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The creative ceiling

There is a funny phenomenon that occurs in your creative career that no one really tells you or forewarns you about. It isn’t entirely explicit, although, perhaps I didn’t see what was always hanging above me until my focus gazed upwards from my navel.

This phenomenon is a ceiling that manifests as soon as you look up. This creative ‘ceiling’ is as much of a self-imposed, psychological construct as it is a metaphorical reality imposed on the career progression for many an ambitious designer. But what do I mean by all of this?

Most designers enter the craft because they crave creating, and monetising that creativity is a must. For many more it is creative problem solving that keeps designers engaged for years in their field. These attributes are what departs a designer from an artist or craftsperson. Perhaps the most prominent attribute is the ambition for personal progression, a sense of continually improving existing situations into preferred ones, in ones own designerly life. This may point to why many designers keep reaching for the next ‘level’ of complexity and creative strategic problem spaces. Yet, no one tells you that at some point in this journey you will face a fork in the road, forced to make the decision as to whether you want to maintain your creative expertise or watch your skills fade in the rearview mirror as you drive towards people leadership and business management.

The self-imposed ceiling:

The self-imposed ceiling is about internal conflict. It is about having ambition for progression, leadership and business management, yet wanting to maintain influence and input into project work and maintain ones craft. This internalised ceiling is, at its core, about grappling with an identity crisis; fighting ones ambitions for achieving impact and success with the knowledge that what led one to success thus far is actually centred in their craft. It is about questioning how much impact you can really have through design, and knowing that moving up means moving away from everything that led you to this point.

The externally-imposed ceiling:

The externally-imposed ceiling is less existential. It is about the designer hitting ones head against outside perception, judgement and capability. A designer afflicted by this ceiling has decided that they want to move up in their career. Initially, many make strides in the early days of their career journey without much friction or support, only to hit cold tempered glass without warning. It is hard to average at what point this ceiling occurs as different businesses dictate when it is a necessity. Regardless, the glass all looks the same, and on it reads a message to the ambitious designer: you lack necessary business management education, training or experience to progress further. Assumptions underlining this message is a negative perception that a ‘creative’ lacks business nous.

To be a designer- specifically in a large organisation- means to have accumulated a high threshold of patience, even more so in resilience. Perhaps the desire to progress stems from the very fact design had to be patient and resilient in the first place. But at some point the fatigue from resilience gives way to the paranoia of discovering insignificance in ones work and heirarchy. This then breeds the desire for validation… hell… just to hear someone say: ‘we couldn’t do it without you‘. We realise the harder we push forward the stronger the force of resistance weighs upon us. Adding to this gravity is the feeling of invalidation from watching your MBA peers take a subject in design and use it as a strategic edge to move up in their career (worse yet, the same individuals who take our ideas then impose this ceiling upon us). Yet, we want to be seen but be left alone. We want significance but shirk the responsibility. We want meaning but must have money. We crave autonomy but shy away from truly liberated, risky exploration. Few are ready to forfeit their craft to obtain that MBA in order to rise to the top, yet many eyes widen at the sight of something bigger, more impactful, and more meaningful. For many, a designer is an artist weighed down by capitalist clothing, a funambulist debating if the fall is worth the height.

Is this all to say that a creative career is doomed to operate only in black or white? Do we have to dampen what Henri Bergson describes as intuition, or élan vital? Or could we be looking at this issue the wrong way? If we reframe our perspective and refocus on fundamental drivers, what will it reveal about the ceiling and our focus on it?

I recently stumbled across an extremely practical list of questions from YouTube entrepreneur Thomas Frank, that all designers- especially early career ones- should ask themselves as they start the ignition on their design career…which may hope to short-circuit an impending career crisis:

  1. Are you building or maintaining?
  2. Are you using your current skills or are you learning new ones?
  3. How much creative autonomy do you have/need?
  4. How much interaction with others do you need?
  5. What level of authority do you want over other people?
  6. Do you like being in the spotlight?
  7. How much work-life balance do you need/want?

