Are Agencies Practicing What They Preach About “Design Thinking?”

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I have been fascinated by the intersection of storytelling and design. Stories are what inspire us and connect us to each other. Design is the ideal tool for accessing our imaginations when creating an impactful and memorable story.

When stories and design are combined, we can create memorable experiences that shape culture. From the beloved cover of a favorite book to a full retail interactive experience, design and storytelling are part of our lives and can inspire us to interact with the world in new ways.

Today, it is now more important than ever to leverage the power of both design and storytelling to enrich our communications, environments, branding. Every day, the bar is being raised for what we expect to encounter in our physical and digital worlds, so brands must fight even harder to ‘wow’ consumers enough to grab their attention in an overly saturated visual marketplace.

However, at the same time, budgets and timelines are shrinking by the day.

How the design “shift to nimble” can go wrong

Agencies and design firms have a new catch phrase they overuse – “design thinking.”

Truth be told, many of them are not practicing it. All creative shops are going through a transformative period as the industry shifts and tries to evolve. How often have you heard words like: faster, cheaper, nimbler, more efficient and endless others? We have truly entered a period of survival of the fittest.

But how does this “shift to nimble” affect design thinking and the creative product? If we think the end product isn’t affected, are we lying to ourselves? If the directive only is faster and cheaper, what does this industry evolution mean for the design process?

When I look at design teams at agencies and design firms, I repeatedly see the trend of assigning smaller teams to solve complex problems and, in many cases, one lead designer is expected to do it all. The thinking seems to be if one talented designer handles the whole process, then we can be more profitable and burn less hours. How does this affect the end product? And does this truncation allow for true design thinking?

The design process requires diversity of thought and experience

To consider this larger question it is helpful to step back and consider the process. To use a simple analogy, I often say that bricks build houses.

The more people making the bricks, the faster you can start building. There are different types of bricks as well, ranging from Common Burnt Clay Bricks to Sand Lime Bricks to Concrete Bricks and more.

What’s more, there’s a range of bricklaying talents. Bricklayers with an English background might be influenced by the decorative English Tudor brick chimneys of Hampton Court Palace, whereas a bricklayer from Thailand might be moved by the 14th century temple brickwork in Ayutthaya. The wider range of brick laying talents and background, the better.

The point of this analogy is: If you choose one craftsman (or designer) to attack a design challenge, you are setting yourself up for a singular point of view.

Even the best designers have only their own experience and strengths to process any given challenge. Even if that designer creates five logos for an identity, they are still all from that one person’s point of view (POV). This is not a good solution. In a world where we are searching for more global design thinking, we participate in many conversations around making sure any given business team reflects the world. If you have no gender, cultural, race or age diversity on any given team, you are not reflecting the world that we live in and your outcome will come from a narrow POV. This business thinking should apply to design thinking as well.

I will always argue that the more diverse thinking and talent you can throw at a challenge, the more dynamic solutions you will create. Moreover, the more universal the solve will be.

So, back to the bricks, much to the dismay of the hour counters. I believe in any given design challenge, you need to attack with a range of makers. Even smaller projects, I attack with at least three creatives. They make their own “bricks.” Then I mix their bricks and make them use others’ bricks as well. I combine all the bricks and we start building faster. We mix styles and aesthetics. We still wind up with five logos at the end, but they are much more thoughtful and reflect a universal and dynamic POV. We have looked at the problem from all sides and multiple experience paths, which is the process at the heart of proper design thinking. And, of course to be nimbler, sometimes we finish up the final details with just one mason.

Collaborative design thinking will lead to a more powerful story

I believe that by starting with a range of creatives you get more diverse thinking faster and can solve the design challenge faster as well. I often find this to be the case and still manage to keep my CFO smiling.

If great design is the goal, then I implore you to keep the bricks in mind. Even if we are more nimble, faster and cheaper, assigning one mason to a task will lead to limited houses. Solving the design task at hand will be at best lucky.

Even the greatest designers in history had great teams and partners. So, fight against the single designer path if you can. Hire more diverse teams. Attack the problems from multiple sides. Share your bricks with others. Become better design thinkers. That way, you’ll end up building better houses — and more powerful ideas.

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  1. Your perspective is very interesting and makes sense. Getting the customer to buy onto your diversified thinking is always the challenge. I always say you get what you pay for. If a client is not willing to invest the capital, they will get subpar design. Great piece, very thoughtful!

  2. All good leaders are good listeners who allow their team to voice there opinions. In order for people to be creative they need to discuss there opinions and present there thoughts for discussion. You are correct in saying it takes a group to come up with the best ideas. Good job

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