Book reviews, Design

Design Thinking

What do Aquaduct and Airbnb have in common? Great Design!

Aquaduct is a bike with a water filtering system that works powered by the person biking. People in rural areas will usually go long distances to collect water. The bicycle allows them to collect and carry it, and the water is filtered as the person cycles back.

We’ve been carrying water on our heads for centuries, and we’ve always had issues accessing clean drinking water. What did it take to come up with this innovative solution that uses easily accessible technologies and cheap parts?

Something we’ve always had as well is spare rooms in our houses or apartments. We have those empty spaces because the house it too big, a child moved out, or we are on holiday. Airbnb is a company that allows people to rent out their spare rooms in their houses. What did it take to get people to rent out their private spaces to strangers?

Aquaduct and AirBnB are both results of great designs: The first one, a technological breakthrough design within specific constraints, and the second, the product of designing for trust between strangers.

As you can see, the field of design is so much wider than people usually have in mind when they think about design. To delve deeper into the subject we’ve read two books by two people who have been named among the World’s Most Influential Designers by Bloomberg in 2010.


The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman

Book cover Design of Everyday things

A Norman Door is a door that is poorly designed. You stop at the petrol station and you try to open the door: should I push, pull, wait for it to open, should I step back maybe the sensor didn’t pick me up the first time. If we can be stunned by something as simple as a door, what about all the everyday things we interact with daily basis?

The field of design itself is relatively new, and covers many areas. Don Norman focuses on what he calls “everyday things”: the teapot, the watch, the typewriter, the faucet, and off course the door.

Don Norman’s seminal work on design, The Design of Everyday Things, reads like a textbook. You’ll learn from Don Norman what makes good design and why, and which designs don’t work so well. Don Norman proposes the philosophy of Design Thinking, which is “finding the basic, fundamental (root) issue [that] needs to be addressed”, and ensuring that the resulting product really fits the needs and capabilities of people.  


“The understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering.”

And about the Bloomberg distinction, Don Norman clarifies that he thinks of himself as a Design Thinker, rather than a Designer. 


Change by Design, Tim Brown

The focus on fundamental human needs is what drives design thinking to depart from the status quo. It is what leads to breakthrough innovations instead of small incremental changes.

Book Cover Change by Design

Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, a design company. He encourages designers and managers to think about design as an approach, Design Thinking. Tim Brown makes the bold claim that design, and more specifically Design Thinking has the power to change the world. The claim is very ambitious; but IDEO, an “Innovation and Design” company has worked with large multinationals and NGOs. Their designs include: a bike that filters water in India (the above-mentioned aquaduct), the patient experience for a large healthcare provider, or Apple’s first mouse.

One big idea that Tim Brown supports is that of participation: Design Thinking means believing that the people who face those problems are the ones who hold the key to their answer. In our article about “Why change is difficult for employees” we had that same idea, that front line employees usually hold the answer to their problems.

Design Thinking

While Don Norman is very academic and someone that anybody interested in design should read, Tim Brown is more motivational. We find in both the same approach to Design Thinking: Observing instead of just asking questions to focus groups; bringing people from multidisciplinary teams to generate ideas taken from other disciplines/industries; the need to look beyond current customers to the extremes (non-customers) etc.

As consultants, our work is very much of the nature of going to companies and observing. Executives often acknowledge that they need a “fresh” eye. They need someone who has not yet gotten comfortable with the status quo. Employees will often say “this is how we do things here”, “that’s how we’ve always done things”. Consultants will instead ask enough questions to understand the problem, and then drive a team towards finding effective solutions.

What are your examples of very good or very bad design? Comment below, or on Twitter #designupgrade



Ingrid Nya Ngatchou

Ingrid est convaincue que les entreprises locales peuvent passer à une vitesse sUPérieure. Professionnelle aguerrie, avide lectrice, elle partage avec les chefs d'entreprises et cadres ses connaissances.