March 31, 2016

9 Insights on Design Thinking, a product design studio — in Portugal

March 3, 2016, I enter Pedro Gomes Design, a product design studio overlooking downtown Aveiro, Portugal. It’s a busy, sunny day. There’s an overwhelming wall of sketches in my peripheral vision, two men shouting in Portuguese over the sound of their drills, and a wad of Bostik in my hand. What’s Bostik? We’ll get back to that. First, we need to talk about these sketches. That’s where I was when I gained these insights on design thinking.

To give you some background, design thinking is a buzzword that is sweeping across most industries today. It’s a method for meeting people’s needs and desires through ideation, rapid prototyping, and testing. Why is that relevant to you? Because, from Microsoft in Seattle to Pedro Gomes Design in Aveiro, Portugal, some version of this methodology is being implemented, and the results are incredible.

Using Microsoft as an example, they convene two to three inclusive design projects every month. Their principal design director, Kate Holmes, believes that Microsoft’s version of design thinking, called inclusive design, can “smooth away the gaps that bedevil our digital lives.” For example, they’re developing a “font and system of text wrapping that makes reading easier for dyslexics—but also faster for those without dyslexia.” (Read more on that here.)

In January of this year, IBM released their own set of design-thinking guidelines that they hope “other big businesses will look to as they seek to remain relevant and profitable in a rapidly evolving corporate landscape.” (Read on here.)

With that said, here are some tips I’ve distilled from Pedro Gomes Design’s flavor of design thinking, so you can start disrupting the status quo in whatever industry you desire.

  1. Flare ideas early, and recklessly.

Do not focus on the details of an idea right out of the gate. Always keep a big picture destination in mind, and keep moving. Here, you’re literally throwing hundreds of rough product sketches onto a wall—you’re flaring. (This is also where Bostik comes into a play. Bostik is a puddy-textured adhesive that designers use to fix their sheets of sketches to walls.)

  1. Remain objective.

Don’t get attached to ideas. The strongest ones will have legs of its own, and will find their way to fruition or the trash regardless of your ego. If you cannot let go of an idea, and it is rejected, you will take it personally and your bitterness will spill over into the project.

  1. Embrace left field, side ideas.

Feasibility is not a concern. It’s concerning if the ideas are all too familiar and don’t challenge the norm. At Pedro Gomes Design, a large section of the wall is consumed by “side ideas.” The brilliance of these outlandish side ideas is that they breed to produce something so incredible, feasibility becomes an afterthought.

  1. Don’t get tunnel vision – take ideas from multiple industries.

You’d look at me like I’m green if I said to apply video game technology to a product in the tattoo industry. But that’s an actual example of what happened during the ideation phase here at Pedro Gomes Design. This lateral thought process will help ease the inherent friction stakeholders, co-workers, and other third parties might experience when you present an idea. You’re basically saying, “hey, this has been done before, and it works, we just need to steal it.” An incredibly visionary composer from the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky, said it perfectly: “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”

  1. Get all your ideas on the wall, even the stupid ones.

You’d think that after countless hours of idea flaring, the designers here would be producing masterpieces that they’re deeply attached to. But it’s nothing like that. Overhearing them share out ideas, it sounds like a disaster. Phrases like: “I know this won’t work” and “this is crazy, but” are normal. They share ideas that they know are not possible as they are sketching them. With the knowledge that these rogue sketches will likely fail, and as a result, they create winning designs.

  1. Limiting parameters are freeing parameters.

Pedro Gomes Design’s brief for a recent project was limited by a printed circuit board (PCB). The board determined the design options available for a client’s new product. It became apparent that this limiting factor would cause some friction as our designers wanted to exercise their creativity and go from 0 to complete industry disruption. However, during this struggle, something really cool happened. The designers took the board and placed it on its side. They looked at other models that used the same PCB, and saw where improvements could be made. They dug in and determined what about the board was frustrating, instead of being paralysed by its restraints. Again, Stravinsky has a great quote to sum up this point: “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

  1. Consult with your mother (talk with a 3rd party).

This goes along with point #4, tunnel vision. I am not a designer, but I am also not afraid to speak my mind, and that is extremely helpful to designers (or creators of any kind) that have been staring at their sketches for days. A fresh perspective will help you see the forest from the trees, or maybe even from a tree limb you would've never seen on your own.

  1. Talk to your client, whenever you can.

Pedro Gomes Design is really great at this. In all of the projects I’ve worked on with them, they’ve generated surveys for their clients in close tandem with the delivery of low fidelity prototypes. This has had two massive benefits. Firstly, you get a paper trail of client intel that you can reference when you’re knee deep in computer aided designs (or CADs); and secondly, you get some insights into how your prototype is being used when you are not around.

  1. Remember you are biased, and stubborn.

Going back to point #6, some designers at Pedro Gomes Design gave in and really abandoned the PCB limitation. They couldn’t help it. This choice to rebel in an ideation process is not by any means wrong or bad. In fact, it is powerful because it forces us to commit to our biases and assumptions, and really prove them. Some really incredible designs came from these rebels.

From smaller teams like that of Pedro Gomes Design to corporate giants like IBM, design-thinking is being tweaked to suit the uniqueness of each company. With these systems in place, these companies are developing really astonishing products and services across diverse industries.

Now, if you want to be an indispensable part of any project, I recommend picking up a pack of post-its and diving headfirst into design-thinking. This is not exclusive to creatives, graphic designers, and product people – it's for anyone who wants to challenge the status quo and make something great. Doesn't that sound good to you?

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