Design Thinking can change your company

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:42 am

John Caruso has been inspired by elements of design since his earliest days of childhood. Caruso, associate professor of industrial design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), grew up in a Midwestern household bustling with creativity ignited by a full-time mother, whom he remembers as a frustrated fashion designer.

“Drawing, thinking, making – she would do this all day long, and (my siblings and I) would watch her, and we would do this,” Caruso said. “And this has basically been my life – drawing, seeing, thinking and making. And that’s exactly what we teach and what I teach at MIAD.”

Caruso has become a nationally renowned expert on design thinking. Caruso’s instruction at MIAD pivots around design thinking, a concept that largely grew out of Stanford University about three decades ago and was developed further by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based IDEO design firm in the years following. The concept has continued to break industry boundaries and has become a more critical component of companies’ innovation strategies.

Design thinking is all about process, Caruso said, and openness to exploring innovative ideas never before envisioned, no matter how absurd or impractical they may appear at first. Through the creative problem-solving process, which seeks to make lateral connections between seemingly disparate ideas, industrial designers help companies improve their products and services to fit the needs and preferences of consumers as best as possible.

While design thinking involves a time-consuming process that can run in any number of directions and lead to solutions often needing to be tweaked again and again, Caruso is confident that those companies that trust in the process will be rewarded in the end with higher-quality products and greater user satisfaction.

BizTimes reporter Erica Breunlin recently interviewed Caruso about the process and the impact of design thinking. The following are excerpts from that interview.

BIZTIMES: To start, how would you define design thinking?

CARUSO: “I think design thinking is really speaking to the process of designing and understanding what designers do in terms of an intellectual process that is an easier fit into a business model. It’s something that’s extremely hard to define, but essentially design thinking is embracing creative problem-solving for creative problem-solving’s sake, being able to explore and allow solutions that on the outset don’t immediately address the issue at hand but will allow lateral thinking to jump to the invention, the creation. So the wild, wacky ideas at first, the messiness, the confusion is part of that creative process that gets the juices going and really starts to create those ‘eureka’ and ‘a-ha’ moments from the seemingly detached, unconnected bits of ideas, bringing (them) to solution to solve a specific problem.”

BIZTIMES: What does the design thinking process look like?

CARUSO: “It’s not a linear process, nor is it neat and clean like a lot of companies like to see processes follow through. Design processes are typically very messy, often go in areas that do not immediately look like (they’re) solving the issues of the day or the main problems, but companies have to understand that in order to concentrate you need to expand in all areas and explore and really (expand) creativity. That’s really the goal here – to expand the creative output and then direct that creativity through a lens of the defined target or the problem or the identified solution.”

BIZTIMES: What kinds of problems can be tackled using design thinking?

CARUSO: “From a company’s point of view, sometimes they’re trying to solve the small micro issues of the product, the object, the product line. And when you bring in design thinking and start looking at things from a holistic point of view, you’ve got to step back and say, ‘Well, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?’ For example, how do we make the rope pull on a lawn mower easier to use? How do we get people to understand how to operate it? How do we make this cheaper? How do we make it look better? (The solution is) not making that thing easier…it’s ‘how do you start the lawn mower with the least amount of effort?’ Let’s put a push-button start on all of our lawnmowers.”

BIZTIMES: So the kinds of problems design thinking can help solve are not always obvious at the outset?

CARUSO: “I always tell my students, ‘What’s the strategy (and) what’s the tactic?’ The tactical solutions are the immediate, everyday, day-to-day specifics, but you have to step back and say, ‘What’s the overarching strategy or the overarching problem that you’re really trying to get at?'”

BIZTIMES: How does a company identify problems to approach with design thinking?

CARUSO: “Empathy comes a lot in play with this. It’s identifying with the human point of view. User-centered design comes into play. It’s a tool. It’s one of the processes that designers employ. You go out and find out what people are doing, how are they using the object, how would they like to use the object, what do they hate, what do they love and what would they do differently if it was make-believe. And that’s this idea that your user group, or the people who actually use the objects, are really your design team. That is part of experiential design. That’s sort of been embedded into a design thinking approach.”

BIZTIMES: Can design thinking be implemented into companies within any industry?

CARUSO: “Absolutely. It might not be everything, but aspects of design thinking and just being creative. I think it’s already there. It depends on the people and the trust (and) the open-mindedness and really understanding what do they want to do. What are their outcomes? I think people are inherently creative. They might not think they’re creative, but there’s creativity in every product, every solution, every idea, every thought.”

