Design Thinking – more than just a creative process

Does our contemporary condition of uncertainty – the key theme at this year’s OEB – require new forms of thinking? Does the demand for change mean we need to rethink how we make decisions? Steven Ney certainly thinks so. Having started as a researcher in environmental issues, particularly climate change, Ney’s work analyses the way societies deal with complex and uncertain challenges; processes of institutional change and reform are his special interests. One way of achieving this may be “design thinking”, or “d-thinking” for short: a solution-focused and action-oriented methodology used for solving complex problems. Ney is a coach at Hasso Plattner Institute’s School of Design Thinking. A published expert in the field, he will run a full-day ‘taster course in design thinking’ at this year’s OEB in December.


OEB queried Ney about the basics of design thinking and why he contends it can help us move forward in an age of uncertainty.


Could you please outline what design thinking is?


In a nutshell, design thinking is a way for small teams to deal with complex problems and come up with new ideas. There are many, many education issues that are complex and messy that one could address using design thinking. It’s a method of collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. We work in small teams of five to eight people using variable space – meaning movable, basically. The idea behind this is that teams need a workplace that is geared to them, rather than one that somehow constrains them. The second feature is multidisciplinary teams. The concept here is that the types of problems we think are worth solving are extremely complex, and including people from various specialisations allows us to approach the problems from different perspectives, with each bringing its own snippet of wisdom. Then there’s the process itself, which is essentially a design process. It involves thinking like designers. We take a lot of methods designers have used to come up with new solutions and transfer them to a much wider set of problems.


How can design thinking help in an age of uncertainty?


One of the hallmarks of design thinking is that we produce solutions very quickly. It’s very time efficient. We drive teams to produce outputs in a very short time, and then they go out and get them tested, working in iterative loops and feedback loops. This is our way of dealing with uncertainty. It’s like trial and error, but much quicker. The uncertainty doesn’t go away, but by using these methods, we can deal with it. Getting feedback and going back to the drawing board, this is how we deal with uncertainty. The nice thing about design thinking is that it’s a very pragmatic way of going about things – one is humble in the face of the things you produce because you expose yourself to criticism – and it’s very effective.


You’ve worked on institutional reform: What challenges does the current period present for institutions?


This is a huge topic. One can use loops and this experimental approach to change institutions, but what I think is most interesting is using this as a teaching method. A lot of people are working on this now, downplaying the lecturing, input-type of learning in favour of a project-based, prototype-building teaching approach – more along the lines of experiential learning. The nice thing about design thinking is that you don’t need to take it all – some features work better in some contexts, and you can pick out those that work best for your own specific situation.


It seems design thinking, then, fits in with a broader move in education away from top-down pedagogic models.


Yes, but we’re not the only ones doing this in education. Many people are doing similar stuff. The nice thing about design thinking is that we make things fun, as light hearted as possible, so people work very hard, but they don’t notice because they enjoy it. This is what makes design thinking popular: It’s a good way to spend a day, to achieve something. We create good experiences.


In what contexts does design thinking work best?


Well it’s non-hierarchical, and for some people this is difficult. Teachers, for example, find it hard to let go and let someone else teach them. A design-thinking team, for example, can involve putting students and teachers on the same level, and some teachers don’t like this! These are things that you have to contextualise; if you don’t, it won’t work. You have to inspire people to come up with solutions together – and work together.


What are the opportunities presented by uncertainty? Is design thinking an example of uncertainty driving positive change?


Absolutely. It’s a mode of working within organisations that – if people embrace it – can do amazing things. It’s a matter of changing thinking, and perhaps more importantly, behaviour. And design thinking offers a relatively painless, flexible way of doing this. In fact, as I mentioned before, you can select specific aspects of the concept that work really well, without embracing the approach on the whole.


Design thinking is certainly a way of looking at uncertainty and emerging from it with better outcomes. It can help to create empathy because we try and see problems through practitioners’ eyes. This, in turn, can help people understand problems – and when it works, it works very well.

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