WHEN IT COMES TO DESIGN, ACTION BEATS PLANNING EVERY TIME
By Kate Canales
If you read mainstream business publications, then you’ve probably noticed the word “design” popping up quite a lot in recent years. With headlines like Design-led Business and Good Design is Good Business, it would be hard to miss the trend. And with McKinsey’s recent acquisition of global design consultancy, Lunar, design’s seat at the business table has been publicaly secured.
Companies like Apple and Nest have proven that it is no longer an option to ignore design in your business strategy. But it is all too easy to forget that design is about more than just products. Done well, design is about human experiences. Sure, Apple products look great, but they excel because the experiences we have with them are so pleasant and intrinsically satisfying. When seen this way, design can be a strategic input to all kinds of businesses: those that make products, software, physical environments, and services.
Said another way: Any business in which a human being has an experience can use design to its advantage.
In the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation program at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, we call this Human-Centered Design (HCD) because of the emphasis on how people feel and behave in the context of what is being designed. It means we focus first on understanding the human need, not on the artifacts that might solve the problem. This allows us to solve all sorts of problems, including many that might not be obvious “design problems.”
We have distilled the practice of design to two things our students need to master: method and mindset.
Regarding method, one of the most critical competencies to master as a designer is to develop a default response of “action and making.” Not sure what the answer is? Make something. Not sure if you are even asking the right question? Make something. Feel the whole thing is way too complex? Make something. Designers take action, rather than planning to take action.
That action could be physically mocking something up, drawing it out, or enacting it. What it almost never involves is writing a memo about it, or outlining a white paper.
Recently, a group of our SMU students had an idea for increasing ridership on public transit (this was their assignment) by hosting a gathering similar to a TED conference on the light rail train. Quickly, they fell into the very safe, and very human trap of planning the conference. Who could they invite to speak? Would there be food served? Which route should they choose?
When an idea is new, it is impossible to know if it is going to work. When ideas might not work, the tendency is to hole up and plan. We do a lot of talking, and while this makes us feel safe, we almost always talk ourselves out of some of the boldness of the original idea. We talk until it becomes an idea that is less likely to fail, which usually looks a lot like an idea we’ve seen before, i.e. a less innovative one.
Because these students were budding designers, they had to stop planning and take action. So off they went to board the train with our graduate teaching assistant as their invited speaker. In design, we call this “experience prototyping.” It’s a method of acting out the experience you are creating in as real a context as possible.
The video they brought back after riding the train was revelatory. The poor teaching assistant struggled to project his voice over the train whooshing and the conductor’s announcements– not to mention his struggle to stay upright between the aisles. Furthermore, the passengers they encountered (who really had not signed up for this impromptu enlightenment session) were borderline belligerent. So, in 20 minutes of action the students learned more about what would work than in a week of planning. Their next experience prototype involved conference guests mingling during the light rail ride, and hearing an invited speaker once they arrived at the destination. It worked much better.
Action not only trumps planning, but taking action can help us to think differently. When we act with our bodies– whether sketching a storyboard, building a prototype, or enacting a service or event – different neural pathways are illuminated in the brain. New information is at play and new ideas come more easily. Building something is a way of tricking our brains into new ideas, which is exactly why designers are trained to do it so often.
One of the reasons design leads to innovation is that good designers learn their way to the right solution. They take tiny actions, each one increasingly smarter, better, and closer to the final solution. Doing this means putting your idea in front of people knowing it isn’t right but willing to listen to their opinions about why.
This is where mindset comes into play. It’s hard to say to the world: I made this, and I know it isn’t quite there yet. But how else are you going to know if it’s a good idea outside of your head, or outside of your conference room? You have to express it, and you have to show it to people. The faster and cheaper you can do that the better. And it is not an overstatement to say that doing this takes courage.
For designers – indeed for all innovators – the mindset that accompanies most good work is something akin to “comfort with vulnerability.” In the SMU program we call it “creative confidence,” after David Kelley and Tom Kelley’s book by the same name. The methods are a means of achieving the mindset – the things we do to push through to creative confidence. And visa versa: the mindset allows us to excel at the methods. At the end of the day, that’s the magic of design.
Kate Canales is a Research Professor at the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University. She is the program director for the new Master of Arts in Design and Innovation, a degree that builds skills and confidence in multidisciplinary, collaborative problem solving. Her team provides custom professional development programs around the country.