Design Thinking Overview (Business)

Lead facilitator: Guy Parsonage

Partner & Leader, PwC Experience Centre Hong Kong

Design Thinking: A historical overview

The Hong Kong Design Centre’s Unleash! Summer School Design Thinking 101 E-Workshops commenced with an overview of the discipline. “Design Thinking has been at the heart of every single project we’ve worked on,” said Guy Parsonage, Partner & Leader of the PwC Experience Centre in Hong Kong and a co-facilitator of the event. “To start with, we used it loosely… now we’ve used it to hold together very complex consulting projects. It allows us to guide clients who might be stressed about using any form of creativity to solve a business challenge. It works very well. There can be moments of messiness, concern and confusion but they are always followed by moments of realisation and excitement. I’m a true believer.”

Another facilitator commended the workshop by providing an overview of the origin and concept of Design Thinking, quoting IDEO’s Tim Brown’s definition: “A human-centred approach to innovation. It draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”

It was also noted the movement originated almost simultaneously in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, when disciplines such as design science were in their infancy. He observed that American architect, industrial designer and polymath Buckminster Fuller was among the first creatives to take a new approach to process-driven Design Thinking, and the tools that enable it. At the same time, ground-breaking projects in Scandinavia, such as DEMOS and UTOPIA, along with prominent figures such as Horst Rittel, sought to improve work and living conditions through the perspective of cognitive psychology.

Much has happened since then, especially in the fields of technology, design and IT. The computer boom of the 1980s, when machines became affordable and widely available, had people thinking about something that were intangible: software. For many, it was the first time to consider the now familiar concept of user experience.

In the 1990s, the main driving force in Design Thinking was led by designers such as IDEO’s Richard Buchanan, and those associated with the Chicago school and Silicon Valley. Over the years, the focus shifted from product design and service design to human-centred and sustainable design – all within an ever-growing market.

Models of Design Thinking

There are no shortcuts in understanding Design Thinking. The LUMA Institute, headquartered in Pittsburgh, advocates a specific framework of human-centred design through “Looking, Understanding and Making”. The UK’s Design Council has developed the renowned double-diamond method as a framework for innovation: the twin diamonds represent the process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking), and taking focused action (convergent thinking).

IDEO, the renowned American design consultancy and authority on Design Thinking, uses five keywords – Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test – to tackle problems. PwC’s approach is adapted from this and inspired by various approaches, taking the form “Scan, Focus, Act”.

Parsonage talked about the time when his company helped a theme park create its vision for the future. As these parks are experience-led, part of the scanning process is to empathise: people’s idea of fun varies enormously. With this in mind, PwC first had to consolidate a broad range of inputs, and then narrow down its options. It was all about compiling abstract propositions and transforming them into tangible elements. Most business people want an immediate solution, but what’s really needed is one that is both practical and resilient, he added

An exercise in Design Thinking using MURAL

Workshop participants got into the spirit of the event by taking part in a “30 circle challenge,” where they were asked to doodle within a grid of circles. The result – a diverse range of drawings – showed that creativity is not about a single, genius idea but generating many ideas and discovering the best of them. Creativity comes from patterns, not just one idea. Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, for instance, is composed of a number of very different elements.

The workshop then moved on to MURAL – a digital workspace for visual collaboration. It enables a team of designers and innovators to think and collaborate visually to solve problems, with tools such as diagrams and virtual Post-it notes, created and arranged to represent thoughts and ideas. It is a useful tool to facilitate impactful meetings and workshops, especially during these challenging times when remote working is the norm and has reshaped the workplace as we know it.

The group used MURAL to experiment with the different stages of Design Thinking, starting with “Empathise” and “Define”. It looked at an imaginary scenario: a well-known Hong Kong shopping mall wishing to reduce costs and strategically invest. The group went on to “Ideate”– generating as many ideas as possible – by tackling the problem from six different perspectives. Members of the team then voted for the best solutions.

In the real world, the next phase would be to test these ideas by creating prototypes – important because the initial part of the reasoning process is based on assumption. Testing is a way of gauging desirability, viability and feasibility, whereas call-to-action landing pages, URL tracking, sales simulations, pop-up stores and crowdfunding were cited as methods of testing desirability.

To close, the facilitators shared a consensus: “Design Thinking is very process-driven,” and to go back to the fundamentals: “It is a way to structure a messy thinking process to allow people to come up with finite results.” The half-day introductory workshop amply demonstrated that – by using a well-defined structure, and proving the tangible results of Design Thinking is indeed, possible.