Form and Function

By Warren Berger on Jan 20, 2011

If you follow the business press, you may be familiar with the term "design thinking"—which refers to an attempt to deconstruct and explain the ways designers go about solving problems, creating, and innovating. Design thinking has gotten a lot of attention the past couple of years: a number of books have been written about it, countless magazine pieces, business conferences have been devoted to it. Meanwhile, it has been gaining momentum at top MBA programs such as those at Stanford and Harvard, and with some major companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Electric.

But one place design thinking hasn't gotten much traction yet is in the advertising sector. Part of it may be because the ad world tends to look at design itself in a limited way: When you talk about design to ad agency people, there's often an assumption that you're talking about logos, cool typefaces, sleek package design. Advertising award shows tend to equate design almost entirely with "graphic design."

But of course, design is about much more than graphics. It's about solving problems. And creating better, more intuitive products and services. And it's also about planning and orchestrating rich, satisfying consumer experiences. Brands that design well tend to rise to the top in today's marketplace: Google, Apple, Method, Nike. More often than not, they are designing good products, and surrounding those products with well-designed experiences. And they are using principles of design thinking, in one form or another, to achieve this.

But does this have anything to do with creating ads? In most cases, ad people aren't designing actual products or services—so why would they need to think like designers?

Here's one reason why: Today's increasingly complex and multi-faceted marketing campaigns are, in essence, design projects. With the splintering of media and the explosive rise of social networking, "ads" (if that word even applies anymore) are now constantly morphing and being reinvented—taking new forms that range from highly innovative viral stunts and films (such as Volkswagen's Fun Theory) to branded social networks (Nike+) and even sponsored save-the-world movements (Pepsi's Refresh Project).

The new options for reaching consumers are endless. And that requires the constant invention of new forms of engagement, which must be designed and refined—using the same sort of experimentation and rapid prototyping long used by product designers. Instead of relying on old tried and true media formats, ad creators now find themselves operating in a dynamic, volatile, "test and learn" environment. The ability to come up with a clever line and a nice layout is still important, but it's no longer enough. To be able to communicate in so many forms and formats; to be able to keep inventing and reinventing, on the fly; to be able to orchestrate a complex consumer experience as opposed to just creating self-contained ads—to do all of these things, ad creators increasingly will need some of the skills and approaches associated with design.

Which is why it probably makes sense for everyone in the ad business to begin thinking of themselves, at least on some level, as designers. Here again, this starts with recognizing that design is not just about decoration, nor is it limited to one discipline such as graphic design. It's a way of thinking—a methodology and an approach to creative problem-solving that ultimately can lead to innovation.

So what does this methodology consist of? What is design thinking, in a nutshell? That's not an easy question to answer because, unfortunately, the current discussion of design thinking—led by academics and a few leading-edges design consultancies such as IDEO—is somewhat weighed down by jargon, and there are conflicting, overcomplicated definitions of the term design thinking. So let's start with a definition that's about as simple and basic as you can get: Design thinking = how designers think.

If we take that as a starting point, then of course, the next logical question is, How do designers think? Obviously, they don't all think alike; in fact, they're a particularly eclectic breed, working in a range of disciplines, employing different materials and distinct methodologies. But having studied upwards of a hundred top designers in various fields over the past couple of years, I found that there were a few shared behaviors that seemed to be almost second nature to many designers. And these ingrained habits were intrinsically linked to the designer's ability to bring original ideas into the world as successful innovations.

To break it down to the most basic level, the four things that jumped out at me as unifying principles of design thinking involved the pensity of innovative designers to Question; Care; Connect; and Commit.

While that may sound simple, it's not. Each of these four behaviors requires a certain mindset and skill set, and each is demanding. Maybe the toughest of the four is the first one—the ability and willingness to Question. If you spend any time around designers, you quickly discover this about them: They ask, and raise, a lot of questions. Often this is the starting point in the design process, and it can have a profound influence on everything that follows. Many of the designers I studied, from Bruce Mau to Richard Saul Wurman to Paula Scher, talked about the importance of asking "the stupid questions"—the ones that challenge the existing realities and assumptions in a given industry or sector. The persistent tendency of designers to do this is captured in the joke designers tell about themselves. How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?

The very act of asking all those basic "why" and "why not" questions in a business setting can make the questioner seem naïve. But by encouraging people to step back and look at old problems or entrenched practices with a fresh eye, the designer can begin to re-frame the challenge at hand—which can then steer thinking in new directions. There are countless examples in the design world of radical innovations that began with designers asking basic questions such as "Why does a potato peeler have to hurt your hand when you use it?" The answer is, it doesn't—and this led to the groundbreaking OXO peeler.

