THE BUSINESS WORLD WANTS TO THINK LIKE DESIGNERS

March 31, 2017
Design Thinking artwork (photo from readytomanage.com)

Design Thinking artwork (photo from readytomanage.com)

When The New York Times published an article about seeking “Fulfillment,” the headline declared, “Think Like a Designer.”

“Design Thinking” (“DT”) is impacting universities, companies and entrepreneurs. Thought leaders have applied the mindset of an architect to address challenges in our world.

Poon Design’s previous studio, Beverly Hills (photo by Anthony Poon)
Poon Design’s previous architecture studio, Beverly Hills (photo by Anthony Poon)
A lot of financial, busy-ness, busi-ness, business, mumble-jumble (photo by Anthony Poon)
A lot of financial, busy-ness, busi-ness, business, mumble-jumble (photo by Anthony Poon)

The difference in mindset between an architect and business person can be quite remarkable. For example, I might sketch ideas quickly into a journal—improvise, test, reject, and try again. In contrast, a finance person might spend two weeks authoring a highly-detailed, 30-page spreadsheet. Drowning in overwrought details, he forces unwanted answers.

To explore DT further, I interviewed good friend Christine Fang, Associate Director for the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at Virginia Tech. Decades ago at UC Berkeley, I studied architecture and music, while Chris studied finance and accounting. Young in our fields in New York City, I worked at the offices of Robert A.M. Stern, while she at Morgan Stanley.

Book cover of Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur
Book cover of Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur

Anthony: How did all this DT begin?

Christine: Many educators agree that DT is linked to the d.school at Stanford, influencing disciplines such as business and entrepreneurship. Through examining how designers approached projects, tools were developed for the ideation of business ideas. One tool mixing DT and entrepreneurship is the Business Model Canvas (“BMC”). BMC looked more like an architect’s building blocks, rather than a 30-page business plan. I remember when I recently called you about a reference to an architect in the BMC business book, Christopher Alexander, whom you studied at Berkeley.

Architect Christopher Alexander, an influential architect and design theorist, who ideas have influenced architecture, urban design, software, sociology, anthropology, and other fields. The Eishin Higashino High School and College, Higashino, Japan, by Alexander (photo by Robert Baum)
Christopher Alexander, an influential architect and design theorist, who ideas have influenced architecture, urban design, software, sociology, anthropology, and other fields. The Eishin Higashino High School and College, Higashino, Japan, by Alexander (photo by Robert Baum)

Anthony: How does DT help in communication and interaction? Does mindfulness have a role?

Christine: As a business student 25 years ago, I wasn’t sure how future communication in society would work with such deep silos of specialization, like business school vs. architecture school. Surely business people and architects would have to interact, but what happens if there is a basic inability to share and collaborate? There is even a recently published book by Gillian Tett on this topic, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.

With DT bridging at least two silos, you’ve now got designers crossing over into the field of business with a level of comfort, and vice versa. Underlying these crossovers is mindfulness. That is a whole other topic, but suffice it to say that when we approach each other with an authentic wish to understand one another, and not just continue to fortify silos for the sake of them, we can truly start to communicate and interact.

Architect Ricardo Bofill converts WWI-era cement silos into his home and office, Sant Just Desvern, Spain (photo from boredpanda.com)
Architect Ricardo Bofill converts WWI-era cement silos into his home and office, Sant Just Desvern, Spain (photo from boredpanda.com)

Anthony: How does the concept of “unit size,” as in a building block, relate to a finished project, both in architecture and entrepreneurship?

Christine: I used to envision that an artist like Diana Krall could potentially not have to think about business while creating music. Her artistic process would be only one segment at the beginning of a value chain. Next, an entrepreneur must think about producing content for customers, next is building a business concept that can thrive, and next is being part of a whole market with other players. In business terms, we call it being able to “scale.”

Diana Krall (photo from larazon.es)
Diana Krall (photo from larazon.es)

I refer to “unit size” being the cause of differences in communication. Clarifying whether our assessments refer to a business idea, an actual product, a venture, or a market (from smaller to bigger unit size) can lead to more accuracy. In mainstream terms, on Shark Tank, for example, the judging investors criticize the candidates who think only at the unit size of their product. The candidates should think about having an entire business venture worth investing in.

Think of businesses as being made up of conceptual building blocks. You start with a spark of an idea. You have to develop it into an offering like a product or service. Then you create an even bigger unit called a business. And finally, you build up the supporting activities around it to become a sustainable venture.

Anthony: So what happens when different disciplines discuss issues at different unit sizes?

Christine: When “design” is mentioned, there is already a communication gap. What are we designing exactly? The product (like the iPhone) vs. the whole business (like Apple)?

Harvard Business Review article, Design Thinking by Tim Brown
Harvard Business Review article, Design Thinking by Tim Brown

Anthony: What are the challenges in DT for businesses?

Christine: Like with any new concept where we stretch conventional definitions, we need to proceed with complete mindfulness. We need to know that there will be square pegs being put in round holes, that not everything about the approach will be perfect. People who too quickly adopt DT can be ill-advised, or even offend my design friends. There is a whole lineage that led to the design way of thinking, and it would be inappropriate for educators and business practitioners to treat a designer’s education and training as cliché. However, the benefits of applying Design Thinking to business certainly outweigh any short-term negative outcomes. We’re just at the beginning.

The conventional design process, let’s try a new approach. (photo from ithinkidesign.wordpress.com)
The conventional design process, let’s try a new approach. (photo from ithinkidesign.wordpress.com)
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