Design thinking as a pirate codex of honor

A year after studying design thinking I actually understood what is it for

Past the official definition of design thinking as a human-centered approach and a tool to fulfill your customer’s actual needs, it’s a manifestation of disobedience and responsibility.

Disobedience

A marketing manager for Apple described its market research as consisting of “Steve looking in the mirror every morning and asking himself what he wanted.”

These are the pieces of a puzzle that I couldn’t put together: how design thinking and personal vision can work together? Apple is praised both for having a strong stand-alone vision of their products and the use of human-centered design approach. But how can you ask yourself anything in the mirror if you are busy discovering what your customers want? How can you create anything new if all that customers want is a faster horse?

Professor showed us that IDEO 1999 shopping cart redesign made after an immersive research and solving every single problem of shopping experience, and asked us: why we have never seen this perfect design in a real shop?

Because of the right cart — a simpler solution that doesn’t solve problems, but rather goes over them. With all its ubiquity this solution wasn’t the result of thoughtful analysis of the customers’ needs.

I want to use it as an example of obedience in design process. As an example showing that when you do exactly what people want you to, even if you excel in it, the result will not work as planned.

The major conflict for a designer (in the broad sense of the word: a person who creates solutions) is doing what clients want versus what you think is a good thing to do. And methodologies like human-centered approach serve as apologetic of ceding your opinion. Some designers take pride in being able to love and sympathize to whatever comes to their door, some methodology experts go as far as proclaiming “cancelling yourself” in order to bring the right product to the market.

But there is much more in the design thinking process than giving up to the customer. Empathy, which is the first step of the process, is defined as the ability to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, and then step back into your own to reflect and elaborate on this experience.

If you don’t have any personality and values to step back to, there’s no use in listening and researching. If you’re unable to walk that mile in somebody else’s shoes, there’s no use in your personality. Same with products.

Disobedience is a quality which should be applied to the second phase of design thinking process. As you gathered the empathy, as you heard, felt, lived through your customers’ experience, you then need to shut doors for the requests and elaborate on your own vision, and reframe the problem as you see it, as you are ready to take it.

And after you brainstorm for the solution, you have to face the consequences of your disobedience.

Responsibility

Masha is responsible for the company’s visual identity, so anyone can poke her if something is not right.

I wonder if you see a conflict in this phrase I caught in the office, because I do. If Masha is the one responsible for a subject, how the hell can someone else have the expertise to decide if something is not right? And if everyone has expertise on the matter, how can she be the one responsible for it? How one can be responsible, if they have to follow the orders?

The responsible one is the one who faces the consequences of their decisions, not the orders. And, luckily, you can work it out without drama at the 4th step of design thinking: prototyping. After you have reflected based on your customers’ needs and sketched out the solution, you go out to the world and, again, listen for what is there.

For every decision there can be a mistake, but prototyping is more than testing if you’re right or wrong. It serves both to clarify your vision, find unexpected solutions and gain another piece of important information to build upon. Prototyping is an exercise of staying true to yourself yet accepting the world the way it is. Hear what the world needs, turn it into your own thing, face the response, rinse, repeat.

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What it all has to do with pirates? I took the vintage sea pirate as a symbol mostly out of disobedience: as an opposite of that soft, open-minded, emphatic, friendly, funny, up-to-date, creative etc. image of a design thinker.

Pirates is an example of having a strong value system that substantially differs from the common one. Being a pirate meant to be an outlier, a criminal in the eyes of the government, but a honorable person in the eyes of the likes of you and your own. Whatever you do, in the sea you can’t survive without a strong value system.

Using design thinking as a pirate means to invent, create, innovate based both on empathy and innate values, do what’s needed and face the outcomes of your decisions with open eyes and open heart.

Stories from another hemisphere, written under a stripper pen name and in a second language. Because God forbid we make things easier for us.