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Patrick Whitney on Reframing Design Thinking -- and Beyond

Patrick Whitney is dean of Chicago’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology a graduate school focusing on researching and teaching design methods.  He is a luminary in the ever-growing field of design strategy. His work focuses on design’s role in transforming not only products and services, but also companies and markets. And he is researching how companies and designers can better manage design strategy with effective methodologies. I recently spoke with Patrick as he was gearing up for the annual IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference, which will take place from May 14-15 in Chicago. He shared not only some sneak peeks at the line up, but also his wise and witty observations on how design and business can improve how they intersect.

RJ: "Reframing" seems to be a theme at the conference and also in the innovation landscape in general. Why is this concept so important when looking at design as an innovation strategy? 

Patrick Whitney: The conference is a strategy conference. We think of strategy in the context of Roger Martin’s term -- deciding where to play and how to win. For the last 30 years, companies focused on Six Sigma, total quality management, and other efficiency programs. It was clear they could make profits and grow financially by doing a better job at what they already knew how to do. Now that companies have succeeded at decreasing costs, they see innovation as the path to profits.

They seek to produce new things that are acceptable and reframing the conventional view of their current offering seems to be one of the key ways to do that. And designers are particularly good at never accepting a problem as a given. In the past, this approach frustrated executives. But now companies will pay a lot of money for this way of thinking. Now, if designers simply did what their clients asked for, they would be seen as failures.

So businesses are turning to designers when they want to find something new. The challenge is doing this in methodological and logical ways that are more reliable than simply putting creative people in a room with post-it notes, M&Ms and white board and tell them to  innovate! This has always been a core issue in design.

At the conference we’ll hear from Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk, about learning from crafts to reframe software. And from Amory Lovins, founder of Rocky Mountain Institute about reinventing fire, his term for reframing how the USA uses energy. He’ll talk about keeping our existing growth goals for the U.S. without using any hydrocarbons except natural gas or without turning to nuclear energy. Connie Duckworth will talk about reframing the business model for a women’s weaving group in Afghanistan.  

RJ: There is so much pressure to be a "visionary" and a "game changer" in the business and design fields. The speaker lineup also reflects this. Are there any situations when such an approach to strategy might not be the best path forward for either a corporation or an individual?

PW: Most projects should not need visionaries or game changers. From a corporate point of view, day-to-day business should be about how to make a current offerings better.  For instance, how an auto company might make an improvement between the launch of car and its 2nd and 3rd years on the market. Or, how OXO may have improved on a material they first used in a Good Grips product with subsequent materials.

In these examples, innovation came through not in a visionary nor game changing way. Often, innovation happens with incremental change.

On the other end are real breakthrough products. The Walkman from Sony was a game changer – even more than the iPod. The Walkman invented personal music. The iPod was only a better mp3 player. The iPhone is just on the cusp of being a true game changer and visionary product. You could argue that the first mobile phone was more of a game changer than the iPhone. Then again, when you come up with a new category, perhaps you’re a game inventor and not just a game changer.

It’s important to understand that innovation and design can work extremely well at an incremental level. Designers respond well when looking for things that aren’t game changers, but things that are just better. That’s good to remember when responding to executives demanding “innovation” that has to be finished by September 15 or whatever quarterly deadline—when one must show a return on investment. Designers need to know how to manage expectations that might be more hyperbole or even fantasy than related to reality. Companies should have two or three levels of   innovation and decide which level appropriate for each project.

RJ: Bruce Nussbaum, my former boss at BusinessWeek, is speaking about "creative intelligence." Creativity is obviously a quality that executives and entire corporations want to cultivate right now. Why?

PW: It’s hard to say. As companies get bigger, creativity gets wrung out of them. They’re still filled with creative people. Microsoft, for instance is filled with creative people. But I often think that the real purpose of Microsoft Research is to hire geniuses so they can’t work for anyone else.

Speaking of Microsoft, as Bill Buxton, who is now at Microsoft, says, the biggest challenge for tech companies is to think of a second big idea. Usually, they have one big idea, and then focus on acquisitions.

So creativity is really coveted now. A recent global survey from IBM showed that the attribute in young executives most valued by CEOs is creativity. This report offered an unusual angle on what’s needed in corporations, and what design can help accomplish. The lens of “creativity” gets us away from the undefinable term “design thinking.”

Design has multiple characteristics. Designers have been good at reframing, good at thinking of things in unusual ways, good at visualizing, and systems thinking. But “design thinking” as it has been marketed implies that design was a mindless activity until 10 years ago; it’s time to reframe the term “design thinking.”

RJ: In your opinion, what are the three most creative companies in the world -- besides Apple, Google, and Nike?

PW: I admire IBM: it transformed itself from a hardware company to a services-focused one. I also admire the Tata Group, especially in the context of their interesting new hotel idea, Ginger. Tata owns the Taj Hotels, a leading group of ultra-luxury hotels. They recently created Ginger, which has all the basic services of a stylish hotel, but relies on self-service as much as possible. It’s hip, it’s clean, it’s ultra cheap.  And Tata understood that sometimes one prefers self-service when they’re traveling. Another reason to admire Tata is that Jaguar, which it owns, is back. The cars no longer look like a Ford Taurus with a cat stuck on the hood.

RJ: In the 2000s, design was fighting for a seat at the boardroom table. In the 2010s, it's there. What is the biggest challenge that designers face in the corporate arena today? And how do you suggest such a challenge be overcome?

