Thinking By Design

New approach to business problems turns all of us into designers

With its trendy home accessories and partnerships with fashion’s irresistible names, Target uses design as a competitive tool. It’s a dynamic differentiator in the Bullseye’s battle for discounter domination. The Minneapolis-based retailer employs hundreds of designers and product developers to grab customer attention.

Today, the concept of design is in expansion mode, extending far beyond gotta-have-it products.

An emerging approach called ‘Design Thinking’ uses methods traditionally employed by designers in architecture, fashion and art. It promises to transform the way many sectors solve their most complex problems, with an eye toward customer experience.

“Design Thinking is a completely different mindset well suited for the 21st century. It’s humancentered, it’s disruptive, it blurs old hierarchies. It’s being open to creative new ideas and accepting rapid change,” says Tom Fisher, author of Designing Our Way to a Better World, published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dean of the U’s College of Design for 19 years, Fisher became director of the U’s Minnesota Design Center in 2015.

To his eye, design is in everything we create — in the products and services we buy, the buildings we occupy and the organizations and systems we run.

“There’s a lot of bad design in the world and more people are recognizing this,” he adds.

Fisher believes that the sophisticated Design Thinking approach can benefit companies large and small.

“Successful businesses engage in Design Thinking all the time. They may not call it that, but that mode of thinking is how businesses emerge and grow,” Fisher explains. “Design makes ideas real. If a company or organization needs to rethink its brand, supply chain or delivery, it uses design.”

Design methodologies are among the problem-solving strategies to businesses offered by the Minneapolis office of Slalom. The firm has a team devoted to reimagining complex systems such as the customer service experience.

“If you go to the people who use your product or service and listen, then ask the right questions, you can unlock solutions quickly,” says Mark Holterhaus, solution principal for Experience Design at Slalom.

Holterhaus’s unit is experimenting with quick turnaround for businesses struggling with a specific problem. Slalom dedicates a small group to “unpack” the issue that’s stumping them and then comes up with what he calls “a low fidelity prototype” within 24 hours.

“We’re trying to show that even over a course of a day, with the right brains in the room you can solve problems in a rapid way."


Using digital options and 3D printing, Design Thinking incorporates rapid prototyping of new products or systems. Recommendations are swiftly tested, prompt feedback arrives and suggestions can be worked into the next model.

“Iteration is the new execution. Put options in front of customers early in the process and see if it moves the needle,” Holterhaus says. “When we get real analytics and data sooner, we get to better solutions sooner.”

Slalom’s clients seldom identify their obstacles as design problems; it’s the Slalom consultants who choose the approach to crafting solutions.

“We want to understand how companies function so we can help them efficiently and effectively deliver on the promises they make to their customer,” said Yoshi Suzuki-Lambrecht, a Slalom consultant for experience design.

Suzuki-Lambrecht believes designing an improved customer experience can boost profits and even the prospects of survival for businesses willing to learn and change.

He cites a statistic from Forrester’s 2016 Customer Experience Index, which backs up the value of satisfied customers. The Index calculates that businesses that provide the best customer experience outperform their less receptive competitors with a 14% higher compound average revenue growth.

“In today’s fast-paced economy, there’s not much margin for error; 14% can mean life or death to a company,” he asserts.

Template for Change

A key pillar of Design Thinking is empathy for the ultimate user. What one industry calls ‘customers,’ another sector refers to as ‘patients.’

In 2010, Teddie Potter studied a groundbreaking report from the Institute of Medicine called “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.”

A doctor of nursing practicing Health Innovation and Leadership and director of inclusivity and diversity at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, Potter was struck by the report’s call for nurses to become full partners in redesigning the health care system.

“I realized any great leap forward requires a shift in thinking, but we didn’t know how to design,” Potter says.

That realization ultimately led to changes in the curriculum to prepare the next generation of nurses.

“Now, one of our core content specialties is Design Thinking. I’m convinced it offers us the template for how we will make transformative changes throughout the health care industry,” she says.

Design Thinking also reconfigures the concept of inclusiveness. It demands more than bringing professionals of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds to the table, Potter explains. It also invites in stakeholders from different disciplines and professional backgrounds.

As an example, Potter points to a nursing graduate student specializing in safety. To expand her knowledge base, the student was sent to Delta headquarters in Atlanta for an in-depth review of the airline’s approach to providing safety to travelers.

“We need the same level of assurance when someone is entering a hospital. We went to another industry to see what could be applied to the health care system,” Potter said. “Up ‘til now, no one would put a pilot and a nurse in a room together to look at the same problem.”

Potter has seen how such radical collaboration can ignite the spark of innovation. “If you have two dots, there’s one way to put them together. If you have ten dots you have multiple ways to connect,” Potter says.

Failing Forward

Practitioners of Design Thinking preach that errors, goof-ups and setbacks are not only okay, but represent a valuable and necessary part of the process that leads to breakthroughs.

Potter often quotes Thomas Edison’s admission, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“We talk about failing forward. In our culture, we can become immobilized and don’t move ahead with information unless it’s perfect,” she says. “Being open to failure liberates my students to think differently. It removes the shame and blame that thwarts progress.”

Suzuki-Lambrecht knows that failure is often considered a dirty word to his corporate clients, but a willingness to embrace calculated risks is built into his systems design.

“We say it’s okay to make mistakes. If companies are not changing — and making mistakes is part of changing— they’re going to be left behind,” he warns.