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What is Design Thinking, Really?



If you’re a businessperson or someone interested in understanding how to facilitate innovation, you’ve probably heard of “design thinking” by now. Coined by IDEO’s David Kelley, the term refers to a set of principles, from mindset to process, that can be applied to solve complex problems. I’ve seen articles lately ranging from those that highlight its potential, [Design Thinking for Social Innovation, How does design thinking give companies a competitive advantage?] to those that warn of it’s impending failure as a practice [Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You , The Coming Boom and Bust of Design Thinking]. I’ve been eager to enter into the conversation, especially because some of the arguments around the topic don’t make sense to me and I wanted to know why. Change by Design, written by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown, was on my winter reading list anyway, so I decided to finish it before bringing in my own perspectives.

I just got through the book a few days ago, and feel like I “get it.” So I’ve spent a few days reflecting on it and rereading some innovation articles, and think there is a bigger picture at the essence of design thinking that is being lost on some. I’m going to provide a brief summary of the book (from my interpretation), and tie in some other areas that brought me insights into these ideas.

Design Thinking as a Path to Innovation

Though the subtitle of the book is “How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation,” what Brown is actually proposing in this book goes far beyond offering advice for keeping your business on the leading edge of innovation. He’s talking about a new ethos in how we operate as a society. That concept feels pretty big, so it’s packaged as a business innovation book instead in order to overcome the challenge of getting you to open it. Not that you’re being tricked – it IS about innovation, but it’s extended beyond the scope of designing products and services to encompass the way we design the systems in which we live. After seven chapters of explaining design thinking as it relates to your organization, he gets to the meat and potatoes with chapters titled ‘The New Social Contract,’ ‘Design Activism,’ and ‘Designing Tomorrow – Today.’

He begins to frame this within the opening pages of the book:

What we need are new choices – new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that results in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them.

He goes on to identify 3 key spaces of innovation, which function as overlapping stages of a process: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. You can read a more thorough explanation of these stages in this article, but here’s the short version:

inspiration: the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions
[this stage involves sketches, mock-ups, and scenario-building]
ideation: the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas
[this stage involves building prototypes & exploring the balance between practical functionality and emotional appeal]
implementation: the path that leads from the project room to the market
[this stage involves clearly communicating the idea and proving/showing that it will work]

It’s a simple enough of a framework, one that shares many components with any well-devised design or research process. As he explains the approach, he highlights that innovation must occur within a set of constraints, such as economic viability, and that a traditional business-minded rational/analytic approach must be maintained as well. I mention this because some of the articles I’ve read that bash design thinking seem to complain that the approach is an abandonment of good ‘business thinking.’ For instance, here’s a quote from an article in Harvard Business Review titled ‘Why Design Thinking Won’t Save You‘:

Design thinking is trotted out as a salve for businesses who need help with innovation. The idea is that the left-brained, MBA-trained, spreadsheet-driven crowd has squeezed all the value they can out of their methods. To fix things, all you need to do is apply some right-brained turtleneck-wearing “creatives,” “ideating” tons of concepts and creating new opportunities for value out of whole cloth.

I’m kind of surprised by the statement, because Brown never makes a statement that sounds like “all you need to do is…” He actually repeats many times throughout the book that there needs to be a combination of the intuitive/emotional with the rational/analytic, a “balance of management’s legitmate requirement for stability, efficiency, and predictability with the design thinker’s need for spontaneity, serendipity, and experimentation.” If anything, he’s calling for a holistic interdisciplinary approach to business that breaks down the rigid silos of standard organizational structure that, in its very design, impedes creativity, collaboration, knowledge sharing, and in turn, innovation.

Tools for Design Thinking

The design thinker uses a set tools and skills that inform and facilitate the innovation process, from visual tools like sketches, mind maps and prototypes to mental processes like brainstorming, building on the ideas of others, and creating scenarios. They operate on principles that encourage collective ownership, like “all of us are smarter than any of us,” and adhere to ‘rules’ that promote organizational creativity, like having permission to fail, experiment, take risks, and explore the full range of their faculties. They rely on their “ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, and to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality.” But these practices and techniques are not unique to the design thinker.

