S+B: How does design thinking apply to larger systems, like organizations and societies?
BROWN: A social design consists of rules, tools, and norms, and these three elements need to be in sync. Bank of America’s Keep the Change financial service was a nice example of using all three together. The product offers customers a chance to easily deposit the change they receive from a purchase with their debit card into a savings account. The bank provided the tool and the rules that governed it. But it also required an attitude shift to a norm built around increasing savings every day.
For designers, it’s easy to focus on the tools and forget about the role of rules and norms. But design thinking can play a big role in better rule making. Last year, after the committee that oversees Formula One racing changed some of the rules [governing, for example, tire specifications and aerodynamics], three teams found an interpretation that gave them a huge performance advantage, and they have won every race so far in the 2009 season. All the other teams are complaining and trying to get the rules changed again. In the end, all this back-and-forth is healthy for the sport; it’s a prototyping environment, trying out the new rules.
S+B: Where do you see design thinking going next?
BROWN: One of the most interesting design tensions today is between cost constraints — especially given the economic crisis — and sustainability constraints, or the impact on the natural environment. Some of the most attractive design solutions are driven by both constraints. They’re less expensive because they’re more sustainable, and vice versa. This is often because they’re more elegantly designed.
For example, the Tata Nano sells for under $3,000, and it’s apparently more environmentally sustainable than the motorbikes that families ride in India. Another example is the Aravind hospital. It doesn’t provide hospital beds for its patients, but for some people coming in from rural India, a rush mat on a concrete floor compares favorably with what they might have at home. Its staffers don’t think of themselves as designers, but they continually prototype and experiment with their processes, trying to learn more about their customers’ needs, just as a good designer would.
S+B: In other words, you think designers will focus on making objects more meaningful.
BROWN: Yes, one of the things I find very exciting right now about design is the questions that are being raised about what kinds of objects and services are meaningful. In Objectified, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit about industrial design, people are asked to imagine an approaching hurricane. “You have 20 minutes to grab the objects in your house that are most important to you. What do you reach for first?” And then he shows images of answers to the question, and they are not products, even valuable ones. They’re photographs or other cherished and meaningful objects. They represent meaning, social relationships, and memories.
Meanwhile, here we are, as innovators and marketers, investing all of this energy in making, creating, and selling things that ultimately people don’t care that much about. What happens if we start to think about it all differently?
S+B: How does this translate into a corporate leader’s decision making?
BROWN: First, it changes the way you manage the company. If all you have to offer is a bigger paycheck, you’re missing a lot of opportunity for your employees. Many of IDEO’s people could go elsewhere at higher salaries, and they choose to stay because they love being here: The economic benefit is combined with meaning, experience, and connections. I think a lot of organizations that do a good job of retaining talent or customers would say something similar. They’re able to charge more for what they do, retain employees, or capture a bigger market, because they have a better reputation.