What We Talk About When We Talk About Design Thinking In Construction

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design Thinking In Construction

I’m not sure exactly when the transition happened, but I know that when it did, something clicked into place. What I’m referring to is the moment that I understood the difference between design, the verb, and Design, the discipline—and perhaps more importantly, how the methods and practices of Design Thinking could (and would) help us design.

If you’re like me, which is to say, not a designer, you may not have given much thought to this distinction; however, if you’re like me, which is to say, curious to a fault, I think you’ll see that this distinction, and conversation around it, is relevant not just to the creative field, but to the construction industry as a whole.

What you’ll also find is that any deep dive into Design Thinking will almost certainly surface literature from IDEO, one of the world’s foremost design and innovation firms, and some of the most prolific thinkers on the topic.

IDEO is quick to point out that there’s no one way to define Design Thinking, which is great—because I’m partial to thinking about it, quite simply, as the process of using creativity (and systems thinking, driven by inquiry) to solve big, perplexing, head-scratching problems.

Design Thinking is a process

At a fundamental level, Design Thinking is a process, and this process is inextricably linked to the identification and production of strategic creative solutions that allow businesses to execute on the objectives they deem most important—priorities like customer acquisition, customer retention, revenue growth, product diversification, and even employee engagement.

Design Thinking requires us to center the human beings that we’re designing for, ensuring that above all else, what we’re creating goes beyond what we desire and is actually useful to the human beings our businesses serve.

This may seem painfully obvious at first glance, but, upon closer observation, you’ll see that it actually isn’t. Just think about how many times you’ve changed your business strategies without ever employing even one research method to gather information from your customer base. Or how many times you’ve jumped right to a solution without ever stopping to ask if you’re even solving the right problem. It’s easy to do and we often do it without realizing it.

Hell, sometimes it even works.

But forging ahead towards a creative solution without first applying a Design Thinking framework is akin to breaking ground on a construction project without first understanding what it is you’re looking to build. Both skyscrapers and sports arenas need foundations, but the requirements of those foundations are decidedly different in large and meaningful ways. And if the foundation isn’t right, well, I’m sure we all know where this analogy is going.

What I find fascinating, though, is that the concept of Design Thinking should feel fairly familiar to businesses across the construction vertical, because the fundamental objective in any construction project, no matter what, is creation.

And creation is linked to creativity, which is linked to design, which is linked to the imagination and foresight and courage it takes to plan a route and transport a 1.65-million-pound tunnel-boring machine from a port on the East Coast to Cleveland, and then lower it 120-feet down a shaft to a starter tunnel; or design a floating carbon-fiber roof to sit atop the impossibly tall, seamless glass walls of the Apple store in downtown Chicago.

When we stop to ponder it for even moment, we see that Design Thinking is everywhere around us, all the time—and yet, there are moments when we engage with clients and they can’t quite understand that before we can produce any sort of end product or deliverable—a website or a marketing campaign or an augmented reality experience—that we have to frame the problem, and define it, and apply a Design Thinking methodology to gain consensus on what problem we’re trying to solve.

Perhaps an easier way to put it is this: before we start, we have to design our thinking.

“How will we grow and improve in response to rapid change?” IDEO asks. “How can we effectively support individuals while simultaneously changing big systems?” For us, they say, and for us too, I might add “design thinking offers an approach for addressing these and other big questions.”

So before you make your next set of substantial changes, before you’re tempted to make assumptions, pull a page out of the Design Thinking toolkit and frame the problem you’re trying to solve by creating your first HMW question: How might we…?

I promise, you’ll be surprised at where it takes you.

For more on Design Thinking, check out IDEO’s Design Thinking site.  

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