Monday February 25, 2013
By LEONG SIOK HUI
To produce innovative Malaysians, innovation agency Genovasi teamed up with a Germany-based institute to teach ‘design thinking’. We travel to Potsdam, Germany, to find out more about this creative approach.
NEON-coloured sticky notes, Lego blocks, rainbow-hued foam peanuts, knitting threads, cardboard boxes and colouring pens – these are “tools” for brainstorming and constructing prototypes. Whiteboards on wheels replace walls that separate the “classrooms.” Chatter and guffaw waft across the space.
You can’t help but feel the creative vibes and peppy energy that emanate from the Hasso-Plattner-Institut School of Design Thinking (aka D-School). Located in the historical city of Potsdam, southwest of Berlin, D-School is part of the Hasso-Plattner-Institut, an IT-Systems Engineering university founded by Hasso Plattner, the man behind software giant SAP.
We are on a media familiarisation trip organised by Unit Inovasi Khas (UNIK), an innovation agency under the Prime Minister’s Department, to get an insight into D-School, which partners Unik to train Malaysian youths to become innovators.
Founded in 2007, the D-School curriculum is based on the “design thinking” process – an approach that looks at users’ needs and desires, leading to sustainable innovations that can make people’s lives better. It is not about design per se.
And unlike the mythical lone genius inventor, design thinking involves teamwork. It draws on the expertise of individuals from varying backgrounds and disciplines, from engineers and anthropologists to accountants and fashion designers.
Hardly a newfangled idea making its runway debut, the concept has been bandied about for decades and used as a mantra by some of the biggest creative companies in the world, including San Francisco-based global design firm Ideo.
But the methodology was pioneered from Stanford University in California, and taught and explored at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford since 2005. As part of the coursework, students get to work on real-life “design challenges” developed together with project partners from the industry, public sector or non-profit organisations.
In the corporate realm, award-winning companies like Ideo employ design thinkers who are marketers, engineers, psychologists, industrial designers and architects. Ideo has 12 offices in eight countries and high-profile clients like Visa, Toyota, Samsung, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.
Take their design project with Shimano, the leading supplier of bicycle components in the world. In 2004, Shimano was grappling with stagnated growth in its high-end road-racing and mountain-bike sectors in the United States. Driven by technology innovations for years, the company’s initial instinct was to introduce high-end casual bicycles that might appeal to baby boomers.
But with the help of Ideo, adopting the design thinking method, the company realised they should reach out to the 161 million US adults who aren’t riding bicycles. Using a human-centred approach, Ideo and Shimano hit the streets to survey why 90% of American adults do not ride bicycles. Findings reveal that the complexities (like shifting gears) and costs of modern bikes, the high maintenance, and the danger of cycling on roads are factors that put off casual cyclists.
Shimano then partnered with bicycle manufacturers like Giant, Trek and Raleigh to produce a biking experience that stirred up childhood memories of simple, joyful riding. These “coasting” bicycles have coaster brakes (back pedalling to brake), automatic shifting and puncture-resistant tires to make cycling easier and low maintenance.
To ensure a holistic experience, a comprehensive website helps people to locate safe places to ride. Shimano also launched a trade campaign and training curriculum to educate retailers to better serve recreational customers. In six months, the three manufacturers sold out the 30,000 Coasting bikes produced.
“Design thinking is a mindset and a set of methods you can use to solve problems that can impact society and businesses,” explains Dr Claudia Nicolai, the general programme manager and lecturer of D-School, on our visit.
“It’s not like it has never been done before,” admits Nicolai who has been studying strategic innovations, the precursor to design thinking, for a decade.
“What it does is to combine different methods and developments and put it under the design thinking label.”
Nicolai develops and designs teaching content, coaches students and teachers, hosts workshops and develop design-thinking strategies for companies.
At D-School, there are three core elements in design thinking: focus on multi-disciplinary team, team-supported space that is highly flexible and dynamic, and the process itself, Director of D-School Professor Ulrich Weinberg added.
