Design Thinking isn’t Design. Time to shift gears.

Associate Design Director

Stop thinking. Start making. Embrace rapid cycles of Co-Design, Collaboration, and Iteration.

Whichever way you slice it, it’s insanely hard to carry out successful design, at scale, throughout a company – particularly a large one.

It’s no wonder so many are tempted by the promise of a simple, step-by-step approach. Linear methods have come and gone out of fashion, but one in particular has drawn most of the fame – and most of the flak: Design Thinking. It’s been shot down by the likes of Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and leading designers as too expensive and time-consuming for yielding oft unpredictable results. But this structured way to help designers communicate with non-designer experts about creative work is only ever that, a framework to enable collaboration.

Design Thinking is too often misconstrued as an impervious remedy for any corporate ill. When mis-implemented, frameworks like Design Thinking can over-fixate on the moment of ideation, de-emphasizing the most crucial parts of the design process: testing with real people, and iteratively building a designed solution.

Successful innovation is never linear. It is a flexible, sometimes messy undertaking. To realize the full value of design, we need to break out of the rigid status-quo and embrace rapid, iterative cycles. I often compare this process to the balancing act of first riding a bicycle. By embracing steady circular motion, shifting gears as needed to build speed, you can propel your ideas further and faster towards reality. So how do you do that in practice?

Innovation in three gears

There are three gears required to activate the full value of design for innovation

Co-Design with People & Communities
Collaboration with Experts & Stakeholders
Iteration with Makers & Technicians

The Co-Design gear: People & Communities

In the Co-Design gear, your multi-disciplinary team builds deep relationships with the people and communities you serve, empowering them to envision, create, and refine the experiences that suit them best. Co-Design brings prototyping into the research process to provide communities with the tools and guidance to create their own preferred outcomes, thus de-centralizing the researcher as master of empathy and translator for the masses.

Design of any kind begins with people. Working with the community who will use your solution to understand their needs is a non-negotiable.

By reframing your customers as contributors, not subjects to empathize with, Co-Design can radically shift your product approach. (Check out our work empowering teens and parents to design safer social media experiences for Meta, or how Co-Design helped Upstream USA build a truly patient-centered toolkit to support patients navigating decisions about sex and birth control).

At its core, Co-Design is about designing with, not for, people, elevating the everyday communities who support your business to the status of product owner, stakeholder, designer, and decision maker.

The Collaboration gear: Experts & Stakeholders

The Collaboration gear focuses on potential solutions based on real constraints, bringing in the right stakeholders and experts at the right time to ensure the effort continues along long-term sustainable paths. This is blue-sky within reason, Mt. Rainier, not Mars.

Elements of the Design Thinking toolkit may be useful to facilitate connections, but deep collaboration must evolve beyond one-off ideation sessions and workshops. Critique, idea generation, and alignment with key stakeholders and category experts as a constant, ongoing craft ensures designers remain focused on key outcomes and actionable solutions.

Innovation without Collaboration is bound to fail, making the creative acts of socialization and critique essential to any designers process.

The more complex the project, the more necessary the Collaboration gear becomes. Bringing category experts onboard early can uncover hard constraints, focusing early cycles of Co-Design while lending initial prototypes the expert gravitas required to engage key stakeholders. Ongoing Expert Collaboration can ensure ongoing cycles of Co-Design and Iteration hone already validated directions, leaving less effort lost to the cutting room floor.

The Iteration gear: Makers & Technicians

In the Iteration gear, makers & technicians take center stage to figure out the ‘how’. This is where classical design and engineering shine, bringing those ideas envisioned through Co-Design and focused through Collaboration into our imperfect reality.

If the Collaboration gear is Design Thinking, Iteration is Design Doing. While Co-Design and Collaboration involve research concepts, prototypes and ideation sketches that drive more outward-facing cycles, the Iteration gear focuses on proving design feasibility – sweating the details of craft while iteratively enhancing the fidelity of a proposed solution. And while the other cycles are critical to mission success, this is the cycle where the real work gets done. Yet it can be the most overlooked in the linear design process.

You won’t get far on your journey without actually making something.

Technically reliant solutions spend an outsized amount of time in the Iteration gear, exploring the limits of feasibility in search of simplicity (see our work with Gatorade building the Gx Sweat Patch, Smart Gx Bottle, and Gx Ecosystem). The secret to kick-starting your iteration process is to start with the simplest functioning version of the experience. Proving technical feasibility early enables your team to confidently iterate on the ideal experience, making future Co-Design and Collaboration cycles even more valuable.

Further, faster, focused, and full of joy

The secret to any innovation cycle is knowing when to shift gears. In this process, designers need to be nimble and flexible, acting as creative connectors at the nexus between each group – Communities, Stakeholders, and Makers – facilitating the rapid cycles between design modes like shifting gears on a bicycle. Creative Connectors are the cyclists, reading the bumps along the road and expertly shifting gears or adjusting their heading to ride smoothly, joyfully forward.

The power of embracing iterative cycles through each gear is that it constantly challenges your assumptions, ensuring you aren’t blinded by your own enthusiasm and biases.

Whether you’re in for the long haul or taking a quick sprint, great design always comes from a flexible, looping approach. Sometimes innovations will evolve over the years, delivering multiple products and growing ecosystems. Sometimes you’ll find yourself with only six months to turn your product around. In either scenario, using quick cycles of Co-Design, Collaboration, and Iteration will help focus your team and give them the inertia to kickstart innovation. Let’s ride.

About Peter Schwartz

Peter is an Associate Design Director who leads multi-disciplinary teams to translate new technologies into products and services for everyday people. He sees design as a necessary process to help companies better understand the communities they serve and the impact they create in the world. Peter has partnered with a wide range of clients including Amgen, Bose, Capital One, Chobani, Disney, Gatorade, and Google. Peter’s work has been recognized by SxSW, Fast.Co, Core77, and CES.

Let’s accelerate your design cycles.