This ability to question and rethink basic fundamentals is relevant to anyone in the ad business at a time when the old models are losing effectiveness and new ones must be envisioned and built. How can traditional ad forms like TV or billboards be turned on their head? What can be done with the new formats? Should the brand be advertising at all? Is there a whole new communication model needed that bears no resemblance to ads? To raise such fundamental (and sometimes scary) questions can be the first step on the path to innovation.

With regard to Caring, what impressed me about many of the designers I studied was the dedication to getting out into the world and really paying close attention to people—which is often the best way to ferret out people's deep, unarticulated needs. Again, returning to the example of OXO, the lead designers for that company, from the firm Smart Design, spend huge amounts of time watching and learning—and this leads to a constant stream of innovations such as the OXO measuring cup. From watching people in kitchens, the designers saw that people using a traditional measuring cup were constantly bending down to read the measurement levels on the side of the cup. The designers responded with a cup that let you see the measurement levels from above. Focus groups and questionnaires probably wouldn't have yielded the insight that led to this innovation—because if you asked people about their measuring cup, they'd be apt to say, "It works just fine." It was only by caring enough to get out there and observe that OXO was able to uncover an unarticulated human need.

Obviously, consumer research is nothing new to ad agencies; up-close observation is a big part of what account planners do. Still, ad creatives might take a lesson from the best designers, who don't rely entirely on others to watch and learn for them. They get out there and do it themselves.

Connect. Designers, I discovered, have a knack for synthesizing—for taking existing elements or ideas and mashing them together in fresh new ways. By coming up with "smart recombinations" (to use a term coined by the designer John Thackara), Apple has produced some of its most successful hybrid products; and Nike smartly combined a running shoe with an iPod to produce the company's groundbreaking Nike Plus line. It isn't easy to come up with these great combos; designers know that you must "think laterally"—searching far and wide for ideas and influences—and must also be willing to try connecting ideas that might not seem to go together. But this is a way of thinking that can also be embraced by non-designers.

Indeed, historically some of the best ad creators have been masters at mash-ups. Going back to the great Nike campaigns of the 1980s and '90s, Wieden+Kennedy creative director Jim Riswold revolutionized the business through smart recombinations—taking a sports icon like Michael Jordan, for instance, and pairing him with a character from an independent film, Mars Blackmon. When I interviewed him years ago about this type of mixing and matching, Riswold said: "I never had an original thought in my career. Everything I have ever done has been borrowed, reformulated, regurgitated, turned upside down or inside out, and sometimes just plain stolen — from pop culture, music, history, art, literature, the philosophy of Nietsche and Hegel, the back of cereal boxes – everything is fair game."

Notice all those diverse influences Riswold cites. One of the keys to connecting ideas well, designers told me, is to have an eclectic mind and a wealth of material from which to mix and match ideas that might not seem to go together.

Commit. It's one thing to dream up original ideas. But designers quickly take those ideas beyond the realm of imagination by giving form to them. Whether it's a napkin sketch, a prototype carved from foam rubber, or a digital mock-up, the quick-and-rough models that designers constantly create are a critical component of innovation —because when you give form to an idea, you begin to make it real. Which means you can rally support for those ideas, and get feedback, as well. But it's also true that when you commit to an idea early—putting it out into the world while it's still young and imperfect—you increase the possibility of short-term failure. Designers tend to be much more comfortable with this risk than most of us. They know that innovation often involves an iterative process with setbacks along the way—and those small failures are actually useful because they enable the designer to see what works in the real world and what doesn't. This allows the designer to "fail forward."

Today, as old models and formats give way to new ones, ad creators have to be willing to try everything—which is going to require a lot of prototyping and a willingness to keep failing forward. It's time to (as Nike used to say) Just Do It—and then be willing to Just Re-do It.

This Question-Care-Connect-Commit model is just one way of looking at Design Thinking; there are other similar models out there. But in any case, some version of this basic approach is being used more and more by companies such as Procter & Gamble—which credits design thinking with helping it to reinvent products from Swiffer mops to Oral-B toothbrushes to Tide detergent. P&G has taken what was a formulaic, engineering-driven culture and encouraged people to question everything they do and make; caring more about customers' actual needs; connecting product ideas in fresh ways; and committing to experimentation and rapid prototyping. Similar approaches can be seen at Nike and other companies.

If clients such as P&G, Nike, and others are steeped in design thinking, then agency creatives should understand it, too—if only so they can be part of the conversation. But I think design thinking might possibly offer creatives something more: a new set of tools and a framework that may come in handy when taking on the complex challenges of a radically-changing marketing landscape.


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