Know. Make. Do. The art of design-led thinking.





Design-Led Thinking is a buzz word everyone’s hearing about now. And for good reason. Here at TOTEM we are big fans of branding guru Marty Neumeier. His views on design, branding and innovation would very much mirror our own.

In his book The Designful Company: How to Build a Culture of Nonstop Innovation in 2008, he talked about how if you want to innovate, you’ve got to design.





Because inserting design into your processes, has the potential not just to drive growth, or some improvements – design drives innovation which has the power to radically differentiate your brand.

This is something that is critical if you want to succeed in today’s cluttered marketplace. Different is no longer enough. Your brand needs to be radically different to win.

And over the past decade, more and more companies and agencies have woken up to this.

But many of us are still unsure about how to apply this thinking. How to start embracing the concept?

So, we thought we’d look at not just what it is and what makes it different, but also what practical steps you can take to start adopting it.




Traditional thinking

The Typical way of approaching things…

Before looking at how to adopt ‘design led thinking’ it’s worth looking at how we typically approach things now via ‘traditional thinking’. Traditional thinking involves two steps – knowing and doing.

Knowing focuses on what you’ve done before, what you know and have proven to be true. And using that historic knowledge and body of learning – you make an informed decision and go straight to doing.

The problem is that there is no room for innovation.

Every time you go through these knowing and doing steps, you can incrementally and gradually improve how things are done based on current knowledge. You can create systems and cultures of continuous improvement internally which will refine what you do.

But it won’t radically redefine it. It won’t differentiate you in a strong way. But by inserting design into the middle of the process, you can.




Design thinking

Making design a central step in your processes…

To innovate you need to insert design into your processes. It’s an extra step of making that sits between knowing and doing.

The make step is about imagining. You take what you already know. But you imagine and dream up different solutions. You brainstorm. You innovate. And you prototype and test. There is no accepting the status quo with this approach.

And as you prototype and test, it doesn’t just change what you do. It changes what you know too. Because you are constantly learning. And learning about what doesn’t work, as much as about what does.




Sounds great, but don't know where to start? Don't worry…

The problem with being ‘innovative’, leading with design thinking and embracing your creativity is that it can be a little less structured than many of us are used to. It’s harder to schedule and quantify. It’s not a clear process with lots of KPI’s and colour coding that can tell you how on track you are to shaving x% off your costs.

And that can be an uncomfortable thing for us as professionals. A little bit daunting. But there is a structure to design led thinking. In fact, good design, in itself, is a process. One that moves through 5 key steps or stages:




Design thinking

Step 1 – Empathy

Design thinking is about thinking from the outside in. Why is that important? Because it’s only when you understand what your customers need, their problems, that you can start coming up with imaginative and innovative ways of solving them.

One of the most dangerous traps for a company to fall into, is to start the other way around. To try and develop the solution first, then try and find the user need and the ‘gap in the market’ for what they’ve created.

Instead, your first and most important step in Design-Led Thinking is ‘empathy’. You need to put yourself in your audiences and your end users’ shoes to really understand them, their lives and what they need.

You can start doing this by observing users, looking at what they do, their behaviour and looking at it in the context of their own lives.

But you can’t just observe, you also need to start engaging with users. Interact with them. Interview them. Encourage them to share their stories. This will help you build an empathy map, creating a picture of not only what your users do, but what they say, feel and think.

And lastly, you can immerse yourself and experience what your user experiences for yourself.

This should help you develop what’s called an ‘Empathy Map’. A complete view of how your end user thinks, feels, acts and speaks.




Empathy map

Step 2 – Define

This is about taking your new found understanding, learning about your audience and constructing a point of view. You need to take all the information and define the problem to be solved – the users’ need to be addressed.

The more specific that problem, that need is, the better.

And if you’ve already read our article – ‘the complexity of simplicity’, you’ll know that this isn’t always easy. But one word will be your best friend in the process – why!

Keep asking why, keep distilling down all the information to its simplest form until you have the clearest and most concise definition of what your audiences’ need is.




Step 3 – Ideate

Now you’ve defined the problem you’re trying to solve… you can broaden your gaze again as you begin to brainstorm how to solve it. Think big. Blue-sky big. Generate as many new creative ideas as you can. And remove the limitations that current thinking or beliefs may place on you.

Embrace diversity – try and collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams to hear as many different ideas as possible to solve this one problem. For ideation stage you want everyone from finance to engineering, logistics to HR and even external agencies involved – the broader the mix, the better.

Remember, at this stage there is no such things as a bad idea, it’s about new concepts, variety and volume.




Step 4 – Rapid prototyping

Once you’ve all your ideas down, you need to review them, grade them and move the three top ideas into prototyping. The key thing here is speed.

The point is to bring the solution from the theoretical or abstract realm, into the real world as quickly and as cheaply as possible. It could be that you create a physical mock-up, or it could just be a roll play or a story board.

If a picture is worth a thousand words. A prototype will be worth a thousand pictures.




Step 5 – Testing

And then it comes to the crunch – time to test those ideas and get feedback on your prototypes. Ideally you want to test it, in as real a scenario as possible. You want to find out what works about your solution, what doesn’t and why.

The testing allows you eliminate ideas that don’t work with minimal investment. And to take ideas that do forward, but with the flexibility to take on board any feedback from testing the prototype so you can tweak the solution and develop alternative iterations for market.




two way learning

And these five steps aren’t linear… they all interweave and feed into each other. Your testing can help you go back to empathising as you learn more about your users, or it can give you insights that help redefine the problem. Or maybe the test will just generate new ideas for the project and feed into the next ideate phase. It’s all incredibly valuable. Which leads into our last point.




Failure – It is your secret ingredient…

Most of us fear failure. And we try and avoid it at all costs. We push ourselves to succeed, to win, to do better.

But to embrace design led-thinking and to be innovative, you have to welcome failure as a friend. Critical to this whole process, is failing often and as early as possible in the process.

You shouldn’t feel disheartened that the prototype, your solution that you invested a few hundred in developing, bombed it at testing. You should feel glad that you were able to prototype, and it didn’t cost you thousands trying to fully develop a flawed solution.

And you should hopefully have a burning curiosity to take the insights and learning from testing and go back to understanding your users, or re-defining their problem, maybe throw some new ideas down on the table that have come out of it. Embrace the non-linear nature of innovation and design-led thinking.

And embrace failure. It means you are a step closer to a breakthrough.


To find out more about making design central to your processes, looking for new and innovative solutions and radically differentiating your brand, get in touch. We’d love to chat about how we can support you on your journey.