design thinking

Design thinking is regularly talked about in business, but design is often relegated to a supporting role.

Two years ago, I spent a couple days at IDEO, seeing their approach to design thinking first hand. IDEO pioneered much of what the business world knows about design thinking.

IDEO calls it human-centered design. In contrast, many organizations follow heritage-centered design.

I once attended a brainstorm for a 120-year-old brand of baking flour. We had a room of talented cross-functional thinkers, but every idea we came up with was declared off limits. We couldn’t create new SKUs, change the packaging, change the formula, experiment with the brand, create marketing promotions, or change any other dimension we could imagine.

Too often marketers limit themselves by not questioning constraints. Some constraints are essential. Yet too many constraints can create tunnel vision. This is particularly true for brands that have a long heritage.

I love the classic IDEO case study on Nightline, where they completely re-imagine the shopping cart using design thinking. It always inspires me to think about other products and categories that can be similarly re-imagined.

But it requires thinking of design as more than the package burst.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Merete Munch Lange says

    Loved your cartoon, Tom! Working with innovation, I meet these contraints too often. ‘Think out of the box, but…’ I admire your ability to always being spot on :-)

  2. Warren Paisley says

    This cartoon is funny because it is so damn true! Why is there so little courage/boldness in today’s marketers? Big winners take big chances. We are fortunate to work in a creative field and should take full advantage of it. Would you rather be an accountant?

  3. Jane Naylor says

    It’s great to see common sense in action; listening to the experiences of the people who work with the product is invaluable.

  4. Nate Challen says

    I think the lack of traction for “design” thinking may also be a branding problem. Marketers view designers as putting feel ahead of fact, more concerned with how something looks rather than how it performs. Most marketers like to feel like that “marketing” thinking offers the blend of creativity and structure, centered around the consumer, that should facilitate great innovation. Though they are often restrained by “rules” of the business. The truth, is the best ideas often come from a group representing a range of disciplines, given a good structure to operate, but few boundaries on the output.

  5. Flour Bag Designer by Day.... says

    When we don’t understand the true values and motivations of our consumers, we kid ourselves that we can wrist our way to bold, volume driving design.

    Marketing led constraints are often just that — perceptions of how WE think our consumer uses, loves or doesn’t love our product. Closing our lips and listening to them is often the hardest thing to do.

    ‘Design Thinking’ might benefit from being rebranded as ‘Design Listening’. Putting the consumer at the heart of it all — with open minds and open ears is key.

  6. Heather G. says

    Wow so much is communicated in this one! This quick cartoon is an accurate illustration the hypocrisy that takes place in far too many businesses these days. Leadership may claim they want something new, different, innovative – yet, they aren’t willing to make the changes necessary to do so! And unfortunately, this rings true not only in design, but many different areas. As a marketer, I have to think that management would be surprised if they would just let us do what they hired us to do in the first place!

  7. Ratana says

    As marketers, we hide behind the concept of “brand equity” – it becomes the reason why we do things, and the reason why we are too afraid to make anything more than minute changes to our products (but we will call it “breakthrough” and “game changing”). We have become victims of our own philosophy, creating tiny changes that beget tiny results rather than using it to effect real change that drives real results.

  8. Chris Dolan says

    I think part of Tom’s insight here is that design thinking requires risk taking. There needs to be a willingness to leave the safety of the shore and venture into uncharted territory. However, this does not necessarily mean radically changing everything and “swinging for the fences”. In his excellent book, Little Bets, Peter Sims advocates for making lots of little bets then tweaking and modifying along the way. Ideally, the client in this cartoon would say “let’s test some new product concepts, let’s prototype some new packages, and let’s see what our customers think of them.”

  9. Holly says

    Design Thinking is all about imagining new possibilities, unfortunately for this Designer, not only the client miss the boat on ‘what could be’, but also seems to have forgotten that Design Thinking is enabled by empathy for people. I’m personally feeling lots of empathy for the Designer, as I’ve seen this scenario play out all too often in business. Go Tom!