For some, the conflict will become clear- it is either purely intrinsic or external. For many others, the conflict is a battle between identity and ambition. Is it possible to maintain and marry creative craft with growth in leadership and in business? We have lost many good designers to this ceiling, for either intrinsic or extrinsic reasons, and without a better union we may lose many more. This post is as much for the designer as it is for those on the other side of the glass looking in. Reframe your perspective on the field, understand the inherent bias that fuzzies your focus and see how similar yet complimentary the practice can be for business leadership. There is more to being a designer than just design.

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The shinto goddess of creation and death, and a fitting representation to what feels like the death and re-birth of this blog. After many months (years??) of deliberation I decided to reach into the ashes to nurture a fresh new set of writing wings. Lets hope it flies

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Your strategy needs a minimum viable experience

Let’s all play a game of buzzword bingo. But instead, let’s name those words that denote practices which pragmatically improve our understanding of how we work, without resulting in confused shrugs. I’ll start: The ubiquitous MVP (minimum viable product) has wedged itself into our ways-of-working, thanks to the likes of the startup/lean/agile revolution. It made sense to software developers racing to push a new digital product/feature to market. It didn’t, however, make a whole lot of sense to those annoying designers– the ones that want to understand a product’s place, its context, and its purpose along the customer’s journey. It made even less sense to customer strategists– the ones who need to understand the position of an MVP in context of the overall direction, objective and vision of the project and company.

The MVP-and most rapid methodologies born from startup land- work great when you have 1. A small team, 2. Few constraints (other than resource and money) and 3. Zero legacy (ie: building from the ground up). Pivoting in this scenario is organic, and the MVP enables start-ups to do so in line with the product vision, as Eric Ries had intended.

For large organisations and complex ecosystems, the startup model begins to break apart. In these contexts, the minimum viable product approach becomes less viable as a way of working. It may rapidly push out features to market, but it often eventually loses sight of the bigger picture that the MVP approach is aiming to contribute towards, resulting in some form of design/tech or desirability debt that never gets resolved. The agile manifesto is unfortunately lost in many change management programs, with product owners and sponsors simply pushing for faster waterfall initiatives guided within a sprint-based approach. As such, product roadmaps are generated with features and initiatives laid out over a 3–5 year horizon for delivery. Or, the agile methodology results in initiatives and features that are continuously iterated without any direction around why this continuous change is necessary. Now, what is the problem with these scenarios?

  1. It relies on a product-centric view of delivery to market
  2. It sacrifices human-centric and holistic opportunities found across the end-to-end customer experience
  3. It disables large companies from being able to pivot meaningfully and strategically with agility, frequency and consistency towards the strategic vision
  4. All of the above

The common risk with lean/agile methodologies is it is inherently product-centric. The terminology (despite promoting customer collaboration) still remains focused on the iterative delivery of a product and its features, losing sight of the position and impact of the product across the customer value chain.These issues are magnified when placed into large organisations. What results is a distinct gap between the now and the future-state, with teams rapidly pushing a huge backlog of MVP’s to market and losing sight of the strategic vision and overall impact to customer experience.

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A Minimum Viable Experience

Like most terms du jour, the minimum viable experience (MVE) is not a brand new concept. It emerged circa 2013 as a result of the startup/Agile boom and the broader vernacular around the experience economy. The MVE was a logical love-child, however, little development has been proposed around what it is, what it means and how it could be used. An MVE is a tactical, flexible strategy. It bridges the gap between execution and static strategic plans that often collect dust on a shelf. An MVE embodies your strategic vision, and brings it to life.

The most bang for your buck with an MVE

After much trial and error, I have found myself landing on a structured approach towards adopting the MVE concept for the assistance of developing agile customer and design strategy in large organisations. Using an MVE for strategic direction and continuous delivery requires four key steps that blend design and agile approaches:

