Designing Things Designers Traditionally Don’t Design

Tim Fife

I was a panellist at the Design Thinking unConference in Vancouver, and I came away feeling both energised and dismayed. Many of the participants were young Designers who believed Design Thinking could bring new and innovative solutions to wicked problems. This filled me with energy. However, my dismay came when I saw the examples of design being discussed. They were the same, old problems Designers have been trotting out since… well, since I was young.

Designing a better poster, toaster, or service to meet consumers’ needs was the only problem I learned to address in school. That was a decade ago. Yet today Designers aspire to work on big and wicked problems. To do so means we must address issues outside the paradigm of providing products to consumers. We must design things we traditionally don’t design.

John Feland, a fellow panellist at the conference stated it most poignantly: “Designers are in danger of making big promises, like the Alchemists of old. To prevent themselves from being crucified, Designers need to see themselves as a part of a broader system and apply their art accordingly.”

One such issue that 2nd Road is working on is project communications. It’s the type of problem I wish I could see more Designers addressing.

We’re helping a leading health insurer address some very wicked problems (such as leveraging its position in the industry and improving how the nation provides healthcare). One subset of working on such problems is helping the insurer design new services. This is the type of issue I worked on as a student. Another subset is helping the insurer communicate with its staff, to ensure that projects are implemented well and services are delivered with their intended quality. In other words, good service design is important to bringing innovative solutions to the insurer’s wicked problems, but so is good project communications.

What happens when a Designer applies her Thinking to project communications? We’ve seen two distinct benefits for the insurer:

1. Staff motivated by working towards connected, human outcomes (and not just discrete, disconnected tasks)

Stories of how staff will help each other and their customers are now at the forefront of the insurer’s redesigned communications. (These stories are discussed alongside technical specifications, service scripts, delivery deadlines, and everything else recommended by traditional project management standards.) As Daniel Pink explored in >Drive, seeing the relevance and connectedness of one’s work is a major motivator in achieving more, and the stories we’re creating with the insurer help staff see how they are part of the bigger picture.

Typical project communications focused on what staff are doing (and by when they need to deliver):


Design Thinking added focus on why staff are doing it (and the human value they’re creating):


2. Staff actively discussing problems with leadership (and not just waiting for management directives)

We’re helping the insurer leave space in its communication. This allows staff to create new solutions when unexpected situations arise. In Jeanne Leidtka’s article, >Is Your Strategy a Duck, “emptiness” is mentioned as a way to invite people into participating in an organisation’s strategy. Making strategic change in wicked situations incurs problems for which one simply can’t plan. Given the space, the insurer’s staff are now invited to use their own creativity to solve problems that management could not have foreseen.

Do you have a story of designing something that isn’t traditionally designed? (Hint: we all have, especially if we’re not trained Designers.) If so I’d love to hear from you.

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