Photos by Jelka von Langen
All three are Program Managers at HPI Academy working in the field of Education for Professionals.
How did you come to be involved in “design thinking”?
A lot of people claim to have been doing design thinking before the concept had even emerged. And when I think back to my childhood and consider my penchant for design, it strikes me that I was a kid who would spend hours on a scooter, hanging around and looking into my neighbours’ gardens just watching them go about their business. Some might have thought I was a Peeping Tom, but looking back I’d be more inclined to say that was the first example of my interest in humans, observation and what people get up to. Later on, the d.school introduced me to design. I studied there in my second year because I was on campus at the university in Potsdam anyway and found the subject interested me. That was six or seven years ago now, and I’ve been involved in design ever since.
Yes, it’s a really exciting subject. I want to get to the heart of the matter; to the roots of a design thinker. As you delved back in time, I will add that I also liked to observe people from an early age. I really enjoyed it. Walking along streets and looking through windows, seeing how people live their lives … even today, I still like to do this. Seeing people in everyday situations, even in stressful situations such as at airports –essentially, just observing their lives. You learn a great deal about behavioural patterns and the potential for innovation presented by these.
I came across design thinking during my time working at UdK Berlin (University of the Arts). I taught a course in Societal and Economic Communication. I was given the task of supervising communications projects over a period of six months, from user research and strategy, to concept and creation development. I looked for methods that enabled me to support students in creating user-oriented innovations. It was a process of trial and error.
You recently started teaching at the School of Design Thinking, didn’t you?
Yes, that’s correct. Christina, how did you first get involved in Design Thinking?
I’m going to start my story back in university, not quite so young. During my freshman year at Stanford, I visited a class where students were redesigning essential technologies to better serve people in developing countries. That was before the d.school existed at Stanford, but it was in the same vein as today’s “Design for Extreme Affordability” class at the d.school. I was really impressed. I remember we looked at the wheelchair, for example, and our standard wheelchair is really unstable in many contexts. It’s fine if you’re going through really nice hospital corridors, but not if you’re out in the countryside, not if the work you do is on floor level, and not if you can’t find materials or parts for repair where you live. The class was saying: “This doesn’t fit for so much of the disabled population in this world. How can we make it better for them?”
But it was later that I formally learned about design thinking. Actually, it was the famous embrace case that drew me in. I was working at the time in international development, specifically with breast cancer in middle income countries. Sometimes a company would come in and say: “We want to do something to help! We want to donate a mammogram machine and have a nice ribbon cutting ceremony.” Too often though, the machines were already there, sitting broken or underused, or with no film, or no one to operate them, or too few patients wanting screening. The machines were not necessarily the problem. We wanted to know what was, so in each town we did what we called community profiles, which were essentially “empathy research” to use design thinking parlance. It was a combination of quantitative and contextual research, which I would now call the “understand” phase. Following this, we conducted qualitative research, interviews and immersion to understand what was going on with women and their lives. This is the “observe” phase. It turns out that it’s not just about health knowledge or access, but what the world is really like when seen through a woman’s eyes. What are her priorities? What’s her role in the family? What’s the budget like? Who makes the decisions? And how do we make solutions that fit in with her reality? We didn’t define the answers either, but rather we designed community granting programmes and made funding and networks available for local communities to propose interventions based on this empathy research. I think it was very much in the spirit of design thinking, so when I heard about design thinking as a formal concept, it just clicked. I thought: “That’s what the world needs, that’s what international development needs. That’s what companies need too if they truly want to create value for people.”
Is it this aspect of design thinking which appeals?
I’ve also thought about this. What is it that I find so fascinating about design thinking? As you say, I believe we often see that people somehow believe something is intrinsically important, but are unable to pinpoint why exactly that is the case. For example, they long for something, or have the feeling that we don’t understand our customers enough. Maybe even that we don’t actually know what they want. When the concept of design is involved in this process, it can be a sort of “Eureka!” moment for many. Not because it’s new, but because it hits at the heart of something which is familiar to people. It’s something they logically believe to be correct and is now incorporated within a formal setting.