  1. Identify your target customer and conduct baseline research (if you haven’t done so already) to understand your customers’ current and ideal experiences with your product-service
  2. Develop a set of experience principles from your customer research
  3. Write up an end-to-end future-state storyboard based on your experience principles
  4. Review and revise this future state experience with your key stakeholders to assess timing, tech, delivery, viability, etc
  5. Identify your key MVP features for design and delivery across your MVE
  6. Identify the date by which all of the MVP features that support your MVE could be delivered. Re-shape as necessary if this end-date is too far-out into the future. I recommend sticking to 6 month MVE cycles
  7. The MVE becomes your interim strategic objective that aligns to your vision and/or future state direction and experience principles, allowing you to reframe and pivot every 6 months if needed. It is a strategic package that knits together your MVP’s in a meaningful way

As you may have guessed, the MVE steals methods and approaches from service design practice. This is also due in part to the common redundancy found when producing customer journey maps and/or blueprints in fast, agile working environments. Like strategic roadmaps, a service blueprint is often a great glossy vision of the future with little tactical methods on how to resourcefully and strategically implement the end-to-end service experience. After the initial stakeholder showcase, these artefacts ultimately collect dust.

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Now for some news..

This is a high-level breakdown of how to approach and apply the MVE concept for strategic planning and design delivery inside of a lean/agile way of working. There is a lot of detail that is obviously left out, including how to visualise your MVE and update/iterate the strategy in line with sprint cycles, agile ceremonies and corporate strategy. It would be far too cumbersome to describe this strategic MVE approach in a blog post, so I am currently detailing the MVE as part of a book-slash-guide on strategic design practice.

Yes, yes, I know…not another design book. I had debated whether to contribute to the already saturated opinion pieces published on design. To be honest, part of the drive for publishing is to formally document all of the learnings, readings and practices I have accumulated in my head. In addition, I am not only time-poor but impatient- particularly when it comes to reference material to assist with day-to-day practice. Thus, no wordy vignettes or self-congratulatory case studies that omit useful details will be found here. This book will be fast, factual, honest, relevant and to the point.

So please, email or comment what you are frustrated with or would like to see in a design book, and one focused on design strategy.

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Are you a designer, or just a facilitator?

A few weeks back I was standing in a room facilitating a large ideation workshop. Mid-session I found myself thinking, I am not sure if I enjoy this. Walking out of that workshop, I told myself that I entered into the design field to become a designer, not a facilitator. I felt that as a workshop facilitator, I could have been replaced with any other person, toolkit in hand. Sure, there are nuances experienced design facilitators bring (like knowing when to probe thinking and move a team in different directions) but a decent set of card-prompts could suffice. A good toolkit in and of itself could very well guide a novice team through the process, particularly since many design thinking workshops are aimed at beginners and most beginners cant tell the difference between good and bad design thinking.

Design thinking is sold as a better way to work, to innovate. It has morphed into a practice that encourages so much collaboration that it has left lead designers playing an integrative (and intrinsically extroverted) role. I am no extrovert. I began as a ‘traditional’ designer, embedded in my own world (or that of a very small team), often left to our own devices to problem-solve through design. Commercial design thinking practice takes aim against this ‘lone wolf’ from design yonder, and shoots it squarely between the eyes. Commercial design thinking is theatrical and its workshops are an opportunity for presenters to perform to a large group of individuals.

The problem I have is that I don’t think I agree with big collaborative design. I am not sure I agree that you should integrate everyone and anyone into the design process, at every step of the way, in big workshops. Yes, I make the exception with end-users, as this is the heart of the design process. However, I’m pointing at those projects that carry the client and/or big, broad networks of stakeholders across every stage of the design process. I understand that large workshops with key stakeholders are conducted in the essence of time and schedules, but this is not how design naturally flows.

a ripe environment for collecting ideas

Crowdsourced design has become commonplace; gather a bunch of multidisciplinary individuals in a room and make sure everyone contributes to the creation of ideas. Make sure the same individuals also participate in prototyping, in research, in testing. Most often than not, these individuals- whilst bringing in diverse viewpoints- find design unnatural and uncomfortable. Design thinkers often find themselves facilitating these teams to do the design work, with little breath in-between to engage in the design process. Workshops started as a way to help clients and teams understand the process of design. Somehow, they have made their way into design practice. This more than often slows the design process down and requires more time up-skilling which detracts from actual designing and thinking.