  10. Aleem says

    So true. I also love the IDEO case study where they were engaged by a hospital to improve their systems and the ‘customer’ experience. They strapped a camera to the head of one of their staff who acted as a patient of the hospital for 24 hours. They sped up the footage condensing it to one hour. When they played it for the Board of the hospital they watched nearly 60 minutes of a ceiling panel above a hospital bed!!
    The Board nearly went spare but I think they got the point.
    So often we miss the bleeding obvious…

  11. Daniele says

    Design Thinking… Change & Resistance, the risk and fear of failure, the short-term cost…
    In regards to the video – love the trolley! – shoppers are actually asked to change their way of shopping which should be welcome if aware of all the work behind the design; shame on the use of plastic bags, though.

  12. Too many limits=Bad. Too few limits=Bad. says

    Unlike the scene in Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi says to Daniel-san, “Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, get squish just like grape.”, designers must walk the middle of the road at times.

    Too many limits and you get a package burst when you need an overhaul. Too few limits and you end up with no clear focus, no call to action, and no appeal to the customer (like the popular web spoof about Microsoft redesigning iPod packaging).

    Great cartoon this week. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Hutch Carpenter says

    This reminds me of a comment recently made by a Samsung product manager about HDTV (reported by Techcrunch (

    “TVs are ultimately about picture quality. Ultimately. How smart they are…great, but let’s face it that’s a secondary consideration.”

    He said that in reaction to the rumored Apple HDTV. In his mind, he had settled on the core attributes that win in the market. Much like what you call “heritage centered design”. Don’t mess with that.

    This attitude is so pervasive that I don’t ascribe negative qualities to individuals expressing it. Rather, I think it’s based on what got the company to its position in the first place.

    Many companies attempt to break into markets. For the one that becomes leader, there’s a “winning formula” that emerges. Example: superior picture quality with HDTVs). As sales grow, the organization is built around this. All systems point toward it: product, marketing, strategy, customer service.

    Somewhere along the line, the market begins to shirt. I think in terms of jobs-to-be-done. Customers start to look for other jobs to be fulfilled in the general area of your product. For instance, take HDTVs. Something that’s emerged with Twitter and Facebook is to make watching events a global social experience. So I want to share, which I often go to Twitter to do (Oscars, Superbowl, American Idol, etc.).

    But might there be a way to design that experience right into the TV? Nothing to do with picture quality, but everything to do with changing consume behaviors.

    Problem is that all systems are still geared toward picture quality. And so an opening is there for competitors to come in with offerings that better address a changing market.

    Getting past the existing systems that reflect what won you the market is the toughest thing for companies to get past. Or as you term it, “heritage-centered design”.

  14. Deb says

    Now for the rest of the story …

    “But the burst has to be this size and shape. And yellow. And it has to have the word NEW really big. Oh, and it has to go right here. I can’t wait to see what your team comes up with!”

  15. says

    Hi all,

    Very inspired comments this week, many thanks!

    I love how Deb finished the rest of the story with the package burst. Hysterical.

    This week’s cartoon print goes to “Flour Bag Designer By Day…” I love the insight of reframing “Design Thinking” as “Design Listening”. So much of what’s required is inspired listening.

    All the best,


  16. paul says

    I find that the term “marketer” is thrown around a great deal when what people mean is “advertising person”. Most marketers will likely agree with me on this one since we all hear it all the time. It’s like nails on a chalk board. Marketing incorporates branding, positioning, competitive prioritizing, research, consumer/customer/client relationship management among other things.

    Branding and ad design is just one aspect of it (and a small one at that). This cartoon, though, is exactly what most companies are doing. Make it different but, you know, mostly the same and then “How come it looks the same? What am I paying you for? This whole marketing thing is a waste of company budget”. haha

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