Change by DesignChange by Design by Tim Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m the co-director of a graduate program at Ball State University that’s built — in part — around design thinking. The Center for Emerging Media Design & Development trains people for that ever-undefined “21st century knowledge workforce.”

Part of that training focuses on helping people work in interdisciplinary groups to identify problems that may be embedded deeply within assumptions of an organization. To do this, groups must learn how to set aside their initial thoughts about a problem and its solution, and engage in user-centered ethnographic work, which is just a fancy way of saying these groups to sit with, talk to, and observe people using products. From there, they can construct a far more accurate way of understand the real problems people have.

That’s a long introduction to my review of Change by Design, written by Tim Brown, the current CEO of IDEO, a consulting company best known for deploying the design thinking process to solve a wide range of big problems. But that introduction was important because I wanted to explain why I picked up the book.

You see, we have two problems in our program related to design thinking.

The first comes whenever the Center’s co-director and I meet with potential partners, such as the Indianapolis Symphony. The concept of design thinking is so ephemeral that we spend a great deal of time trying to explain its steps, even when we have have willing partners. (“How is it different than regular thinking,” we’re asked quite a bit. Or “What if we don’t have any designers on staff,” we also hear.)

The second comes when we begin working with students. Design thinking is a framework for approaching a problem, not a step-by-step guide. That makes it difficult to teach students, whom we ask to spend a great deal of time working on projects so they can develop their design thinking skills.

While both problems are different, they come from the same place: understanding how a designed thinking process can help anyone approach problem solving in a more holistic manner.

Brown’s book does exactly that. Of all the books, papers, and reflections on design thinking that I’ve read, this is the best at both explaining the process that teams go through, and the reasons for using this process. The process involves using empathy to understand the needs and desires of users, divergent thinking to create strict constraint that focus the problem, transforming and prototyping a wide variety of solutions, testing and articulating the changes and final development, and understand how to make sustainable systems.

Just as importantly, Brown articulates the reasons why it’s oftentimes more important to spend a great deal of time at the start of the project identifying the actual problem. (The example I give to my students: World hunger isn’t a problem. It’s the outcome of a 1,000 small problems. You can’t “solve world hunger,” but you can figure out solutions to the 1,000 problems that cause world hunger. Design thinking helps you identify what each of those problems are in each of the areas where hunger is a problem.)

I’m a big proponent of design thinking as a process for working, creating, and solving in the modern world. It is, in many ways, the exact type of “critical thinking skills” that everyone needs, from employers down to individuals.

This is a great book for people who are trying to understand the importance and need for these processes, and for those trying to understand how to deploy these skills.

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