29 September 2009

What does design thinking look like?

I just got back from the IDSA conference in Miami. I've never been to one before so I can only compare it to other conferences I've attended. And on many levels, it follows a similar model of other organizations: workshops, keynotes and vendors all hosted at a fancy hotel or venue.

I tracked the Twitter feeds to find out what others were thinking about this event in real time. Since I'm not a member of the IDSA, I knew no one upon arrival. As I was going to present during a breakout session on the last day, I wanted to see if anyone had 140 characters that could help me understand this diverse group of people. Notably, there weren't many tweeters compared to some other events I've tracked but I was able to gain some perspective. Regardless, what continued to emerge throughout the event was the hope that design could change the world in ways it hadn't before.

Various other voices have weighed in on the experience. I would suggest that these thoughts are completely valid but tend to suggest the notion that the IDSA might not be able offer what these times demand. I'm not here to reject their ideas or the IDSA but I will say that one notable moment occurred during the conference that seemed to represent "design thinking" at its finest.

(image from Tim Brown's new book Change By Design)

A group of students led an impromptu session to ask the question, "What would your ideal conference experience be?" I told a fellow attendee, "That is where the ideas will come from at this conference. You want to find out the pulse for the future? Go there." Don't get me wrong. Everyone contributed many layers of value. I attended great sessions with amazing content and conversation. I was grateful to have people participate in my session for that matter (especially at 9am on Saturday morning!).

But for me, the student "charrette" and their final presentation offered an envisioned future that I believe we are meant to investigate as "design thinkers." And in my opinion, our thinking is best reflected when accompanied by some sort of design doing (if it is to make an impact). The student's approach acted as a microcosm of the topics covered during this event. We talk a lot about this notion but their actions represent what we are meant to be striving for in this process: they sought to engage a group, be user-centered, collect data and then present scenarios to the audience. And they did it all in a rapid prototyping fashion. With a healthy dose of humor. Brilliant.

I'm sure I could offer many event improvement suggestions. As designers, I think it's in our blood to figure out better ways to do everything. But I want to affirm that the students led the way through their innovative approach to evaluating the future of this type of conference. And to me, that is what design thinking looks like in real time. It becomes a testament to how our discipline can model ideas in the midst of our own learning. And gives us a chance to practice before we begin to approach these "wicked problems" filled with complexity.

Edit: It has been brought to my attention that P&G actually initiated this impromptu session. So credit to them for creating a means to dialogue about improving this event. See comments for more details.


Anonymous said...

A colleague passed on to me your blog note and asked if I caught the student presentation that you referenced. Unfortunately I did not, nor was I polled by any of the students as to how the conference experience could be improved. Due to this fact I am not able to comment on their presentation/findings. Hopefully they will post their results somewhere for all to review.

All this said however, I do think it's critically important that you realize that the statement that this was a student-led impromptu activity is not accurate. Designers from Procter & Gamble organized the design thinking exercise and came up with the idea of “what should the IDSA conf of the future look like”.

P&G found the students the first day of the conference, gave the students the tools and acted as coaches. To the students credit, they did come up with the rest and they did do the work. But you must give credit where credit is due. P&G came up with this innovative approach, not the students.

As for one of your final comments - "I'm sure I could offer many event improvement suggestions." Please do. I think the IDSA would greatly appreciate it. I read Jon Kolko's blog http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/the-end-of-an-era.html and I regrettably agree with many of his observations. As a conference event, the IDSA National Conference needs major reinvention (as does IDEA, but that's another discussion).

I hope IDSA will heed Jon's comments, as well as the students, and maybe even do a little research on their own as to what a more ideal national design conference experience would look like.

Thanks for starting the conversation.

Jim Couch, Lextant

olivelife said...

Thanks for clarifying the session's parameters, Jim. I affirm the initiative! The fact that I wasn't aware of that aspect (I blame the Miami heat) actually makes it exciting to me - it was more seamless so it seemed more "organic" somehow. So I apologize to P&G for not being aware of their investment in it. Credit due.

I link to Jon's blog in my post as I did take time to read it. In fact, it was Twittered right as I got on the bus for the closing party. Quick commentary! I don't disagree with him but wanted to affirm how the session with the students acted as an active approach that raised some suggestions for improvement in the midst of the event (and I do think this will be passed along to the IDSA). This is a great model for considering how to improve something - ask about what could be improved in real time.

Again, as someone who's never been to the event before, I have nothing to compare it to but do agree that there is always room to improve what we are doing. Perhaps, it is in our greatest frustrations that some great renewal will emerge. I'm not sure I think the IDSA needs to close up shop in order for this to occur. But we'll see, right?

Thanks for your comments. I look forward to seeing what emerges as a result of the various dialogues on this topic.