The Art & Business of Design Thinking


Design is art with function: it’s elegantly purposeful. By applying design thinking to creativity, you can create things that make a meaningful difference in the world – and that are specifically crafted for an audience who truly wants them. When you apply that same kind of thinking to business, you get results that go beyond ideas and into the realm of the viable.

There’s nothing wrong with innovation for innovation’s sake. But the problem comes when you try to grow a business out of something that doesn’t really need to exist. Design thinking reduces this risk – it’s a kind of idea insurance. The fundamental benefit of design thinking is that it ensures that you’re creating things that people actually want. 

Are you making something people want?

At its core, design thinking is a framework for invention built around a core question. Why does the thing you’re doing or making need to exist? 

It’s a deceptively simple question. But a lot goes into answering it completely. You need an understanding of the world and its limitations – and an understanding of the people in it and their limitations. When you overlay the two and find a gap, you’ve found a place that’s crying out for a solution.

Take the team collaboration platform Slack. It may seem like just a chat room, but there’s a reason it has 3 million daily users and a market valuation of $3.8 billion. Slack successfully identified a gap in how teams communicate while at work – those endless email chains and task-logging programs just weren’t doing the job. But Slack’s product does. It’s been crafted to improve intra- and inter-office communication and collaboration – which is what people had been clamoring for.

Design thinking creates successful brands.

The great thing about frameworks is that they’re translatable, transferable and scalable. The same design thinking approach used to develop a marketable product can be used in developing your business. 

It makes sense, after all – your products arise from the environment that created them. They’re the result of your business, and your business is the result of your products. It’s a symbiotic kind of relationship. The two go hand in hand, building and growing each other. 

All organizations are unique entities with their own philosophies and identities. Some identify these organically over the years, while others efficiently and industriously craft theirs from the get-go. The latter type are the design thinkers. The ones who understand the purpose and function of what they’re putting out into the world – and who build a brand accordingly. And the outcome is a brand that builds back. 

Let’s take The James and Ace hotels. Their dramatic expansion into the boutique hospitality market isn’t just luck and happenstance. Their artfully chosen locations, thematically unified decor and signature amenities result in the provision of a very particular experience being sought after by their savvy guests. They’re offering an experience by design – and that experience gives back to the company through the reiteration of its brand. 

Design is used from concept through to execution to craft a set of consumer expectations – and to ensure that they’re not only met, but met consistently. Because once a brand promise has been broken, that trust is gone. 

But when you have the support of design, those brand promises will be so deeply embedded in your organization that it won’t even be possible to break them if you tried.

Design thinking lets you scale and adapt. 

Design as it relates to visual identity is easy enough to conceptualize. But for businesses that are built entirely upon a foundation of design, the result is far more than just looks – instead, we’re talking about the intersection of form, function and philosophy. 

And when your organization is artfully positioned in the middle of this Venn diagram, you can re-evaluate, refine or even redefine what you stand for, what you do, and how you present it. A business predicated on design thinking is always reflecting on the function and purpose of what it’s putting out into the market. It’s always asking whether it’s making what people actually want. And as the needs of the market change, the business changes, too.

Take peer-to-peer delivery service Postmates as an example. When it launched amidst a crowded field of competitors in 2011, naysayers were bearish about its longevity. But the company’s offering – efficient delivery at the lowest possible price – was designed precisely with the market’s needs in mind. And it has continued to evolve as the market has, offering the new “Plus” and “Unlimited” features as a way of meeting newly arising customer requirements.

The upshot was improved vendor relationships, a larger customer base – and a business that continues to build an ever more sophisticated and granular response to an identified need.

Every business deserves design thinking.

Design is an act of creativity – but an elevated one. It walks the line between want and need, and fills gaps in our lives rather than trying to invent them. 

And when businesses begin to expand their notion of design beyond visual identity and into their underpinning identity and ethos, they’re perfectly positioned to fill those gaps by engineering useful, purposeful solutions to identified needs. 

When intelligent, thoughtful design provides the foundation for what you do, you no longer have to try to convince people to care about what it is you make or offer. Because your entire business model is all about making the things that people actually want.

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