As I commented on Bruce MacGregor’s article ‘How does design thinking give companies a competitive advantage?,’ the principles of design thinkers are also those used by futurists. (A good introductory article to Futures Thinking was written up by Jamais Cascio in Fast Company, found here.) Though the terminology is different, the process is very similar. Again, I mention this because there is some argument around design thinking which seems to be coming down to semantics – “it’s really just social science,” or “it’s just futures thinking repackaged.”

So, what is design thinking then?

The strategies and tactics reviewed so far are probably familiar to you if you’ve read literature on creativity and innovation. You can pull up the innovation sections of the major business management publications, and find that the articles will give you a similar flavor as what’s mentioned above. So how does design thinking make this any different?

Whether it’s called design thinking, lateral thinking, right-brain thinking, systems thinking, integrative thinking, futures thinking, or my own term of ‘metathinking,’ from my perspective, the concept itself is rooted in a capacity to understand the world and our relationship to it, and within it, in a different way.

Design thinking is a “human-centered approach,” and for me that means truly getting down to the core of what we think it means to be human, of what it ‘should’ look like, and how we want to experience life. When we see the word “design,” we may immediately think of just products made by a snooty designer; items we see displayed at a museum that bear no resemblance to something we’d find in our home, artwork that makes us somehow feel stupid because we don’t understand why it’s so special, or architecture that is said to make “a statement” but feels completely alien in the way it impacts us. That is not the same design that is being proposed by design thinking.

When I started my blog, I knew I wanted to write about emerging trends at the intersection of technology, communication, and culture. Many of the posts lately have been focused around social media technologies and how they’re allowing for a many-to-many communication structure that’s never been possible before in human history, and what the implications of such a thing could be. But really, those explorations are laying a foundation for a bigger question; namely, where do we go from here? My research brought me to systems theory and complexity theory, and I’ve been particularly interested in complex adaptive systems theory. It proposes that the world is full of systems; from the ecosystem in which we live, to the social systems we’ve constructed via civilization, to the online social systems we’re creating as we develop a network culture. It broadened my perspective on the way culture works to think of it as a complex series of interactions, full of meaningful patterns that shape our society whether we’re aware of them or not. It made me think about the many systems around us that are currently collapsing, from global economic systems, to governments, to educational institutional models, to healthcare. The talk about massive change is pervasive today, and many suggest we need to undergo a complete paradigm shift in the way we operate if we’re to survive in a fashion that’s desirable and sustainable. The good news is, that shift can be made with intentionality and choice. We’re citizens in an increasingly participatory culture, and I realized that that was the essence of what I wanted to write about – our ability to influence how we shape society. So I titled the blog Emergent by Design.

My posts have evolved to become a kind of storytelling and connecting the dots, and the comments sections have become conversation areas. We are engaging in a process of collectively inventing what we want, how we’d like to interact with it, and what we can do to make it happen. In my mind, this is at the heart of design thinking.

In a previous post, What is Social Media [the 2010 edition], I briefly covered the definition of “media” and illustrated how our entire manmade environment is a collection of media that act as representations of some other thing or idea. From convenient functionality,to casual ambiance, to childlike fantasy, to shared wisdom and personal histories, to a better ability to meet basic needs.


None of these examples happened by accident – they were done by design. They create a context that affects the reaction of the person experiencing them. So design is not just about the end product or service itself, but also the process of the interaction and the emotional response and intrinsic value that it provides. In that vein, design thinking is about the interaction between feasibility (what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future); viability (what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model); and desirability (what makes sense to people and for people), with an emphasis on the peoplefor which the product or service is being designed.


So whether you hope to employ design thinking to restructure the culture of an organization or to innovate a new product or service, it’s important to remember that it’s more than a set of simple tactics that can be implemented overnight. It’s more like a new ecology of mind, that takes time to grow, adapt, and evolve. It still requires an adherence to sound business decision-making, but also a commitment to challenge one’s own beliefs about “the way things work,” and to keep coming back to a human-centered approach by focusing on addressing people’s unspoken and unmet needs.


About the Author

This article was written by Venessa Miemis, Founder of Emergent by Design, a blog exploring the co-evolution of humanity and our technologies.


The Legacy of AIM



On a cold February morning in 1997, America Online filed a patent for something that was to become the basis of hundreds of social tech startups.

They called it the “Buddy List.” It was the heart of the digital social structure that formed AOL Instant Messenger.