Of course, if the project intent is to build design capability amongst an organisation or team, then this makes sense to do so. But capability based projects and design projects have conflated. This problem exists not only for external design consultancies, but for in-house design teams. This issue naturally raises the topic of establishing a design culture; if everyone across an organisation is familiar with the process and approach, then each project can operate in a less rigid and more organic manner. It is this intuitive flow that is lost when you need to design and facilitate capability uplift through collaboration with a large set of stakeholders, leaving no one really feeling their way through the design process.

It is this situation that I question if we are really doing design, or just superficially skimming the cliche. It is in this situation that I ask myself if I am actually designing, or if I am reduced to merely that of a passive facilitator- at best- an active integrator. It is in this situation that I ask myself if you really need an experienced designer, or simply someone who can run a workshop. It is in this situation that I ask how an ‘experienced design thinker’ perceivably differs to a novice, when faced with a room full of stakeholders fresh to design practice.

It is, however, in this situation that I know a small, engaged design team working intensely and consistently performs far better and with greater understanding than large, sequenced and structured workshops.

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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.

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the strategy behind design


This year I was invited to teach an online subject for a master’s degree, of which was simply titled design strategy. I was also offered the liberty to (re)create the subject, as I saw fit, and as such had the freedom to structure it how I liked. Easy enough, I thought.

Then I became a little confused.

Strategy is an action that, like design, can be classified according to perspective and scale. That is, on one scale (of complexity) you may be developing a strategy to beat your brother in a board game. On another, you may be developing a strategy to resolve cross-regional conflict amongst competing civilisations. This micro/macro conflict is reflected in design practice. Generic discussions on the definition of design and design thinking attempt to relate design to minor practices -such as a meal or an outing- and to major projects, such as the design of a service or a building. This is due to the tired mantra, everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones, which as we will learn below, parallels with the definition of strategy.

The expansion of design is very much due to its global applicability to any kind of discipline and context. And as many have argued and observed in the past, this makes distinguishing and determining design and design fields an insurmountable task. It is for this reason that I fervently argue for any classification of a design to include and anticipate a designerly approach. That is, the methods and mindsets of which are fundamental to design practice should be evident to be classified as a form of design and part of the process of designing.

Back to strategy. As always, I love a good definition to contextualise what I am getting at:

Merriam webster: a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time […] the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal.

Googlea plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

Now, compare the above with the definition of design…

Merriam Webster: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan :  devise, contrive  to conceive and plan out in the mind. to draw, lay out, or prepare a design

H. Simon: everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

For me, strategy is choosing the most competitive and appropriate pathway from an array of (often ambiguous) choices. I deliberately include the word competitive as it is, I feel, the very heart of what it means to be strategic. However, the meaning of strategic design within the design discipline wasn’t initially so competitive as it was enabling.

Trying to define what it means to be strategic is a little tricky, and trying to define strategy with design becomes an inherently complicated topic (as we all know). For most of my career I had a fairly clear idea of what strategic design, or strategy by design, was. My master’s degree focused on sustainable design which at the time was classified as “highly strategic” by default. During my PhD, strategic design discussions emphasised design management, policy design, systemic design and facilitating a design culture in large organisations. Helsinki Design Lab’s Recipes for Systemic Change, published in 2011 became the go-to text followed by Dark Matter and Trojan Horses in 2012 (.. and pretty much anything by Jeanne Liedtka). More recently, books such as Strategic Design (2016) are continuing to perpetuate this (new!?) design discipline. But these texts also revealed that there existed a slight difference between strategic design and strategy by design.

Strategy by Design

An approach by which design and the design artefact becomes the centralised force that impacts various dimensions and scales of the context it is implemented within.

Strategic Design

A practice in which traditional methodologies of strategy are married with, or carried by, a design approach.

Here is the clinker- strategic design *may* result in a strategy by design, but it doesn’t always (or have to). A strategic design approach utilises the best of a design process with the best of strategic frameworks to create a (super?) problem solving approach for particularly complex problems. In slight contrast, strategy by design uses design as a conscious catalyst for change, considering the artefact on a broader scale than immediately intended. Strategy by design involves asking the question, what is the biggest impact I can/will have with my design? whereas strategic design may ask, how can I plan and achieve the most effective strategic outcome from using a design approach?.

