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Design Thinking: Levelling the playing field for non-designers

by Devika Goel
9 min read
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Coming from a non-design background and relying heavily on things that are tried and tested, the structure of the design thinking process made me feel at par with my other teammates.

“Focus on people you’re creating for”

“Understand users, challenge the current state of things and redefine the problem! Keep these in mind and you will stumble upon a creative idea.”

“You know you could go out in the field, speak to your consumers, hear their stories”

“Devika why don’t you just test this idea with some people on the floor, you know the feedback could lift the campaign up”

“Why don’t you just include the client in the brainstorming session! We might get some insights and ideas we never stumbled upon.”

During my career, no matter who I met or which meeting room I entered, I would add a new ingredient to the recipe of the “perfect user-centric solution.” Mind you, I was also advised on the quantities of these ingredients to get a perfect taste. When I started pursuing my masters at Hyper Island, I realised that these ingredients come from a store called “Design Thinking.” It was during this time that I took it upon me to find the perfect mix of ingredients to get the desired result. Come on, there had to be one! I drowned myself in books and journals, filling my cooker with ingredients I had never even heard of. Two weeks later, the cooker blasted, and I found myself putting our Industry Leader Andy Young on the spot-

“The perfect recipe just does not exist!”

“You think companies working in different contexts and at different speeds can use the same recipe and get the desired results?”

“If it’s the same cutter, won’t I get the same cookie every time? How is that innovation!”

“If I stop being a strategist and start thinking like a designer, how am I giving justice to the experience and education I received?

Flabbergasted as he was, he paused and asked me a question. The conversation that followed was something on these lines-

Andy: “Do you cook”
Me: “YASSSSS! It’s my stress buster”
Andy: “Well then, what’s your most favourite recipe to cook?”
Me: “Sea salt and dark chocolate cake’
Andy: “When you baked it for the first time, did you just blindly jump into it or did you follow a recipe”
Me: “Of course, I followed a recipe! But now that I am comfortable with it, I just wing my way!”
Andy: “Precisely, you followed the recipe until you were comfortable enough to change it. This is the process of design thinking for you. You trust a structure until you feel comfortable enough to play with it”

I nodded and did not give him an answer. I do not understand things until I don’t see a proof of them working. I decided to test this hypothesis. The journey that began from thereon shifted something significant inside me.

For me to begin the test, I had to first understand why companies innovate and what were some obstacles they face during the process.

The first answer was simple. Innovation is to companies what water is to fish. The latter cannot survive without the prior. We have seen the results of these innovations in our lives- from the phone we carry to the way we travel to the food we eat- the examples are endless.

But what were the obstacles these companies were facing on a basic human level while innovating?

According to Tim Brown, to be successful, an innovation process must be workable, desirable and practical, but if the employees working on it do not believe in this process, will the results still be the same? Over the years, we have heard about various strategies used by established businesses to achieve desired outcomes like market growth, market share, profits, etc. But seldom do we hear stories about the human obstacles they face or the trade-offs they make. From my research and previous work experience, I have listed down a few of them which I feel are barriers for the fourth invisible yet the most important factor which Brown or anyone in the design thinking universe did not take into account — the employees.

1. We know that problems are rarely defined at the start of the process. There is also evidence to suggest that most people take the quickest route to the solution. They rarely focus on understanding the problem. The trouble is that these conventional ways of problem-solving often lead to obvious standard solutions.

2. Revolutionary ideas stem from observing your consumers. But imagine a teenager trying to sort out the tangled chaos of Christmas lights by bundling each string with a different coloured ribbon. Had she been asked directly, “How would you sort the Christmas lights?”; she wouldn’t have come up with this solution. During my work experience at a communication agency, I observed that it is often hard for customers to know they want something that doesn’t yet exist.

3. People do not solve a problem with a tabula rasa, or a blank mind. Rather, they have their own inspirations, reasons, sets of beliefs, values, and opinions. Especially in multidisciplinary teams, this might become an issue as professionals usually develop strong sets of views about their practices. Hence, it might not take time for conversations and brainstorming sessions between team members to turn into divisive debates.

4. It is rarely a simple problem with only one or two features, but more normally, it must satisfy a bunch of conditions. As Michael Wilford, a renowned British architect puts it, “it’s like being a juggler with six or more balls in the air and if you take your eye off one of them and drop it, you’re in trouble.” Therefore, innovators often build a range of options. The deal is that too many ideas dilute the focus. To manage this tension, professionals must learn to let go of what they proposed. Unfortunately, it is easier for people to kill creative (often riskier) ideas.

5. A solution won’t succeed if it does not satisfy the professionals working on it. The best way to go about this is to include everyone’s opinion. But as mentioned earlier, the danger is that different perspectives will create chaos and incoherence.