The first words of the patent abstract explained:

The invention implements a real time notification system that tracks, for each user, the logon status of selected co-users of an on-line or network system and displays that information in real time to the tracking user in a unique graphical interface.

If you were a 90’s kid, chances are you remember what a Buddy List was. You likely recall the AIM install CD, your screen name, and how much effort went into your carefully crafted away messages. You can probably reminisce about competing for time on the home computer so you could chat with your friends.

The world had never seen anything like it. And it captivated us all.

AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down for good, 20 years after it launched.

But what it established lives on. AOL didn’t know it back then, and we don’t realize it today, but AIM is the father of our modern social web.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the Buddy List.

Buddy List

Think about what’s at the foundation of any social media you use today. It’s that list of other human beings. Followers, friends, whatever they’re called. Social media doesn’t work without these groups of real people and it all originated with the Buddy List.

The Buddy List was everything. Credit

The Buddy List was exactly what you’d think — your list of friends. You controlled who was on it. You could find new people through information they put in their profile, but you had to both agree to the connection — if you were on their buddy list, they were on yours.

The most important feature of the buddy list was the ability to see whether each person was online. This remarkable little feature created a way to “feel” that your friends were around. There was an intimacy and immediacy to it.

Being on someone’s buddy list meant something. Nothing had ever come along like this before AIM, where you had a digital group of connections tied to your real relationships.

Away Messages

If one of your friends wasn’t online, you’d see their “away message.”

AIM away messages.

Have you ever written a tweet or status update? Then you’ve gone through the same process AIM users went through to write away messages. It is the ancestor of those widely-used features.

The away message started as a set of three default options: online, busy, or away. But then AOL set up the ability to write a custom message and it quickly transformed into a way to express yourself to your buddies. From simple plans you had for the day, to quoting lyrics from your favorite songs, the away message let you broadcast anything to the world.


The modern digital profile is quite a remarkable thing. In essence, it represents the notion that we can have a web persona that we completely control.

We’ve all agonized over the perfect profile pic or handle. We make conscious decisions about cover images and bios so that we present to the world exactly the image that we want.

That all started on AIM.

Some examples of AIM profiles.

The service let you choose things like an avatar, bio, fonts, and colors, but your biggest decision was your screen name. It could be anything from xXPunkRockPonyXx to InternetDiane. The possibilities of every alphanumeric combination allowed you to choose something meaningful, personal, and easily recognizable, so that’s what everyone did.

This kind of customization helped us realize how what an online persona could be.


Online instant messaging hit a sweet spot. It was better than email and less formal than a phone call. It fit right in with what the rising generation wanted as a form of communication.

Chatting on AIM. Credit

It’s still something we can’t get enough of 20 years later. The underlying concepts of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Slack, Discord, and Snapchat all began with AIM.

This is where communication and real human connection actually happened. Things like late night chats with your best friend about the latest music or deliberately worded conversations with that girl or boy you had a crush on.

It was all about the contact with other human beings over the internet in a real, direct, private, and personal way.

The Running Man

AIM could be considered the first social media superpower. It was a digital consumer tool used at an unprecedented scale, a household name.

It defined the social potential of the web for Americans. Perhaps more than any other product, AIM helped establish the internet as a place to hang out rather than a simple utility.

Entrepreneurs realized that, too. AIM was the starting point of an exponential trend in social web startups. Companies like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram are some of the major players who have ridden that wave.

The running yellow figure of AIM’s logo seems fitting in retrospect. The idea of always on, always transmitting captured the feeling quite well.

Now the runner is passing the baton.


About the Author

This article was written by Jordan Bowman.

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Making Globalisation Work for Startups



AI platform Globality is giving small and medium businesses access to broader opportunities.

Ina post-Brexit, “America First” world, protectionism seems to be back in fashion, and globalization has become something of a dirty word. Since the 1990s, global trade has helped lift over a billion people out of poverty, driven sustained economic growth, lowered consumer prices, and delivered unprecedented freedoms to much of the world’s population.

Still, middle-income earners have seen their living standards stagnate, while many of the great leaps forward in automation are destroying the jobs of those least able to cope, with vastly greater levels of disruption feared.

Large multinational companies still seem to be the greatest beneficiaries of a globalized marketplace. Small and medium-sized businesses, which constitute the bulk of the world’s economy and drive most job creation, find it more difficult to make valuable connections that can lead to international trade opportunities and contracts with large organizations.