To make matters worse, the two can often be blended, and this is what I decided to teach for the subject. For the sake of clarity, I saw strategic design and strategy by design as tackling a problem from two different directions: top down or bottom up. Strategy by design is an emergent, grassroots approach, focusing on building an artefact from research and prototyping with users. This approach is akin to a traditional design process.

In contrast, strategic design begins with more formal, strategy-led approaches. It takes a broad, birds eye view of the context and devises a framework and/or blueprint, rather than specific artefact, to effect change. I realised this difference upon observing the interplay of strategy and design in management consulting, as well as reading, researching, and asking about the various approaches people took in strategy and design.

I personally have applied both approaches in my own work and I choose the process depending on context (and attitude) set by the client. In reality, the two approaches aren’t always so clear cut, but clarifying the difference between the two has been nagging me for some time. I would be curious to hear from anyone working in this area, and to learn if you also find various approaches in strategy and design.

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Have we misunderstood innovation?

When you think of the word ‘innovation’ what comes to your mind? Many will say Uber, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or even design thinking. Today, if you peer into the world of design, you will be bombarded with the word innovation. Innovation is becoming a permanent buzzword for the design industry, but is this really a good thing?

Having returned to design practice and observing from the inside-out for some time, I developed a few reflections on this elusive obsession and its relationship to design. But before I open up the debate, let’s quickly review what defines innovation:

Websters Dictionary:

1. (noun)innovation
the act of innovating; introduction of something new, in customs, rites, etc

2. (noun)innovation
a change effected by innovating; a change in customs; something new, and contrary to established customs, manners, or rites

Google Dictionary:


noun /ˌinəˈvāSHən/
innovations, plural

  • The action or process of innovating
  • A new method, idea, product, etc
    • – technological innovations designed to save energy

(What does ‘the process of innovating’ even mean? What does this look like? design?)

Wikipedia: (don’t snarl, it’s a good overview)

2011 definition:

The term innovation derives from the Latin word innovatus, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change,” stemming from in—”into” + novus—”new”. Although the term is broadly used, innovation generally refers to the creation of better or more effective productsprocessestechnologies, or ideas that are accepted by marketsgovernments, and society. Innovation differs from invention or renovation in that innovation generally signifies a substantial positive change compared to incremental changes.

Updated: 2016 version

Innovation is defined simply as a “new idea, device, or method”.[1] However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.[2] This is accomplished through more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term “innovation” can be defined as something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.[3] It is related to, but not the same as, invention.[4]

While a novel device is often described as an innovation, in economics, management science, and other fields of practice and analysis, innovation is generally considered to be the result of a process that brings together various novel ideas in a way that they affect society. In industrial economics, innovations are created and found empirically from services to meet the growing consumer demand.[5][6][7]

Looking at the definitions, there was sound reason to advertise design thinking as a process (if not the process) that inspires innovation. The point and process of design thinking can be examined and exploited as ‘innovative’, or conducive to innovation, with its goal to create or significantly improve our world via close examination and understanding of users and society.

However, professionals (particularly clients seeking innovation through design) have ignored one significant problem: design thinking offers the potential for innovation and no substantial evidence to promise an innovative result. (To be fair, nothing can ever promise an innovative solution..)


So what does foster innovation? How do we know when we have created an innovative solution?

It appears to me that there exists three stages of general “improvement”- with and without the aid of a design approach:

 1. Iteration: incremental evolution. an improvement of what is current. adds ease and efficiency

2. Innovation: incremental invention. a mutation of what exists. influences new transactions

3. Invention: disruption. the birth of a new species. radically redefines the structure and behaviour of society

There are many ways to define and identify various levels of improvement. I am more intrigued with the misty cloud that leads specifically to an innovation. I definitely align myself with the writings of Roberto Verganti (in this book Design Driven Innovation) and of Don Norman (in a joint paper titled, Incremental and Radical Innovation), when they identify that innovation can exist via a radical redefinition of meaning as well as via technology. Norman argues in his paper with Verganti that design may only offer incremental innovation- which is ironically what the definition of innovation implies.

