design thinking and doing

The people I most admire in life are those that ‘do’ and not just talk about doing, anyone can talk about doing – but actually stepping up to the plate, taking a risk and doing something for yourself or for others, that’s a fine and worthwhile human pursuit in my view!

Design, as I often tell people I meet, is the process of making things better for someone – almost anything can be improved by design. However, the opportunity to create real value through design is dependent on the starting point of the process. Experienced designers know that to become involved right at the beginning, helping their client to make sense of messy, problematic and complex situations, before framing opportunities that create sustainable value for the organisation and the people it serves, is where design has real emergent potential.

Only by firstly understanding the bigger context can design really begin to serve the needs of people, exploring all the constraints and interdependencies, asking the right questions to ‘design the right thing’ before being able to pull-focus on the smaller details of the design craft too and ‘design the thing right’. The craft of design, within all the specialised design disciplines is a deep expertise that creates communications, products, environments and services that have an emotional connection with people.

The focus of my own practice has been to educate clients new to the design-led innovation process. I strive to create persuasive communications to show that a designers way of thinking about customer experience can create new forms of value for the organisation and for the people that it serves.

This often begins with workshops that are designed to embed design thinking, so participants learn-by-doing in order to transfer an understanding of the methods and tools that professional designers use to create value. Over the last fifteen years design has been evolving to challenge the more ‘traditional’ perception of design practice: that designers only create what people actually see, touch and experience, through the craft of design.

Opening up the design process with clients and sharing how to think like a designer can be very uncomfortable for some people – whose problem-solving tendancy is to immediately jump to quick solutions – but is what has come to be known as design thinking – a phrase first popularised by a true original and a very influential designer in my own professional path, the late Bill Moggridge whom I first met when I was a starry-eyed and naive industrial design student at Central School of Art in London, around 1985. Initially it was Bill’s thinking that I took most notice of, but later also his modesty and understated design philosophy.

Good design does not shout at you, but reveals its value over time and often in ways that can continue to delight and surprise. Yet I know that simplicity is one of the hardest elements to achieve and creates an understated, quiet but incredibly effective kind of ‘subliminal’ communication and connection with people.

Now, I’m not a graphic, web or social media expert, but I am T-Shaped – a phrase that describes “a designer with basic literacy in a relatively broad domain of relevant knowledge, along with real depth of competence in a much narrower domain” In the I-shaped article linked above, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Design Thinking is a phrase also attributed to Bill.

What inspired me to write a post this morning is the experience of a very recent implementation of my own design thinking, applied to something relatively unfamiliar – an awareness campaign for Natalie Haupt who is a professional musician and international concert pianist.

I was inspired to help her because of her initiative to approach a Swiss charity called Music For Hope asking for their help to create a bursary that would enable her to reach out to a different kind of music student. They agreed to her proposal and offered a music bursary to fund up to ten classical piano students from all ages and backgrounds, but with limited financial resources. The bursary creates a wonderful opportunity for beneficiaries to receive personal and holistic piano tuition, at a high professional level, but at a price they can afford to pay.

At this moment in her life Natalie is juggling her time between being a dedicated professional musician and being a dedicated mother, whilst bringing up two children. This duality is no easy mental or physical task and she is unable to travel and perform on the professional international circuit, as much as she used to.

As a musician myself, empathy for her cause was undoubteldy a strong driver in my desire to help her and I anticipated the challenge of raising awareness of this opportunity through a communications strategy that would require some real commitment, dedication and focus from me, in order to deliver a workable solution in the short time available. I knew that I’d have to drop all the other things I should be doing to help her meet the charity’s main proviso – that she should propose the best ten candidates within two weeks and to an imposed deadline.

The first contraint, every designer knows too well, is often time!

The sketches below represent my design thinking, externalised visually, to help Natalie create an effective and people-centred awareness campaign for her 2014 initiative – The ‘Music For Hope’ bursary for Bristol.

comms thinking_A+B

comms thinking_E

After meeting her to listen carefully to her needs, we worked closely to explore, define and find a workable solution to the awareness campaign’s communication challenges.

Natalie initially seemed slightly uncomfortable with all my thinking, although she was intrigued… ‘all I had imagined was a poster’.
I convinced her that a poster could be the wrong medium for her message and then gave her the task of creating four personas, which would be representative of archetypes of piano students, aged between 10 – 70yrs. She completed this task effortlessly and of the four, here’s one example – 18 year old Aléxia – the profile was really well-written, all I had to do was scour Flikr to find a face that I thought was a good fit.

The next step was to refine my thinking. Which of my ideas really ‘had legs’ and should be developed further?
Bringing the medium and message together in a dedicated WordPress site seemed like the best solution available in the short time and I would also be able to implement it myself too!

I asked for her further help and prioritised her contributions by conceptually taking ‘a communication journey’ approach to the whole application process, in order to explore what needed to be designed and prototyped, before actually doing any of the hard work.

One idea was that an A4 flyer should follow the interaction design principle of progressive disclosure and use an obvious visual “call to action” – After creating a few alternative designs, we chose one that natalie thought had the most visual impact. But before committing to any printing expenses, we user-tested a colour prototype on people we met in the street and asked them if they understood what was being communicated and what to do next.

When the campaign was launched online earlier this week and the flyer artwork was at the digital printers, we went out to celebrate over lunch at the Primrose Café in Clifton Village.

Natalie @Café Kino on Launch day

Natalie looked so happy and her expressions of appreciation for my help is really what made my role, working in her service, so worthwhile!


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