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Design is not a natural process (unless you’re a designer)

21 January, 2010

Even though I’m immersed everyday in service design capability, at times I wonder if the techniques and way of thinking are just what every professional does naturally (i.e. determines intent, explores ideas and options, generates concepts, tests assumptions, evolves, prototypes, defines, repeat etc). So it was with surprise, fascination and some content that I witnessed first-hand this isn’t the case.

I attended a workshop run by Christian Bason, MindlabExploring Public Sector Innovation: A Practical Introduction’ (hosted by The Centre for Social Innovation) with participants primarily from other public sector agencies.

Christian took us through a rapid process of brainstorming, evaluation, concept generation, evaluation, presentation of concept. We used a real-life problem from one of the agencies. The workshop was pitched to an audience with apparently no exposure to design process so while there wasn’t anything new for me, it was a good validation of the capability we’ve been developing at my organisation over the last five years.

What struck me most about the session was how people struggled to articulate an idea as an idea. Not a question or solution, but as a building block that together with other building blocks form a concept. Where the chaos (and not the good kind) ensued was at the beginning, the brainstorming.

Brainstorming needs to have structure – not control or rigidity – but structure so:

  • you know what problem you’re solving and everyone agrees
  • ideas are framed as ideas, not questions or solutions
  • ideas are captured in writing – no just verbalized
  • you allow for the whacky and out there because you don’t know where they might take someone else’s brain
  • you encourage each other to build on the collective idea

Participants, at least at my table, struggled. Our nominated facilitator struggled with the unfocussed chatter, and individuals started solving the problem on their own. Not for the client, mind, but based on their interpretation of how they’d solve the problem as they perceived it as if they were working on it now. The pity was they were at the workshop to get exposure to a different way of doing things, not a validation of what they do now (this probably speaks more about the culture of policy advisors than anything).

What was satisfying was, as a designer, feeling the need and desire to roll up my sleeves and bring the task back on track. Getting people to re-state their words as ideas that could solve the problem – or part of it – at hand, encouraging people to build in what others were saying, acknowledging and attempting to expand the input from the guy at the end of the table solving the entire thing on a single post-it. Then getting the group to find the themes, find the patterns in our ideas and form the concept. And always, checking in with the client that his problem was being addressed.

The Designer’s ability to facilitate – help navigate the participants through the process – is invaluable for the client (even if it seemingly frustrates the participants). What is ultimately satisfying for all is coming up with something that:

  1. The client likes
  2. Solves the client’s problem
  3. People can see their role in it (even if it has to be filtered and translated back to them)
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