The problem I find is that many clients approach designers using the term innovation and/or disruption, yet their expectation of improvement lies within the realms of invention. Unlike strategy, I don’t feel innovation is necessarily a competitive practice or goal, as we often discover innovations and new inventions through necessity or accident. It is often an act of discovery or re-imagination.

Design thinking may be one way to achieve innovation, but I fear many feel it is the only way. There are plenty of other intelligent and well read individuals who specialise in the theory of innovation. I have not devoted as much of my research to investigating this topic, but I do have some frank reflections on what it is. I have written about the unrealistic expectations that often surround design and design thinking. Part due to practitioners over-promising an innovative result, and part due to professionals looking at existing examples considered to be ‘innovative’ and learning that design was at its foundation. The promise of innovation shot design thinking to fame, no doubt, but I am fearful that it is redefining the definition of design in a way that may set ourselves up for failure.


Time to get real…

In a somewhat sick, masochistic twist I have referred to Bruce Nussbaum whose criticism of design thinking was accurate in one respect (everything else I kind of disagree with). In that infamous article, he highlights:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change.

As practitioners of design thinking in consultancies now acknowledge, the success rate for the process was low, very low.

Now, arguably, the success rate could also be perceived as very high- depending on what your benchmark and definition for ‘innovation’ is. This is quite important to point out, as unfortunately, many clients define innovation as the following:

  1. it disrupts my competitors, so that it propels my business ahead of the rest (whilst looking edgy, fresh, and smart in doing so)
  2. makes me lots of money
  3. can be produced in a matter of weeks, consistently, with little to no investment
  4. it’s tech-y

The one thing I have learned through my reading thus far on innovation is that at the point we identify a phenomenon as ‘innovative’ it appears as if spontaneous and out of the blue. What you often find is there was months, if not years, of research, prototyping, testing and design until it reached a point of ‘innovation’- a process that is actually incremental. It may appear true that industries are becoming disrupted in a more rapid way, but this is simply because we have instant and easier access to knowledge and/or materials than we did before. This merely informs us that we can speed up our pace of learning (and prototyping), but not of our innovations.

Sorry to break the bad news, but you have to spend a little more time at the drawing board-or a little more time educating the boardroom


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The power struggle behind big data: forfeiting emotional autonomy to the machine

I encounter a lot of debates between myself and those who defend the authority of big data. It made me begin to wonder what kind of perception we are generating and what kind of attitudes we are embedding into our practice due to this desire for a quantifiable truth. Logical positivism states that only deduction or direct observation is meaningful. Big data provides us with direct observation; a tangible source for which we can point and deduce as reality. But what are we really doing in this process, and what kinds of attitudes are being shaped and are shaping our approach to work?

Much of my own design work involves direct engagement and documentation of peoples’ thoughts, lives, reactions and emotions. I am a messenger and a representative of someone else’s story. Ethnography is the methodology I often take in my work and with it comes an attitude that both aims to accurately describe the reality and perceptions of individuals I have studied, or sometimes, to emancipate those who are marginalised by a source of power. Yet, more and more I am asked, reading, and witnessing the attempt to introduce quantitative information into the accounts I produce on behalf of my participants.


The push for data-driven design

Surveys, sample sizes, statistics and predictive analytics are a few of the big data-inspired demands that are infiltrating human-centered design. Qualitative information is not enough. The growing perception is that qualitative, “small” data- such as the stories and insights that emerge from ethnographic practice- require the “validity” and rigour of cold frequency and hard numbers. At its extreme, qualitative research is not even needed. Numbers tell a story, and this story is edited by computer processing. Statisticians read this story received and report back. A kind of double hermeneutic is at play, except the co-creative conversation we are having about our reality is with a computer.

