Thoughts on the Institute of Design Strategy Conference

In the past, I’ve written up my thoughts on the Institute of Design events:

About, With, and For 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

HITS 2003: Parts 1, 2, 3, Parting Thought

Last week I attended their Strategy Conference, which is the successor to HITS. My notes aren’t as extensive as in conferences past — the presentations were more Big Idea talks that weren’t conducive to note-taking, and, as per usual, much of the best stuff happens in the hallways when you’re not jotting things down. Also, I’m getting lazier in my later years. That said, I’ll do my best to capture what it meant to me.

Design Thinking: What’s That Mean?
The phrase most on the rise is “design thinking.” Any number of presenters mentioned it, usually in reference to how business needs more “design thinking” in order to stay competitive in this modern world (in the face of globalization, commodification, complexity, etc. etc.)

In the past, I wrote my concerns with this phrase, and this conference brought those to the fore. It was never defined, and it was used in such a way as to suggest that “design thinking” is a magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on businesses and it will lead to success.

In hallway discussions on this matter, we were able to bring some shape to the term. The consensus matched closely to Dan Saffer’s definition, with a particular emphasis on seeking options/alternatives, prototyping, and emotion. (I think Dan’s overstepping with including customers/users and wicked problems — those are issues that many folks who aren’t designers address.)

I think the Design Community needs to be very careful about the use of this phrase. If used too broadly, it will be rendered meaningless. If oversold, the backlash will be painful. Let’s be open, honest, forthright, and humble in our discussion of what we bring to the table. As another presenter said (on a different topic) — Underpromise and Overdeliver.

Innovation Fetishization, Still in Full Force
In 2003, I criticized HITS’ obsession with innovation, and the same can be said about the IDSC. Presentations suggest that designers have some inside track on innovation. They also often suggest that the sole purpose of design is innovation.

Products are Commodities — Services and Building Relationships Are Where the Value Is
This theme isn’t a huge surprise, but it came up quite a bit. Especially considering outsourcing, and the copyability of products, the real competitive differentiator will be the services offered around the products. Think iTunes. Think TiVo (which, while having difficulty in uptake, has remarkable loyalty after the fact). Or think about how, once a bank gets you to use online banking, your degree of lock-in has gone up something like 4x or 5x.

Kevin Fong, a VC at Mayfield, had a whole presentation that seemed to be based on this idea. He said one thing that I felt worth quoting: “Anything that does not have a service associated with it, will.”

And Larry Keeley, of Doblin, gave pretty much the same talk he gave at HITS, where he discussed the 10 different types of innovations that companies can make, and stressed that, in Doblin’s research, the least valuable type is “product performance.”

Attention from the Business Pubs
Two presentations came from journalists: Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek and John Byrne of Fast Company. BusinessWeek’s “The Power of Design” cover story was considered a bellwether by this community. Fast Company gave everyone a copy of their June 2005 issue, which is cover-to-cover about design.

While it’s nice to see discussions of “experience,” and “design,” and even “usability” make it into the business press, it often feels like they miss the boat. For one thing, they still focus on product design way too much. I’m guessing they do so because it’s tangible, but, really, product design is, like, maybe 5% of all the design that happens in the world. And they tend to focus on issues of aesthetics and styling over function and use.

The NextD folks are sharp.
As per usual with conferences, most of the best stuff comes in hallway/interstitial discussions, and some of the best discussions I had were with GK and Elizabeth from NextD. They made a lot of sense about recognizing the boundaries of design (and putting reasonable limits on the idea of “design thinking”), how design can meaningfully interact and integrate with other fields, how designers have to be careful about patting themselves on the back too hard, and just, in all, providing some refreshingly clear-eyed thought on the topics of the day. They may be doing more than any other publication to meaningfully situate design.

AIGA pointing in the right direction?
A long time ago, I was quite involved with the AIGA’s Advance for Design, and its product, Experience Design group. It seemed the single best place to address the emerging discipline that I found myself a part of.

After a few years, though, Experience Design stalled, and I grew impatient, and started a company, and stepped away from the AIGA. And the AIGA seemed to be having difficulty moving forward, considering its large membership wedded to “traditional” design.

At IDSC, I ran into Ric Grefe, AIGA’s Executive Director, who suggested that the AIGA is finally truly turning the boat, and moving toward a more integrated and complex design future, even if that means losing some of its legacy membership.

And the fact that the AIGA has taken over the Aspen Design Conference demonstrates a true commitment toward “big D” design. We’ll see where it all leads, but it looks like AIGA is worth paying attention to again.

Why no blogging?
It strikes me as odd that, of all the conferences I go to, this one has almost no coverage in the blogosphere. I don’t quite know what to make of that.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Institute of Design Strategy Conference

  1. Agreed about the blogging thing – I’ve been waiting to hear about the conference for a few days. Seems like I know quite a few people who were in attendance; I’d hear little reports by email of who met who, or who saw who, but no one did a trip report on a blog that I read or an email list that I’m part of until your post, Peter.

    If nothing else, I think it illustrates that the technorati are the exception, not the rule, and that there are other professional communities out there that don’t look like them. At all.

  2. Lest I be unjustly accused of overreaching, I did point out in my definition that most of the elements of design thinking (prototyping, connection to users, wicked problems, etc.) are not solely the baliwick of design. Other professions do most of these things as well: lawyers deal with wicked problems, marketers are very customer-focused, etc. Design thinking is the combination of these elements, none of which is exclusive to design. It’s only in the applied combination that you get design thinking.

  3. Well, some of us who were there may have a lot to say but are constrained, shall we say? :P

  4. Great post – thanks Peter.

  5. Thanks for the information Peter — agreed with Steve that this is the first/biggest recount I’ve seen.

    There’s an interesting dichotomy reflected in many of your comments — designers have a unique way of thinking, but not really unique; design can help spur innovation, but design isn’t innovation; we want attention from the business press, but not too much attention; design can have a big impact on business, but we don’t want to say it’s too big. (You weren’t as black-and-white, but hopefully you see the pattern.)

    I think you’ve hit on one of the challenges and opportunities for us going forward — to reasonably frame these discussions on design and business. Overselling “design thinking” and saing can fix every problem and sets us up for dissapointment and failure; at the same time, underselling or not clearly communicating its value is just as dangerous.

    A big part of this is not just talking about “design thinking” on its own, but how it fits into more established areas like product development or customer service or urban planning. As evidenced by yours and Dan’s different interpretations of his definition of “design thinking,” this could lead to a misinterpretation of our ideas and methods, and nothing can end a discussion faster than a perception that one party is making a play for more power.

    Overall, I think the attention is good, because it brings questions and discussions like this to the forefront, and we have an opportunity to discuss this new thing called “design thinking” (and is it really new?) and how it can supplement product development, market research, strategic planning, etc…