October 9, 2012

Magic Design Thinking

It seemed truly magic what a couple of white haired men told in the center of a circus tent, set up on the campus of the University of Potsdam in the end of September. “There are group dynamics and a fun factor which release energies of which we still do not know where they come from.” When Hasso Plattner, Co-Founder of SAP and patron of the eponymous institute in Potsdam, speaks so passionately it is certainly about Design Thinking. These two words stand for a creative technique taught in the HPI School in Germany since 2007 and they also seem to epitomize a global success story. Still, what sounds like a panacea for a social, sustainable and at the same time increasingly profitable future calls for a deeper analysis.


Hundreds of thinkers, entrepreneurs, students, philosophers and managers from various disciplines, many of them surprisingly charismatic personalities, came from many different continents. All were attracted by the d.confestival, the fifth anniversary of the d.school in Potsdam. Announced as a combination of conference and festival visitors got the chance to take part in a three days program packed with seminaries, workshops and highly controversial debates – not too many though.

It was overbooked, but not only by scientists and start-up enterprises. The reason why Design Thinking suddenly seems so attractive also to many major companies is the quickly changing world economy, digitalization and an increasingly interlinked society. Hence, they are more and more confronted with new challenges and pressures. Plattner is convinced: Design Thinking has the power to re-invent current procedures and to come up with completely new business ideas. While his American colleague David Kelly, Co-Founder of the d.school in Stanford, sees a big chance for young children to develop creative abilities with this technique, Plattner addresses the big power players. He states, Design Thinking could create products, services and concepts for all areas of life and find solutions even for complex problems. Therefore, it focuses on the costumer’s needs and wishes first, then on the economic and technical feasibilities.
In short, Design Thinking combines analytical with creative factors. It focuses on social issues and capitalizes internationality and multidisciplinarity. Good prospects, but is this enough to become the solution of all future problems? Or is Design Thinking only a brand name defined by a clever marketing strategy? Ulrich Weinberg, head of the d.school in Potsdam, admits: “Actually, some components of Design Thinking are not new, but what makes the d.schools so innovative is their radicalism that fosters team work, human centered processes and a flexible working atmosphere.” According to the former film professor, ten of the twenty biggest firms in Germany are already project partners of the HPI School. In fact, corporations like Deutsche Bank, Fraport or Siemens already turned into Design Thinkers.
Unfortunately, their representatives only allowed to catch a glimpse into their projects during the d.confestival and thus did not really unveil the secret of this auspicious method. Also the workshops topics were too general to imagine the research on a specific problem. How one can solve social problems and bring about social innovations, was one of their questions. To find first approaches to a solution the participants were asked to do short mutual interviews. Then, teams of about ten people gathered around standing tables and immediately started to discuss their outcomes, to draw, write and stick little notes on magnet boards. The result: a colorful chaos of thoughts. Various controversies took place while the group structured the results, but their manner of communication was always respectful and surprisingly ordered. “Seven minutes left”, reminded the moderator who let the team operate independently. The schedule was tight but by translating words into sketches the main ideas became feasible and ready to be presented to the rest of the group, a cheerful and curious audience. Explanations were short but to the point and truly eye-catching! Applause!
One can criticize Design Thinking for not being new or extraordinary. Certainly, its quality of outputs varies and also the close intertwining of and an educational program with commercial interests carries risks. Still, in one respect one has to agree with Weinberg: What he observes in the d.schools he calls “contagious enthusiasm” and one cannot deny that the atmosphere during the d.confestival – created by people from many different professions and from all over the globe – was highly motivating and inspiring.

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