Reducing what is human- into a code or a number to be quantified- is in essence an attempt to stabilise and transform emotionally driven (irrational) human behaviour into predictable (a la economic) beings. This of course is only a superficial representation of what we think is true; the kind of boiled down, reductionistic approach to make sense of that which cannot be controlled and predicted (much like the foundations of ecology). In an attempt to find a handle for control, big data and quantification is often used to assert authority and preserve hierarchy; data is used to leverage and exercise authority over a project, client, community and even society. Furthermore, this increasing preference for data not only reaffirms the immediate power and authority,  but to a greater extent, requires us to forfeit our emotional autonomy to a machine.

The craving for big data to serve as an ‘authority’ over our reality means we value and trust an algorithm over that which should understand and represent us the best- a human. For any one who is worried about AI replacing our jobs, this fervent and blind faith is doing nothing but accelerate this destiny.


Because the data said so

The persistence for data portrays an underlying desire for an objective authority- a highly rational and unemotional super parent. We see the computer as greater than us, our own motherboard Messiah that we have crafted to liberate ourselves. I find this liberation often results in laziness as people point to figures rather than figuring out problems, and in the process, lose sight of the perspectives of their peers.

What kind of governance have we created and poured our trust into? We choose a machine to calculate us, and view it as an extension (and association) of the human brain (this makes me think of Herbert Simon). This mechanical organism is a better version of us; it is stronger, possesses a more powerful processing ability and infinite memory. However, this figurehead for objective authority is rational, emotionless and lacks empathy-much like the basic traits of a psychopath.

Emotions are what makes us irrational beings. Our insatiable desire for data means we also wish to control ourselves; to contain this irrationality in order to become stable and predictable. This predictability is founded on a desire for control and control is founded through a fear of risk and loss. Loss aversion is one of the strongest human traits that drive our irrational being and we have turned to computers to parent us away from bad decisions. But as any good parent knows, sometimes you need to let your child make a few bad decisions in order to learn and grow.


Not everything that can be counted, counts 

(and no, this is not another Einstein quote)

This quote actually is owned by a sociologist named William Bruce Cameron. Cameron describes beautifully the inherent danger in big data. In a paper dating back to 1963, Cameron states:

“It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Am i saying we should abandon quantitative data altogether? No, not necessarily. Quantitative information has its purpose and place. What i am saying is, when we are dealing with what is in essence to be human (to design) we need to think twice before reaching for a number to justify our information. In human-centered driven work, such as design practice, emotions are just as much a valid source of ‘data’ as are numbers. What we really need to be strictly conscious of, is that we are not allowing ourselves to treat hard data as a superior source of information to qualitative reasoning. Both qualitative and quantitative information should remain equal. This is the reason why I had chose to use critical realism as the theoretical paradigm for analysing design practice. It provides an intellectual middle ground between our desire for control (quant) and emotional autonomy (qual), by emphasising neither and integrating both where appropriate. We must preserve our right to remain human-centered, and hold each other accountable when the temptation for big data-driven design takes control.

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The design process isn’t the problem. You are the problem

(harsh, but true)

This debate keeps cropping up like a seasonal virus. Once again, I encountered a bit of chatter across the internet and amongst practitioners on the ol’ topic that design thinking  has failed to live up to its hype. This is a post explaining why I believe these reoccurring debates flare up, and why they continuously reignite.

I am in a pretty unique position. I have experience and perspective as both a design academic and design practitioner. In research I spent four years as more or less an observer; watching the design process from afar in order to elevate insights which may be buried in the day to day that often robs us of adequate reflection. As a researcher, I forgot just how much crap there is to wade through when neck deep in the detail.

I don’t mean this to sound negative. The crap I am talking about is the everyday: the admin, the mundane, the mess of life that day-to-day work seems to generate. Throw in budgets and tight timeframes and we barely have space in our brain to remember where we parked the car in a given day.

Two states of design thinking

There are two manifestations of design thinking and design practice; internalised (lone) design thinking and externalised design thinking that manifests collectively and collaboratively from a group. I wrote a bit about collaborative design thinking in my thesis, and this is certainly where much of the discussion about the practice of design thinking is situated. What intrigues me is that there is a lot of writing on the benefits of adopting design/thinking, equally as many articles against design thinking, yet little has been discussed about the specific reasons why design thinking may not work.

