Condensed from Richard Perez’ presentation at the 7th Annual In Good Company conference. Richard is the founding director of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town. His speciality is design thinking as a driver of innovation and strategic leadership.
“Most people recognise that innovation arises from the diversity of thinking that sits around the table. But we need a framework to hold that diversity, and this is where design thinking offers tremendous value,” argued Richard Perez, Founding Director of the School of Design Thinking at UCT.
Perez presented a session on co-creation and innovation at the 2021 In Good Company Conference, which focused on the theme of ‘Light in the Tunnel’. The aim of the event was to bring together business leaders, social innovation experts and impact investment thinkers to explore opportunities created by the Covid-19 pandemic. He encouraged participants to positively engage with their sector, stating that, “If we want to influence the future, we need to play an active role in designing it. If we just sit back and wait, the future will steamroller us, and we will have to respond to whatever comes over the horizon.”
This is, however, easier said than done. “So how can we use design thinking as a mindset, to deal with the challenges and complexities that we face?” Perez asked.
The Danish Design Ladder
In answer to this question, he explained that there are different ways of incorporating design into our lives, and into our organisations. According to the Danish Design Ladder:
- The first level refers to those of us who have no awareness of design, meaning that we experience the functionality of items in our everyday environment without realising that there is intentional design behind those items.
- The second level refers to some who have an appreciation of design as styling, meaning that we consider the tangible look and feel of products, and make decisions based on aesthetics.
- The third level refers to some who use design as a process to develop products and services, meaning that we incorporate design in more abstract ways, and understand its value in adding to the human experience.
- The fourth level refers to some who use design as strategy within our organisations, meaning that design is a key factor in innovation, policy development, and strategic decision-making.
- The fifth level refers to some who use design to create systemic change, meaning that we observe how different elements in our environment are connected, and see what is possible from a collective viewpoint.
- The sixth level refers to those of us for whom design is a way of thinking and understanding the world, meaning that ‘design thinking’ has become our natural mindset.
Every year the World Economic Forum publishes their Top 10 Skills required to excel in the future, across a broad spectrum of sectors (from accounting to tourism, from education to engineering). On the most recent list (aimed at 2025) seven out of the ten skills overlap with design thinking skills. “This is because the value of design doesn’t lie in the final object, but in the process itself – getting from some area of concern, to some kind of solution,” Perez asserted.
Design thinking as a process
The design thinking process (or design journey) has two distinct spaces – the problem exploration space, and the problem-solving space.
Looking at the diagram above, it is clear that design thinking does not follow a linear path. “It is iterative, and can be messy and uncomfortable sometimes. In my experience, one of the most beneficial aspects of following the design thinking process, is that it prevents us from jumping straight into solution mode,” said Perez.
The more time we spend on truly making sense of a complex problem, the better the solution will be, because most of our initial ideas are based on assumptions. Design thinking enables multi-disciplinary teams to weed out the assumptions, develop a few ideas to address the problem, test these ideas in order to derisk the possible solution, and decide which are are valid and useful to pursue further. Sometimes the ideas may not work, and we need to go back to the exploration space and repeat the process until the best solution emerges over time.
In general, there are three lenses through which to approach the problem exploration space – the desirability, feasibility, and viability of the solution.
We often approach a problem through the viability or the feasibility lenses, asking questions such as, ‘Is this physically possible? Do we need to develop new technology?’ or ‘Will the business model work? What will the return on investment be?’ In contrast, design thinking enters the problem space through the desirability lens, asking, ‘What is the need that we are trying to address? Who is the person we are trying to help?’ As Perez recognised, “The other two lenses are very important constraints, but in design thinking they enter the process later, once many ideas have been generated that are focused on the human level.”
Design thinking as an ecosystem
To extract the most value out of design thinking, it needs to function within a specific ecosystem – including the process, the people, and the space.
The process provides an effective framework, but without multi-disciplinary teams that bring diverse perspectives to complex problems, and a creative, flexible space that makes people feel safe to share their ideas, “it is actually very hard to practise a design thinking mindset,” Perez commented.
Design thinking as a mindset
Perez summarised, “We start off with learning the tools and methods, then we put these tools and methods into practice by focusing on real-world problems, and finally it grows into a way of looking at the world.” This mindset comprises ten ways of looking at the world:
- To be visual
- To think deeply
- To be explorative
- To be action-oriented
- To focus on who the solution is for
- To be collaborative
- To navigate uncertainty
- To be mindful of process
- To embrace failure
- To be aware of context
Perez concluded, “We need to accept that the world we live in is becoming more and more complex, and we need to be comfortable that the future is arriving faster and faster.” By embracing a design thinking mindset, we can build the resilience and agility we need to respond proactively to the emerging future.