BIZTIMES: A company can tailor design thinking to its own products, services, culture and business model, correct?

CARUSO: “Each company has the capability of developing their own process. There is no one size fits all. I think there are fundamental aspects of design thinking processes…Design processes have been based on a creative model and this merging of the scientific method with the artistic process. That’s the history of the industrial design process. There are different aspects of it, but every company has the capability of curtailing it to their specific corporate culture.”

BIZTIMES: What are some of the fundamental aspects of design thinking?

CARUSO: “Essentially, it’s like a design process: identification of the problem; evaluation of the user’s needs; establishment of the product criteria, whatever that particular project or object is; exploration and development of ideas and concepts; evaluation of those concepts; and implementation through drawings, plans, physical models and user testing. Again, there’s another evaluation step before you get realization in the product market. But even within those segments there’s so many things you can (vary).”

BIZTIMES: What do designers bring to design thinking?

CARUSO: “I think everybody is capable of designing or design thinking but, that being said, designing is very much like writing or music or medicine. We all know how to do it. We’ve all learned. We all know the basics. But we’re not poet laureates, we’re not doctors, we’re not opera tenors. There are experts in the field, and that’s what industrial designers are. They’re experts in the field of designing and design thinking, of which it’s my personal view that everybody knows how to do that. (Design) is a survival skill from day one on this planet.”

BIZTIMES: What are the first steps to implementing design thinking into a company?

CARUSO: “An open mind, an enthusiasm, passion and a complete comfort in being wrong and allowing that a purely creative mindset will pay off. It might not pay off on that project, but it will pay off on the next one or the next one or over the course of years. So the idea of long-term thinking. The immediate successes, they will come, but they might not come for three or four years. But if you’re not doing and exploring that and looking at these things and determining viability for your business, you can guarantee the competition is.”

BIZTIMES: How big of a factor is risk in design thinking?

CARUSO: “There’s risk in any product development. High risk, high reward. Sometimes (the focus is) going to be incremental…Sometimes it’s only a part of a product, and I think that’s where you can kind of quantify risk to reward of the product. So you can look at parts of products for innovation. It’s not always the luxury of redefining the entire platform. I think you should think that way, and you should always do some long-term planning, but most of the time (developments) push technologies, ideas, processes that often get implemented into other products.”

BIZTIMES: In general, what is the cost factor of applying design thinking to a problem compared with other problem-solving strategies?

CARUSO: “Here’s what I can tell you. If designers and design thinking are brought into a project early, it will be in the long run a much less expensive product development cycle because the problems that are huge and expensive to fix on the back end will be exposed. On the front end, it’s more expensive. You’re going to invest more time and more people in doing things that seemingly are irrelevant, but they’re critical.”

BIZTIMES: Is design thinking a well-recognized problem-solving strategy in the business community?

CARUSO: “It’s evolving. What’s exciting about the field is it’s seen so much expansion and exposure. I’ve always said it’s a great time to be a designer anytime, but it’s even more so now that companies are seeing the reality of (its value).”

BIZTIMES: What is one of the best ways you’ve seen a company implement design thinking into its product development?

CARUSO: “A portable electronic storage device manufactured by Master Lock. It was a new concept venture for Master Lock with the advent of personal electronics, such as iPods and cellphones, and the value of these. There was some concern for a security device specifically targeting college and high school kids, but they also wanted to create it so it could be used for young professionals. It was sized around the idea of either a smart phone, iPhone, a small tablet, (or) iPod and headphones. It would also take keys (and) wallets…Former MIAD student Lea Plato is the designer for this, and as the first female designer for Master Lock (she) immediately wanted to carry it much more like a clutch bag or a purse than a huge lock or a device that you would just throw in a computer bag. She wanted to create an appearance of the object that was much more upscale and elegant so it didn’t look like a big lock. Her feeling was if they put the big logo ‘Master Lock’ on the outside of this thing, it would immediately turn it into a lock…and it would diminish the high sensibility of what the object was as well as diminish the value of $400, $500 worth of personal electronics. She designed it with a really aesthetic approach and fought tooth and nail to get the logo on the inside of the product. This is the first product Master Lock has manufactured without the logo on the outside. A subtle scalloped recess runs around the length of the device which nests the cable. That allows you to just use it as a clutch bag or a safe, or if you unlock it the cable can wrap around the leg of a table or a post or you can use it around your arm as a purse. This product came out of a collaboration between Master Lock and MIAD with a sponsored project.”

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