Better Designs, Better World

Summer 2010

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Perhaps it’s a stretch to say, if you build a better chair, or milk carton, or savings plan, you can build a better world.

But that’s the idea behind design thinking, an approach to solving business problems espoused by Fred Dust and his company IDEO, the San Francisco-based design consultancy. Dust spoke at the Mendoza College in February as part of the 2010 Ten Years Hence Speaker Series.

Whereas the traditional business approach to creating a product might involve assembling a slate of design options and choosing the one that seems best, design thinking is much more flexible. IDEO starts with examining the human interaction at the center of the issue to figure out what resonates with the person in the experience. That is where a solution is likely to be found.

The process then moves quickly into developing a series of prototypes. The intention is to evolve the design as a way of finding the solution, using expertise from consultants with varied backgrounds—anthropology, psychology and sociology, as well as business. Dust calls this design-on-the-go process "taking baby-steps to have massive impact."

The "massive impact" comes in because the approach scales up from one small behavior, so that any single transaction can impact whole systems—employees, suppliers, communities—for the better. Very large societal problems such as energy use or obesity can find solutions by tracing the problem back to the singular point of human contact where meaningful interaction exists.

IDEO designs have improved patient care with knowledge-sharing plans for nurses in 35 Kaiser Permanente hospitals, reinvigorated blood donation with the "Why I Give" campaign for the American Red Cross, and even alleviated water shortage in rural Africa with a new pump design.

"We’re using design methodology with clients to think about social change," says Dust. "Core to thinking about design and why it actually matters, especially in the world of social impact, is that design is fundamentally an optimistic activity. You can’t do it if you don’t believe there is some possibility of changing the world."