by Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement
The discipline of design has traditionally focused on the form and function of products (think iPod). However, design firms like IDEO are using the principles of design to create an innovative approach for addressing more complex problems. This approach is called design thinking. As traditional programs and policies within our social systems are proving less effective, a growing number of non-profit organizations are embracing design thinking to generate new solutions.
As Cameron Norman observed in his recent blog Evaluation and Design for Changing Conditions, “The days of creating programs, products and services and setting them loose on the world are coming to a close.” As an alternative he suggests that Design Thinking – a human-centered approach to innovation that brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable – offers a “relevant and appropriate” alternative approach for those seeking to influence our world.
In Design Thinking for Social Innovation, an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, authors Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt of IDEO describe Design Thinking as an approach that “taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. Not only does it focus on creating products and services that are human-centered, but the process itself is also deeply human. Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional.”
The design thinking process is described as “a system of three overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.” Each of these spaces is described below:
- Inspiration: Identifying the Problem or Opportunity – Design thinkers believe that people often have difficulty explaining their needs. To gain insight into the range of unmet needs, design thinkers forgo surveys or focus groups in favour of listening to and observing behaviours of end-users to better understand the problem and its context.
- Ideation: Generating, Developing and Testing Ideas – In this space, the insight gained during the inspiration space is distilled into a plan for change. The emphasis in this space is on coming up with as many ideas as possible and testing them against each other. The focus of this space recognizes, to quote Linus Pauling, “To have a good idea you must first have lots of ideas.”
- Implementation: Putting Solutions into the World – In the third space, ideas are turned into products, policies and services. Prototyping and pilot testing in real environments are then used to refine these solutions.
Jerry Sternin’s Positive Deviance Initiative provides a powerful case study of design thinking in action. The initiative’s goal was to decrease malnutrition in Vietnamese children. However, rather than studying the problem, Sternin sought out and studied families in the community who were not malnourished. He then worked with these families to offer cooking classes to the families of malnourished children. By the end of the program’s first year, 80 percent of the 1,000 children enrolled in the initiative were adequately nourished and the program had been replicated to fourteen villages. This is the power of design thinking: looking beyond the problem to discover the seeds of the solution which already exist and working closely with the clients and consumers to allow high-impact solutions to bubble up from below rather than being imposed from the top.
- Read Design Thinking for Social Innovation by T. Brown & J. Wyatt
- Visit the IDEO website for resources and examples of design thinking in action
- Read Evaluation and Design for Changing Conditions by Cameron Norman
- Find more blogs by Cameron Norman on the Tamarack CCI website
- Learn more about Jerry Sternin’s Positive Deviance Initiative
- Check out the Human Centred Design Website and toolkit of human-centred design thinking processes and tools for NGOs and social enterprises
- Listen to Design Thinking for Social Innovation a Tamarack audio seminar with Cameron Norman
(Image credit: Fraulein Schille)