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Design innovation is more than just new font types

Design thinking is catching on. This problem-solving approach puts the user first, tests ideas and adapts quickly, and involves all stakeholders. It's essential in a complex world.

As the head of a government agency promoting design innovation in Singapore, I am often asked to amplify design innovation.

People often think that design is aesthetics or form-giving.

But design at its heart is a problem-solving process, based on three mindsets.

First, deeply understanding your end user and his emotions, behaviours and motivations.

Second, rapidly testing your ideas with users.

Third, involving all your stakeholders in the process.

This simple rubric encapsulates what has come to be called design thinking - a way of approaching problem-solving that is gaining traction around the world.

Businesses and governments have started to invest in design innovation capabilities: to help them respond to market shifts, garner new stakeholder insights, create better user experiences and reinvent organisations.

In 2009, the Ministry of Manpower's Work Pass Division used design thinking to improve its service centre experience. It thought about the decision points and difficulties customers experienced, and subsequently redesigned the various interaction points, reducing the waiting time. This increased business efficiency and resulted in a more pleasant customer experience.

Another early adopter was DBS. The bank applied the human-centred design approach, which enables its customer service staff to anticipate customers' reasons for calling. Its system allows the staff to see, for example, that a customer who is calling has just had his ATM card retained. The staff would then be in a better position to help, even without a detailed description from the customer. This provides the customer with a better experience and reduces the probability of follow-up calls to resolve the issue. In this instance, DBS understands its customers' pain points and alleviated their anxiety by anticipating their needs.


Guests viewing an exhibition last week at the opening of this year's Singapore Design Week at the National Design Centre. Singapore's design community needs to take the lead by seeking new partnerships in business, non-design academia and the public sector, says the writer. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

This shows the transformational potential of design. Traditional business strategy or policy starts from an objective, and then uses data to form tactics, with the customer receiving the experience at the end.

Design thinking has the opposite starting point - it starts by determining the experience that customers should receive and find the best way to deliver.

I experienced this first-hand when I was sent to San Francisco for a one-year attachment with global design consultancy IDEO in 2013. I had to unlearn everything. The closest analogy is that of learning a new sport and waking up the next day to find muscles hurting.

The next wave of Singapore's workforce needs not only a strong grounding in professional skills but also design innovation skills.

Creativity cannot be automated. Design innovation has been part of our Singapore story since the beginning when the pioneer generation invented solutions to overcome the constraints faced by a small island state with no natural resources.

During my stint, one of the projects I did was to develop innovative solutions to improve the workplace culture of a large tech firm in Silicon Valley, in a bid to attract talent. By working in a quick sprint of eight weeks, and conducting on-site experiments with employees, we collected user data and executed an end product that was well received. I learnt to invest in human stories as data points, create prototypes and conduct experiments to get user feedback before implementing, and to quickly repeat the process. I learnt to co-create with stakeholders to gain early buy-in. In short, I built design muscles to complement traditional strategy.

PUTTING THE PERSON, NOT THE BUSINESS, FIRST

For Singapore to benefit from the transformational potential of design thinking, two changes are needed.

First, designers. They need to know not only how to develop desirable products, services and experiences, but also what that means for the production, marketing and delivery processes.

Increasingly, designers are working in in-house design teams of companies across various industries. Hence, designers need to know how to operate in a multidisciplinary setting, with engineers, software developers, finance personnel or marketing specialists. Some of the most effective cases where design brings great business value are when designers marry their core design skills with deep industry knowledge.

Technology giant IBM has transformed into one of the world's biggest employers of designers. Last year, it acquired three creative services firms to expand its Interactive Experience division, IBM iX, and launched IBM Studios Singapore.

It is a co-creation space where more than 100 designers, strategists and technologists collaborate to create experiences of the future. They apply the principles of design thinking to their product development process.

For example, the team worked with pilots from Singapore Airlines to understand their day-by-day flight planning activities, and then rapidly designed and built a suite of innovative iPad applications that helped them with their planning schedules. The pilots loved it because it was not technology designed to meet business objectives, but to solve human challenges. Productivity and business gains were a natural result.

While craft mastery continues to be a crucial skill of a designer, it is insufficient. The unfortunate stereotype of a designer today is that of a hipster sipping hand-brewed artisanal coffee, debating which font type to use. I will also say that design education at large remains rooted in relatively singular disciplines, even though educators recognise the need to nurture more multidisciplinary and systems-level thinkers.

IDEO chief creative officer Paul Bennett said to me once: "We need people who are ambidextrous." He was talking about designers who can code-switch between the creative sense and the pragmatic sense and know what can be reasonably implemented, as well as how to navigate the stakeholder environment.

WHY NON-DESIGNERS SHOULD CARE

Second, why should everyone else care about design? If designers can solve complex problems, then the rest of us do not need to bother with design, right?

Wrong. If design is becoming of strategic importance to a whole range of businesses - from multinational corporations to small and medium-sized enterprises and government agencies - then everyone who leads these places should have a design mindset. In short, non-designers, too, need to be ambidextrous.

Engineers, business strategists and civil servants armed with a design mindset and skills are much quicker to identify customer value for their organisations. More critically, I have witnessed how engaging deeply with citizens has reinvigorated civil servants and given them a renewed sense of purpose.

People don't join organisations to serve policies or rules - they join to serve other people. An organisation that can harness this sense of purpose of staff will be the one that wins.

The next wave of Singapore's workforce needs not only a strong grounding in professional skills but also design innovation skills.

Creativity cannot be automated. Design innovation has been part of our Singapore story since the beginning when the pioneer generation invented solutions to overcome the constraints faced by a small island state with no natural resources.

The design community needs to take the lead by seeking new partnerships in business, non-design academia and the public sector. It needs to learn the language of their partners, and understand their ways of thinking.

We must do this in order to design Singapore's future.

•The writer is executive director, DesignSingapore Council.

•Singapore Design Week 2017, now till March 12, aims to rally the design, business and public-sector communities to jointly design the future of Singapore, designated a Creative City of Design by Unesco.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Design innovation is more than just new font types'. Print Edition | Subscribe