design, here is a Stanford video on the neuroscience of design thinking. Enjoy.