Breaking imagination free from frameworks

Article by
Ieuan Wickham

Making design frameworks work, with imagination.

Design Thinking has become more-or-less ubiquitous in NZ somewhere in the middle of the current decade. Redvespa’s experiences with our clients over the last 5 years certainly reflect this. There is now a fairly widespread desire by businesses to use design techniques to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities.

As this approach has been adopted more widely, there’s been an assumption that it will fix everything. Similarly to what has happened with Agile, the idea of Design Thinking has evolved frameworks around it. The most widely followed is one promulgated and promoted by IDEO and Stanford University’s; a five- (or six- or seven-) step Design Thinking methodology.  However, any framework creates a risk of a follow-the-recipe approach to design. If we do these things, in this order and of these precise amounts, then we will get a great result.

When this follow-the-recipe approach fails, as it easily can, the first thing that happens is that we blame the whole concept. ‘This Design Thinking thing was a waste of time,’ we might say. Or, more bluntly, ‘Design Thinking is B.S.’. Or worse. And we’d have a point. Without both understanding and a certain amount of skepticism, the only thing we can do is to follow the recipe (which looks a lot like joining the cult).

We Want to Make New Things

What we really wanted to do was to come up with something new. To take the old things that we had and somehow create something different, that we hadn’t built before. We wanted genuine innovation in the service of solving a problem or exploring an opportunity. We wanted this because we know that so much of our world is rapidly changing, and this includes our customers, our tools, our environment and our constraints. We imagine a world where our organisation changes faster than everyone else, because if we can do that then we can beat them - or at least, not get beaten.  

So, Why Are we Doing it This Way?

We’ve been told that if we make use of the techniques that designers have used for decades, and apply them, then magic will happen. So we watched the videos, we read the books, and maybe even went on the course. We followed the process according to the videos and the book, and we stuck to the rules. But we ended up with the same old outcomes and nothing’s really changed. Or we were unlucky and our first attempt failed completely. And so we have a bit of a suspicion that this whole Design Thinking thing is a consultant’s trick to sell us something we already had. 

There is always a strong temptation to move rapidly through to a solution. We may have existing profile information on our customers - let’s use that, we say. We already know the problem, it’s obvious, and of course everyone else sees it the same way. So we perform a perfunctory and pro-forma review of the people involved and of the problem.

Instead, we should strive to create a deep and common understanding of who the people are, what motivates them. And not what they say they want, as Henry Ford and Steve Jobs both knew; but what they actually need, or will want. We want to be able to imagine ourselves as the people for whom we are trying to build.

We also should try to create a deep and common understanding of the problem, what it is, how big it is, who it affects. We want to imagine ourselves experiencing the problem and its solutions. And we need everyone to expect that both of these understandings should grow as we explore the solutions further.

A Recipe for Success?

When we first attempt something new at work, most people will start by following the instructions as if it were a recipe. We try to follow the steps in the order that they’ve been given, and we might obsess briefly over contradictory descriptions. Because this is new, we may not know which parts are truly important and which aren’t. Organisational structures and cultures often encourage this top-down follow-the-process approach.

Whichever framework we use, it’s mostly about understanding the people and the problem and moving towards a solution. This is done iteratively, which is to say we keep going back to ensure we understand the people and the problem, and we keep testing the solution. Some of them, such as the Design Sprint, have more rigid recipes than others. But in all cases, the facilitator should be prepared to adjust and adapt the framework to make it actually work.

We still need to embrace the value of time constraints. Without having a deadline, it’s easy for a group to meander and not reach conclusions. We still need to do some things in order - we can’t start work on the solution until we’ve defined the problem. But if we discover we need to go back to refine or redefine the problem; then we need to be able to actually make this happen.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The purpose of these Design Thinking frameworks is to systematically attempt to trigger creative innovation in a way that is focused on people. They use techniques that we know sometimes work, although nothing is guaranteed. Beyond building our understanding, there are four things that might be key ingredients to encouraging creative innovation.

  • Question the constraints;
  • Share ideas;
  • Make time for unconscious thought;
  • Work hard.

We should question the constraints, imagining a world where the constraint doesn’t exist. We can imagine a future and work backwards from there, asking ourselves what it would take to get to the imagined future.

We trigger each others’ imaginations by sharing ideas, but also perspectives and ways of looking at the problem. It’s not just about listening to what others have to say, but incorporating it and adding to our ideas to build something new.

We also need to recognise that we should set aside time for people’s unconscious thought to occur. We often use our imagination when we are not concentrating, when unconscious thinking occurs. If we are using Design Thinking frameworks with strong time constraints, such as the Design Sprint, we should also set aside time afterwards for reflection and consideration. This is just as important as the design work itself; indeed, is part of that work.

And it’s hard work, which needs to be pointed in the right direction with a clear goal.

What Can We Do?

As we use Design Thinking frameworks, there are things we can do to get the best results. The most obvious is to learn the framework and techniques, and to use them in practice. As we practice, we get better at understanding why we use them, how they work, what their effects are.

As our understanding of the frameworks and techniques increases, we’re then able to stretch them and apply the pieces that are relevant to our circumstances.

If we’re in a position of responsibility for a team, we can try to ensure that they have the time and space they need to reflect on their work. If it’s not built into our Design Thinking process, then we need to understand that there needs to be time between iterations for people’s imagination to work on the problem. 

We also need to encourage the incorporation of more divergent ideas, by appealing to diverse groups of participants. Taken to its logical conclusion, we need to work towards more open processes where we can actively engage entire communities in an ongoing solution.

As we learn more about what works, we can tell others. We should - we must - find ways of sharing our experiences, so that the people around us can learn what works and what doesn’t. If we can do all of this, we can create teams that think up, design, and deliver truly imaginative innovation.

Ieuan Wickham is a facilitator, investigator and analyst, helping organisations find solutions for difficult problems at the intersection of people, processes, and technology. He is particularly interested in helping organisations unlock the existing knowledge and information they have to break through the barriers or realise opportunities that exist.

You can find Ieuan at

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

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