Dubbed the “grandfather of computer graphics in Germany,” Weinberg is instrumental in getting D-school going from the beginning.
He has 25 years of experience in 3d animation, simulation and computer games. At D-School, the course runs over one term (Basic track) or two terms (Advanced track) spanning 12 weeks, and students are assessed based on their teams.
“What I learned in the last five years is that you will not get the full, dynamic energy of the people, whether in companies or schools, if you have incentive models that focus on individual performance.”
In recent years, huge corporations in Germany are also jumping in on what D-School is doing.
“Companies are calling us to partner on projects or to book workshops on design thinking,” says Weinberg. Some of D-School’s partners include industry giants like Siemens, Johnson & Johnson, DHL, Panasonic and Lufthansa Airlines.
The enthusiasm of D-School students is as infectious as their teachers’.
“I think the key benefit is learning how to design for people, focusing on their needs or wishes. You are not trying to sell things but to fulfil needs,” says Juliana Paolucci, 24. A product and graphic designer from Brazil, Paolucci and her teammates Andrzej Karel, Sabrina Meyfeld and Laura Kroth are working on a design challenge for Genovasi. Their subject: how to engage young people in the development of the community.
They had to set out to find solutions that can convert Malaysian youths from armchair critics to empathetic doers.
“The youths are the future of the country, they need to engage the community and change reality,” explains Paolucci. “But first we need to find out their needs, wants and desires, and ways to fulfil them.”
“Also we need to take into account activities they like to do, for example, how do they use social networking to take community action?”
Using design thinking methodology brings together different actions in a structured way, Karel added.
“The first idea might not be the best solution, so we go through an iterative process multiple times: understand, observe, define point of view, ideate, prototype and test,” says the 25-year-old Polish who is working on his thesis for his marketing/management degree.
Room for failure is the DNA of design thinking.
“In a conventional design process, you just sit in your room, and keep going at it until you think it’s perfect,” explains Meyfeld, 27, a communication scientist.
“But with design thinking, we’re out testing prototypes on the second or third day and if it doesn’t work, we start at it again.”
“I am keen on social innovation and want to learn more about how to apply the methodology in my social enterprise,” adds Kroth, 29, who studied communications and public relations. She hopes to start a small business to bring people of different generations together to develop dialogues on German history and keep history alive for future generations.
As for D-School alumni like Jeremias Schmitt, his experience prepared him for how he wants to work with people and how to develop projects further.
“After the D-School experience, students actually find real meaning in what they do, why they do it and how they want to do things,” quips the 27-year-old Berliner.
“Some even applied for jobs that they never thought of applying, for example, a student who studied information science seeking for a business development job.”
In Europe, more and more start-ups are using design thinking as a tool to innovate, Schmitt added.
So is design thinking the be-all and end-all of innovation? And how does one measure its efficacy or success rate?
“For me, it’s not about how many products are successful in the market. I care more about how design thinking deeply impacts the students, how they got the chance to experience the process, and how it changed the way they do things,” says Weinberg.
To date, D-School has done about 70 projects. One-third of the ideas were implemented at some point, the other third came up with solutions that led to different things, and one-third led to nothing.
Clients who worked on the project either left their companies or there was no follow-up from the clients’ side. The role of design thinking at D-School is to create innovators, not so much innovations.
In the case of Shimano’s Coasting programme, three years after its initial success, the company pulled the plug on the programme and manufacturers stopped rolling out coasting bikes because sales fell below expectations.
Some industry observers blamed it on the bike brands that weren’t doing their jobs to communicate the benefits of Coasting to retailers and customers, among other factors.
It wouldn’t be fair to say this design thinking experiment has flopped.
Suffice to say, design thinking isn’t the magic pill for success.
But “use it to its advantage: to give new insights, outline new ways of thinking, introduce new techniques or develop new entries to the market,” as innovation and design writer/editor Helen Walters (formerly with BusinessWeek and Bloomberg) attested in her talk “Design Thinking Won’t Save You.”