From Design Thinking to Strategic Design

In this article: Is Design Thinking really a blanked cure for everything innovation? With this blog post we want to show why often isn’t *that* easy in practice, and what you should keep in mind, if you use the method. Furthermore, we dive into how these and similar thoughts have lead us to develop our strategic design Framework.

Does Design Thinking need a new approach?

If you are reading this blog post, you might have encountered this optimistic claim: Design Thinking is often hailed as the blanket cure for innovation today. However, in practice, many will realize that things don’t always go as expected, for, on the one hand the method seems to produce great results on a regular basis. But on the other, its introduction into a company may create as many problems as it solves. Like most design processes, the method often collides with established practices and with a business’ necessity to justify investments in a project. Under this pressure, it cannot then develop the potential it is said to have, especially if it is only used halfheartedly. So, to produce the desired results, we need a systematic approach. And this is where Strategic Design comes in. But more on that below.

Shortcomings of Design Thinking: How do we fail?

Where Design Thinking fails in practice

Most large and many medium-sized organizations have at least toyed with the idea of using Design Thinking. Maybe yours, too. In general, this is a good thing, as Design Thinking addresses very relevant current trends in the professional world: work attitudes and values of employees are fast evolving—from a focus on job security and clear roles towards a sense of purpose and personal appreciation. Hierarchical structures and predictable career paths make way for agile, lean working cultures that keep competent people engaged. (At least that’s the theory.) Design Thinking, now, is a method that caters to these developments.

The innovation teams we encounter in our clients’ organizations are generally well set up. They are given generous budgets, work spaces they can set up at their own discretion, as well as the freedom to self-organize. The hope being that they produce a suitable innovation in due time. However, it often turns out that the desired goals are almost as likely achieved as they are not. Despite the best efforts the process either doesn’t produce convincing ideas, or great ideas come about but never make it past the prototyping stage. As a result, many managers experience Design Thinking as an incalculable or, even worse, uncontrollable bet. The question is, now: Why is that?


Design Thinking vs Established Processes

Don’t get us wrong, we love it when companies give design methods a shot. Many of them discover quickly that creative work in a team can be incredibly fun and fulfilling. The team gets to know new processes and tools that diverge from everyday office routines. It gets a feel for developing meaningful ideas and for putting them into action. And the people involved experience personal growth, which can be very inspiring. So, what goes wrong in many cases?

The reason why the method often does not produce usable results isn’t the “what” of what is done, but the “how”. To apply Design Thinking correctly, speed and efficiency are not the most important paradigms, even if this is often claimed. Efficiency plays an important role within the nitty-gritty of the work, but not for the project as a whole. After all, the design process is iterative and, when you get to the testing phase, it doesn’t mean you’re done. Efficiency here is related to the famous saying of failing early, learning from it and keeping on keeping on. And this is exactly why it is hard to fit design processes into defined roadmaps. Developing a deeper understanding of this process requires a level of professional experience that should not be underestimated.

Fostering design competence
Design thinking will not simply work automatically. The organization must first develop important competencies for it. Designers know from practice that it takes a lot of personal and professional experience to reach the highest level in this regard.


How designers work: A quick glance

Understanding how designers work will also give us a better understanding of why Design Thinking… works. First and foremost, design is much more than “just” coming up with creative ideas. The result of design is not the idea itself, but making the idea into something you can touch, or at least see, e.g. a prototype, a sketch, a layout or a draft. To get there, both thinking and doing need to come together. The core of our work is to efficiently translate ideas into concepts and then into real, demonstrable and testable results. Naturally, the quality of our results increases with our insight into the topic at hand, which is why research is such crucial to the ideation process. Of course, this is an iterative process—if the result doesn’t fit the requirements, it is rinse and repeat. And this needs an agility, flexibility and letting go of some good ideas, too. It is true that with a method like design thinking, this (supposedly) follows a defined process. But it is much more a question of mindset and also requires time and freedom.

