One of the hottest trends a couple of years ago is becoming mainstream today: Business school are rolling out classes and entire schools to teach design thinking. As a graphic designer who turned to administration, I love the trend, because my design training has certainly shaped my leadership. But what is design thinking? How does it apply to leadership? I’ll cover the first question today.

Let’s start with an even more basic question. What is design? Isn’t it about making things look pretty? Isn’t it focused on the aesthetic? It’s a lot more than that. I always encourage graphic design students to take classes in illustration, photography, psychology, marketing and journalism so they can bring the broadest possible viewpoint to their work, speak to the core functionality of the piece and affect the desired response of their end user. So, “graphic” is a qualifier for a particular kind of designer. The core of design can be applied to appliances, traffic flow, leadership, production lines, furniture and healthcare programs.

Boiling it down, design thinking is a mindset and a methodology to approach challenges. It’s a process of approaching a problem from multiple perspectives and using trial and error to get to the right solution. It’s about drawing inspiration from a variety of sources and applying them to your particular challenge, resulting in innovation. Believe me, this blog post isn’t going to teach you how to do it. It took me five years of school and thousands of hours of practice to shape me.

Let me give you a snapshot of one aspect: idea-driven design. My favorite designer is Paul Rand. Developer of logos for such firms as IBM, UPS and Westinghouse, Rand is one of the great thinkers in the design field. Here’s his take:

I have two goals. The first is that everything I do as a designer must have an idea: it cannot just look nice. The second is, it has to look nice.

So, what’s an idea? The energy created by the collision of two opposing thoughts. If you give a designer a blank sheet of paper and tell him to make something that looks nice, he will be paralyzed. At the minimum, he needs a topic, a message and an audience. But he needs more than that; great design comes from a seemingly impossible contradiction. Perhaps the impossibility is budget-related. Or the combination of two impossible desires that cannot possibly co-exist. For instance, a financial services client who hates the color green. Can you imagine?!!

A designer needs a contrast to create a spark. In other words, designers cannot operate in abundance; designers need restrictions! Clients, are you listening?

Let me give you an example. David Ellis Dickerson used to write cards for Hallmark. He now has a hobby/business where he creates cards on the fly for people who get in situations Hallmark never anticipated. My favorite: someone contacted him to ask what kind of card she could give to the person whose toilet she broke. Talk about some great design parameters and some dangerous territory! Check out the vlog to hear his design process and his brilliant solution.

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