This is due in large part to the outdated procurement process based on Requests for Proposals (RFPs), which is still the standard across most industries. RFPs are not only extremely time consuming, but such competitions are used as cover for a procurement decision that has already been made, so prospective smaller suppliers never really stand a chance.

Joel Hyatt cofounded Globality to prove that technology could be the missing link to make globalization work for more businesses. By providing a matchmaking platform that connects big clients–Fortune 500 companies spanning financial services, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, consumer goods, and other sectors–with a diverse pool of providers, he wants to help those small and medium-sized companies land contracts that would otherwise be out of their reach.

He served as the national finance chair for the Democratic Party during Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, and after the election, partnered with Gore to start a media company that they sold in 2013. When Hyatt started Globality in 2015, Gore became an investor. The company has since raised $35 million in their latest funding round and embarked on a major expansion of its platform that uses artificial intelligence to match the small clients with big contracts all over the world. So far, over a dozen fortune 500 companies and over 40 multinational corporations have signed up on the client side, and its SME (Small and Medium Sized Enterprise) Service Provider Network covers every continent and more than 100 countries.

The platform is made up of three main elements, explains Globality CTO Ran Harpaz: The first gathers information from the client, helping them to determine what their real needs are. The second matches them with the best service provider to fulfill those needs, and the third helps build the relationship by fostering collaboration between the two parties.

For the first part, the client answers a detailed Q&A devised by their experts. Their algorithms then extract a variety of data points from those clients using NLP (Natural Language Processing) and continues to build upon that in a constant learning loop. It takes all the information from the questions it asks of both client and providers during the matching process to suggest a shortlist of possible matches, which is then reviewed by an industry expert consultant at the final stages.

This AI-powered consultancy model effectively harnesses the best of both worlds, according to Harpaz, as it scales the nuanced, sector-specific expertise that traditionally comes at a prohibitive premium. By leveraging machine learning to recognize interactions–often spotting patterns in the data that might not have occurred to a person and using that in the matching process–this high-level human know-how becomes accessible to companies without multimillion-dollar consultancy budgets at their disposal.

“At every step, the system is collating feedback from both sides, learning from signals that tell it how the match is actually working in practice by prompting them with questions based on interaction data,” Harpaz says. “This systematic approach to human knowledge representation effectively gives people superpowers, by taking that magic sauce of human interaction and knowledge, and making it possible to apply that consistently and at scale.”

Although this process is building toward ever more efficient automation, Harpaz says that they will always need a human expert to look at those matches with a strategic eye and make the final decision on the most suitable pairings. “What Globality is doing is making high-level knowledge and expertise accessible to a much larger pool of companies and people, rather than only the large corporations who have been traditionally able to afford the services of consultancy firms,” he explains. Globality’s pricing model is usually free for client companies, with suppliers being charged a percentage of the contract’s value, but only once they receive payment themselves for the services they provided.

Waqqas Mir, a partner at Axis Law Chambers, a law firm based in Lahore, Pakistan, is one of the suppliers using Globality to reach international clients. Mir feels that law firms such as his in developing countries often lose out on such business because of their size. Being on the platform, however, gives them the opportunity to open up new channels of communication, which he believes provides great value in the long term. “That allows you to begin a relationship and remain on their radar,” he explains. “The whole thing is motivated by a desire to ensure a more inclusive global economy.”

Globality matched a Fortune 50 company with South African marketing agency Colourworks. The company had to find service providers who were Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment-certified by the South African government. “So we worked backwards from that, looking at all the providers who matched the certification criteria, and narrowing it down from there,” Harpaz says.

Since winning the Africa account, the agency has continued to use the Globality platform to connect with their new client on a global level, and are now exploring the possibility of working with them in Germany. “In this day and age, it is so easy to do business online or over video conferencing, so distance is really not a barrier,” says Lexy Geyer, account director at Colourworks.

Enabling smaller companies to become “micro-multinationals” means they will in turn fuel job creation and economic growth throughout the developed and developing world. Globalization and AI are often portrayed as inevitable waves of disruption that will leave chaos and inequality in their wake and ultimately make much of humankind and their skills redundant. But if platforms like Globality continue to create opportunities for diverse smaller businesss in this global marketplace, perhaps globalization can become a force for good.


About the Author

This article was produced by Alice Bonasio.

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