You can already see from this that designers do not achieve good results by mere chance or creative flashes of inspiration. On the contrary, we use precise tools and methods that bring thinking and action together in a structured approach. The central challenge here is the constant switching between explorative phases and subsequent utilisation of the resulting ideas; a switch that can be very difficult under real conditions (and especially in a team). This is exactly where we find the “how” that is so important for this work. And this is not learned in a single Design Thinking workshop. Consequently, the key to Strategic Design is the integration of diverse methods with the internalisation of the necessary mindset. For it is precisely this combination that makes design so interesting when working on “big” issues.

The result of design is not the idea itself, but making the idea into something you can touch […] To get there, you need to be both thinking and doing. Felix Guder

How Strategic Design helps integrate design in an organization

Solving Design Thinking with Immersive Strategic Design

Of course, there is a wide spectrum in between “just trying out” design or making it the outright center of corporate strategy. So, the question is how to provide a simple, purposeful, and practical entry into design or expanding design as a tool in the organization. Maybe also a tool, that makes design thinking more predictable. Can we provide such a tool? One popular approach for that is to hire experts who join the team, guide the process, and coach the participants. Our experience has shown time and again that teams and their projects can benefit greatly from the expertise of experienced designers. And from this day-to-day practice resulted some logical questions we started asking ourselves: Could we somehow identify the conditions for success? Could we make them replicable? And could we translate the findings into a framework that makes success much more probable?

Today, the answers we came up with are integrated in our Strategic Design framework. It starts with the fact that we don’t just view the design process as a process in our day-to-day business, but also tinker with it at the meta level. This means that we not only design the product, but also the work itself. In other words, the work environment becomes a learning space in which we iteratively optimize the how, not just the what of our work. This leads to an alignment of perspectives and common direction among individuals, as well as more focused and enjoyable teamwork. To achieve this, we have tested and refined a number of well-known methods and finally formalized them in a framework. This is exactly what our clients’ projects benefit from, and the approach is suitable for qualitatively elevating the design in an organization and making it more connectable.

Design Thinking and Double Diamond
The Double Diamond model describes the design process on two levels. On the one hand, as a methodical sequence, as is also known from design thinking; on the other hand, as a sequence of changes between a exploration-oriented and a solution-oriented mindset. This characteristic change is not easy to master (especially in a team) and belongs to the core competence of designers. In Design Thinking, the interaction and especially the importance of the different thinking patterns is often forgotten. Therefore, there is often the risk that Design Thinking is formally established, but does not contribute to the actual development of design competencies in the team.

More than just a set of methods
Design works not only because of its methods, but is based on a shared way of working, which includes atmospheric parameters (e.g. psychological safety, common rules or a suitable working environment). Work thereby becomes an immersive learning experience in which one can immerse oneself and in which experiencing flow as a team becomes much more likely. In this sense, Strategic Design is more than “just” a set of methods; it is also the mindset with which one is at work and the learning environment that one creates together as a team to align thinking and action.

Transforming businesses with Strategic Design

At Iconstorm, Strategic Design has become an everyday practice: our team lives the concept and, in turn, breathes life into it. Using iterative sprint formats, we are in a continuous improvement process that advances knowledge and skills, refines methods, and integrates all of it into one. And because the approach is integral to our work, it also flows naturally into our client projects. This observation eventually led us to the idea of reflecting on the mechanisms of this practice to create a framework that supports others in establishing or expanding the use of design as a strategic element.

The resulting projects take on a shape that brings together thinking and doing, which is in tune with the spirit of design. In the resulting projects, we now work not only toward concrete results that solve a client’s problem, but also toward better integrating design into their organization. This means that in addition to the usual work, we also foster a deeper understanding of the process as well as the underlying terminology, concepts, and methods. This in turn facilitates the growth of a design culture out of practice and opens up the opportunity to integrate design and innovation strategy with each other – not top-down, but in very specific projects. Therefore, Strategic Design is a key to a tangible transformation that makes companies more innovative in the long run.


Author and Contact

Observe, challenge, improve, test: As Iconstorms’ managing director, Felix Guder is a constant motivator for the development of our strategic design approach. And as a convinced practitioner, he carries our ideas to our customers and partners. If you are interested in a collaboration or simply want to know more about Strategic Design, feel free to get in touch!

+49 (0) 69 15 32 018 21

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