In a stable business environment, pushing variation in processes out of the organization helps achieve productivity. But, in an unstable environment, where businesses need to keep up with the world constantly, variation can open new paths to organizational success (Liedtka, 2018). However, when one is under pressure to make sure that a brand video receives one million views in 24 hours or when the sale of the individual’s products suddenly went down because an ant was seen coming out of a chocolate bar, the individual would resort to adapting the most tried, trusted and cost-effective methods. And I do not blame them, this is what we managers and strategists are trained to do all our lives.

This is where businesses and leaders around the world address the obstacles and human biases by drawing inspiration from a designer’s toolkit to combine the needs of the people, possibilities of technology, and requirements for business success aka design thinking (not going to drown you’ll in describing what design thinking is!)

However, many expert designers (and for a moment even me) are starting to question the entire nature of design thinking by echoing the argument put forth by Robert Venturi, an American architect:

“The artist is not someone who designs in order to prove his or her theory, and certainly not to suit an ideology……any building that tries merely to express a theory or any building that starts with a theory is very dry.”

Critiques of the design thinking approach, like Venturi, feel the process is too structured and linear and curbs the explorative nature of a designer. They are not wrong. Designers have mastered the processes involved in thinking creatively for years. Their methods include a period of initial investigation of the problem at hand, followed by a relaxed period of apparent mental rest, next an idea appears at the most unexpected time and in the most unlikely place, and finally the implementation. For designers, this feels like playing on the home turf. But managers on innovation teams are not designers; they lack experience in face-to-face research, deeply understanding customer perspectives, co-creating with stakeholders, and executing experiments. For them, it’s like playing an away game.

According to Albert and Koning in the book Statistical Thinking in Sports, “Home advantage is a well-known phenomenon in soccer. If we were told that A was playing at home against team B, and no other information was known then the best forecast we could make would be to predict the home win. The percentage of home team wins, and away team wins are 50.3% and 25.1% respectively.”

Just like footballers playing an away game need the support of their fans to get them through the unfamiliar conditions, managers need structure and linearity attached to design thinking to not feel flustered with new behaviours.

Kaaren Hanson, EVP Experience Design and Research, Wells Fargo explained, “anytime you’re trying to change people’s behaviour, you need to start them off with a lot of structure, so they don’t have to think. A lot of what we do is a habit, and it’s hard to change those habits, but having very clear guardrails can help us.”

According to Workfront, over one-third of workers cite the lack of “standard” processes for workflow as a primary obstacle that hinders their work. Hence, processes instil confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

Fear drives most humans and people driven by fear are accurate and diligent. Therefore, employees focus more on preventing errors than on grabbing opportunities; they rather sit back and do nothing than face the risk of failure. But innovation does not come with inaction. A safety net is, therefore, essential for mental satisfaction. Design thinking gives a sense of security and gives those who follow the process a better understanding of innovation itself. This in turn helps potential innovators to confidently discover customer needs, facilitate idea generation, and try idea testing.

This is what my research made me realise but my experience in the design thinking project for the Manchester City Council just went onto validate this research.

Coming from a non-design background and relying heavily on things that are tried and tested, the structure of the design thinking process made me feel at par with my other teammates. My risk averseness started taking the form of a toddler who visited the garden for the first time- approaching activity with a little caution, trying it, smiling while losing inhibitions and then freely laughing while experimenting with it. All along, I knew the process had my back, all I needed was a little support from those around me.

Once I started feeling comfortable with the process, I started taking initiative and modified the current set of tools to fit the bill. What I didn’t realise earlier was that immersing myself entirely in the process of experimentation and prototyping while also having a basket filled with amazing ingredients would give me the freedom to play around and the change the recipe every time, I make it.

My Revelation:

The perfect recipe does not exist but the chefs working on it do. They are the true heroes of the process! That’s the mistake we make. We consider the tools and the steps to be the real heroes. But the power lies in the hands of the employees. Concentrate on building an environment that is a safety net for them and you will see the magic happening. Tackle what troubles them and you will have their support throughout.

I truly believe now that design thinking is just one way of levelling the playing field, creating a safety net for non-designers to innovate, come to par with designers, and create some Michelin Star dishes in the process!

The right recipe
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
post authorDevika Goel

Devika Goel,

I am attempting to navigate the world of digital communication with empathy in an age where compassion is equated with clumsy attempts at personalization. Currently, I am pursuing my master’s in Digital Management from Hyper Island in Manchester where I am exploring fresh approaches to problem-solving, design thinking, digital transformation and team dynamics and trying to amalgamate these approaches with communication strategies across all digital platforms.


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