Design & Thinking?

By: Cheryl Simrell King

On a cloudy Friday evening in late September, an intrepid group of travelers headed for the big city to participate in a small part of the Seattle Design Festival, a screening of the relatively new documentary, Design & Thinking.

The car was packed to the gills with FLT Principals, an analyst, a business associate and one (unlucky) family member. The questions of the evening were, “what is design thinking and what does this tell us (or not) about our work?”

Two days later, Bill Clinton opened the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI) Annual Meeting, the theme of which was “Designing for Impact.”  Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, and Linda Tischler, Senior Editor, Fast Company Magazine,gave the opening remarks (about 25 minutes in).

The Time Magazine article on the meeting quoted Bill Clinton’s opening words:

“Today we want to talk about how you can design your actions in advance to make it more likely they will succeed.

The desired results?  Social impact.  Having an impact.  Having sustainable impacts.  Improving the world.

Design thinking is slippery to define — there are as many definitions for design thinking as there are design thinkers!

In simplest terms, it involves taking the perspective, capacities and tools/techniques of the design tradition and using them to design solutions to social, environmental, economic and communal wicked problems.  It’s about enabling people to have a “design eye” in problems/situations and is as much about learning as it is about producing.  It is systems thinking where failure is not seen as the enemy but is, instead, part of the way you get to success.  It is integrative, incremental, iterative and impactful thinking and doing.  It enables multidisciplinary approaches to problems and nudges people to be multidisciplinary thinkers.  It is about innovators/innovation. It is form and function, yes (the classic elements of design); it is also context – targeted for social good, addressing solutions over time, impact focused, and about doing better things in the world.

As Tim Brown says, “design is about being intentional about what you want the outcome to be.”

One of the core principles of design is about diving right in and doing stuff.  It’s about deep understanding, empathy, collaboration, ideas, protoyping, experimenting, failing quickly and cheaply in order to succeed (try something if it doesn’t work, move on), and evolving to the best solution. It’s about creativity, harnessing the already existing local capacities and energy.  It’s about using creative techniques (build something!), that have their roots in the social sciences, architecture and planning, and in multiple other disciplines/practices.

A fabulous example: Code for America – which “helps governments become more connected, lean, and participatory through new opportunities for public service — both inside and outside government — so we’re not only making a direct impact everyday, but also creating the relationships and network for lasting change.”  Their key tools?

  • Cultivating the next generation of public sector technology leaders.
  • Injecting a culture virus into city government.
  • Encouraging experimentation.
  • Changing the tool set.
  • Facilitating collaboration with other cities.


It’s not accidental that many of the people doing design thinking — social entrepreneurs & public servants — are “Next Gens.”  There’s a capacity that Gen X and Gen Y bring to situations that we aging baby boomers struggle with.

Much of what FLT Consulting already does is design thinking.  We are asking ourselves, what else might we be doing?  How can we be more effective for clients, citizens and communities? Stay tuned for where this is taking us.

We leave you with Tim Brown’s (paraphrased) closing remarks from the CGI plenary interview:

First, it is very tempting, when we use word design, to think about services and products that we can make through design. This is important, but don’t stop thinking there. Our entire systems are opportunities for design – our organizations, business models, processes and systems of governance.  Second, good design comes from diving in and getting on with things.  Don’t spend all your time sitting around and thinking/talking about things, in endless meetings!  Don’t invite citizens in to sit around and talk about things.  Do something together!  Get out there, prototype, learn from doing, and evolve to the best solution (accepting some failure along the way).

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5 Responses to Design & Thinking?

  1. Lisa K says:

    Exciting stuff! I like Brown’s quote in the Time article, “Great design is anything that meets the need of the community that it is developed for.” That definitely sounds like FLT work!

  2. Check out this HBR article too. It’s a good discussion on the merits of failure. But I am curious about his comment about Six Sigma being the antibody to innovation. Seems to me like they can work together. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/10/the_no_1_enemy_of_creativity_f.html?goback=%2Egde_4660579_member_173979996

  3. Mark Messinger says:

    “Accepting some failure along the way.” Let’s hear more about what governmental entities can do, either to accept failure or to educate constituencies on the value of failure. In the highly-charged political environments that today’s representatives in government sometimes find themselves, the penalties of failure can be great. We’ve all heard of Solyndra, yes?

    Thank you, Cheryl, for bringing this topic to the pages of TalkSmart.

  4. faitht says:

    Received this comment from Margaret Casey: Dear Faith,
    I enjoyed the latest email from your company. Here is a link to another – outside/the/box – design and thinking:

    http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/11/earthship_biotecture_renegade_new_mexico_architects

    Keep up the good work and take care, Margaret Casey

  5. Dee says:

    Hey There. I discovered your weblog using msn. That is an extremely
    well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely return.

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