PW: To live up to the expectations and claims designers make. We not only need to develop a belief that design is an effective business strategy, but also develop ways of accomplishing what people now expect. There has to be a more reliable way to achieve design success other than just hiring a creative genius. We need methods and theories on how to accomplish more work, at less expense, and with more insight. Otherwise design strategy will go the way of knowledge management.

We can do this by not letting hype get ahead of reality, which is a lesson from the knowledge management wave.

So the challenge is really about formalizing design knowledge in several dimensions.  For example, designers never accepting a problem as a given is often viewed as a delinquent activity, misunderstood by most executives.  Determining the best practices for reframing a problem, including understanding the economic value of  redefining the problem, will help more executives value this dimension of design.

This is why our conference’s focus is on the points of view of thought leaders and business leaders. The goal is for designers to listen to clients. Another way to create deeper knowledge is via graduate schools, which could work harder to formalize the body of design knowledge that exists. Though few play this role in design, it is an important function of grad schools in other fields.

RJ: You often talk about methods and measurement. Is there any danger in cultivating too many metrics for design?

PW: Absolutely. Not too long ago, I gave a keynote at a Harvard Business School conference. In the project phase of the event, B-school students listened to designers, tried to find the single silver bullet, and define a concrete way of measuring design success. The problem here was that they looked only for one answer. That illustrates one of the classic mistakes in the business world that the design is trying to help them overcome. Frequently there is no one single answer. Success depends on total user experience. Most often, design creates economic intangibles that can make the mania for measurement problematic.

That said, companies did not know how to measure “quality” until recently. Now they do. Designers should work with behavioral economists and those measuring other types of intangible value to create measurements for user experience.

RJ: What about Apple’s tangible success with design? Forgive the pun…

PW: Actually, on their balance sheets, it only appears as a cost for employees and other expenses related to design. There is no revenue line labeled ”great experience.” But we know that design has great ROI at Apple. We know it’s true. But we can’t really measure it yet.

RJ: Can you give us a preview of what types of methodology and metrics from your school  that will be discussed in May?

PW: At the conference, Vijay Kumar, who teaches at IIT, will talk about his book, 101 Design Methods. We teach about 60 methods here, but he has grown his inventory to 101. We will also present software tools that we developed with the Gates Foundation. They used them for coaching food scientists in emerging markets, in nations such as Kenya, but they’ll now be used in the developed world.

RJ: That example makes me think: obviously, IIT is dedicated to interdisciplinary education. Are there disciplines that you think could benefit from crossing over into design more directly, beyond business? For instance, do you believe that scientists and doctors are exposed enough to design strategy? Should they be?

PW: We are involved with a program that’s one of best examples of design strategy applied in a field other than business, which involves the Booth School of Business and the Medical School at the University of Chicago. We’re running a 15-session class, over 4 months, in which we’re working with medical doctors who have additional expertise, as in a doctor who is also an engineer, or also a physicist, to look at how design might help them with developing their ideas in entrepreneurial ways. Basically, via design strategy, we’re helping to teach doctors how to turn their research into companies.

There are a lot of other models in healthcare. Yesterday, I spent 3 hours with Memorial Sloan Kettering, exploring potential research related to doctor-learning and patient-learning.

Another example is the work that Kei Sato is did with Toyota Robotics, related to how elderly and sick people want to be treated by smart environments. Design certainly has a role to play in this type of research and development.

Education is another area that could benefit from more cross-disciplinary work with designers. We’re working on another project with the Gates Foundation, on how to match kids’ interests with the common core curriculum in the United States. The focus is on under-privileged kids who have the ability to go to college but don’t know how or even why to do it.

RJ: And can design strategy learnings translate from one field to another?

PW: Yes! The Gates learning tool (also supported by the MacArthur Foundation) that is being considered as the tool for helping doctors and food scientists coach African colleagues in Kenya and Nigeria. It can be used for any type of learning with a well-defined process. Medical and scientific processes are perfect matches for the software.

RJ: In the last year, design has been discussed at global, high-level events that address politics, trade, and public policy -- such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum. How can governments better engage with design strategy, beyond conferences?

PW: I can give you a very real example. Leaders with the office of the Prime Minister of India have asked us to teach his team about reframing the way policies are formulated. It’s a very relevant example, as you and I started out speaking about the theme of reframing.

The context is how to establish new public policy and increase the chances of implementing it in India. So we will hold a series of workshops and bring in not only political leaders, but also corporate executives from areas where policy would affect their industries. We’ll talk about problems. We’ll give them assignments to develop information. Then we will run reframing exercises with them.

It’s going to be fast and we’re going to find out quickly whether it works or not. It will be very practical.

Reframing is sometimes forced by extreme economic conditions. But I should add that this works when you’re not working in a destitute country. This approach can work in Brazil, China, India.

And related to that thought, we are planning our third year of immersion programs in India. We send students there, where they immerse companies in our methods. In turn, the students are immersed in the business culture of India. We’ll launch a similar program in Brazil this summer, and likely announce another in China soon. These programs are transformative for our graduate students.

As you pointed out, although we don’t give a theme to our strategy conference, the underlying goal is to explore reframing.  We do not have a formal theme on purpose. We like to see what themes emerge. And, as we can see today, they do!

Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online,, and numerous others.