Design Thinking

Just before take-off on a flight from Newark to Phoenix, the flight attendant came to tell me I’d been upgraded to Business Class. Global travel does wonders for your reward mileage tally, but being upgraded while already on the plane was like winning the lottery. Once we’d departed, I fell right into my mind-occupying ritual of working in my sketchbook. The gentleman sitting next to me noticed I was deep in thought, concentrated on sketching logos, then commented on my meticulous work. Dressed in all black, Peter Koen introduced himself as an Associate Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. His Saturday class was in Entrepreneurial Business Strategy for MBA students and he asked if I’d be interested in speaking to them about ‘design thinking.’ I know design, I know thinking, so without ever really giving it much thought, I agreed to a one-hour presentation. Three months to prepare for it gave me ample time to procrastinate.

While getting to know one another, we soon realized we were both heading to the same place. Peter was co-hosting the Creative Leadership Academy (CLA) with Kim, and he graciously offered me a ride from the airport out to The Boulders in Carefree. For the three-day workshop, my :45 minute time slot was to present “Getting a Taste for Flavor Trends and Creation,” on day two. I’d designed a workshop-like experience that delved into exploring the senses of taste and smell to better understand communication through aroma. Beginning with the concept of signature scents to set the tone, I followed with global flavor trends impacting the conscious consumer of tomorrow. It was all part of an agenda that, as the syllabus promised, enabled the attendees to engage with the world’s most passionate and provocative thinkers, including Daniel Pink, Jonah Lehrer, and Andy Stefanovich.            

As the deadline drew closer my procrastination tendencies were beginning to keep me up at night. I tried to narrow down my thinking of what exactly ‘design thinking’ would mean to this class. When Peter first asked me, I honestly thought he was just interested in how my mind works. At cruising altitude, he’d been watching me create on the fly for well over an hour. I assumed he wanted me to explain the process of getting ideas out of your head and down onto paper. Design + Thinking. Problem solving one-oh-one. Could I explain to his class where ideas come from and how best to articulate them? Truth is, I had no idea that Design Thinking was its own methodology. Credited to Tim Brown, then CEO of IDEO, from an article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review in June of 2008. Defined as a human-centered approach to innovation, Design Thinking is anchored in understanding your customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas. Ultimately, it is itself a skill itself – as a creative approach to problem solving. Design Thinking has become a buzzword/catch-phrase because so many Fortune 200s honestly believe they lack the ability to be creative or to meet the unmet needs of their customers on their own.

The week before my presentation to Peter’s class, I estimated my slide deck would be roughly 500 or more slides covering the unabridged History of Design. A daunting task, the amount of content available that would need to be shared and explained in one hour, was really a class in itself. By Wednesday I had narrowed down my imagined 500 slides to an arbitrary 60, or one reference per minute. Narrowing down the World History of Design, which wasn’t even the assignment, to the Top 60 would prove more difficult than keeping it at 500. By Friday afternoon my imaginary deck came down to three slides each with a single image. An egg, the paperclip, and a Coke® bottle. Nothing could be simpler... except nothing itself. By Saturday morning, presentation day, I had no slides. Not one. Packing up my laptop and last six completed sketchbooks, I drove to Hoboken giving myself one last hour to run through the presentation that wasn’t.


- Continued Next Week -


  • Emm

    Great story. I can’t wait for the next episode…
    I believe that the great challenge in design thinking is the thinking part as many companies and their leaders have lost the value of thinking as they are on focused on the results and not the process.

  • Carla

    Yet another non-coincidence on the books.

  • Michael Katz

    I guess you need to stimulate some thinking about thinking before designing can really enter the playing field.
    I’ll add a Happy Passover to the comment 😉

  • Roula

    Thanks so much for this great read! Happy Passover!

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