Most often when things are mysterious, intangible and elusive like design thinking, it helps much more to know what design thinking is not in order to understand what it is. Here is my take on the topic.


The 5 commandments on how to kill design thinking (and obliterate innovation)

1. Formalise the process

The generic framework of the design process (discover, define, develop, deliver) and its many variations is a great way to try to articulate the process designers adopt in their practice. I don’t believe these stages were ever meant to be applied in a strict, orderly fashion, because for most designers the interaction between each phase is not clear cut and can often intuitively swirl back and forth. Yet, I have witnessed many designers and design teams within organisations cut clear deadlines and metrics against each phase which hinders much organic growth.

It is understandable that when presenting design to a client or upper management who are not familiar with the process one becomes tempted to report against fixed phases. This makes you look like you have direction and status metrics by which you can report on a regular basis. But most often than not, this formality robs creativity, adaptation, experimentation and discovery-particularly in novice teams. It not only sets a precedent and expectation that design is predictable, fixed and linear, but it also sets a cultural tone that you cannot step outside of the square.


2. Suffer from Steve Jobs syndrome (or just be an a$$)

Unless you plan to operate as a lone designer, you are single handedly going to kill design thinking in the team you work with with a bad attitude. I am surprised (and annoyed) by how many self-proclaimed design thinkers narrow-mindedly spit on other ideas in favor of their own. And I am not just talking about ideation sessions where you explicitly state that ideation time is to defer judgement. I am surprised about the behaviour around this sacred, creative ‘safe’ ground. A true designer, or design thinker, is open and encouraging. He or she will build upon ideas or at least be open to the possibility and opportunity of an idea no matter how far-fetched. This encouragement and support is what spurs creative ideation, and as time passes on a project, lowers inhibitions amongst members so that the design team can freely climb higher and more innovative pursuits.


3. Be uninspired by creative people and ideas

This is often interlinked with the previous point and is probably the most surprising anti-designerly attitude that ails many teams. If you scrunch up your nose at creatively silly ideas, feel embarrassed to laugh at yourself, or shut your mind off from exploring unrelated fields of knowledge and activity, then you are sorely limiting yourself to the mundane. Which is surprising since most individuals working in a design process want to describe themselves as an innovator, entrepreneur or artist. I feel much of this comes down to fear of failure which is perhaps the most destructive mindset…


4. Fear failure

I have argued many, MANY, times that fear of failure is the absolute kryptonite to a designerly approach. This fear is also the kryptonite to your success in life, in general. This is why a design approach is liberating for many- it allows, encourages and accepts risk and knows that risk often results in failure. Failure is a good thing, it equals strength and knowledge. Failure helps you make decisions just as much as success does (and is a better teacher at it). Often fear is propagated within a team due to the issues described above and in conjunction with the understandable anxiety around reputation, job security, and the like. If your boss or organisation does not support and understand that the design process is not a one track trick to success- that it also actively encourages failure- then you need to step back and ask yourself if the culture is ripe for the implementation of a design approach.


5. Put all of your expectation into a designerly approach

expectation is the root of all heartache

-a really cool guy from the 1600s

The design process won’t save you. It is not a panacea, and it is naive to assume that it will be the saviour of your troubled business and/or project. This is perhaps why i never understood the continuous debate over the success/failure of a design approach. No model, method or fad to emerge will ever be the answer- it is knowing when and in what context that a method will best achieve the desired outcome. This is why we have experienced design professionals and consultants whom understand if the characteristics and strengths of a design approach will be suitable towards the context and project at hand. Thought needs to be taken when deciding whether to use one approach or another, and design thinking is no exception to this consideration.


The Jerry Springer ending

I’ll admit that as a researcher I took design thinking for granted. I believed so much in the process of design and design thinking that I lost sight of the fact that design is incredibly delicate and sensitive. Sensitive to people’s attitudes, behaviour and application. A designerly approach in itself is not the answer; design needs the right people to manifest the qualities that so many business professionals admire. In either the midst of the meta through academic research, or distracted by the detail in practice, we have lost sight of the real fragility of design thinking.

but hey, what do i know