Bloomberg Anywhere Remote Login Bloomberg Terminal Demo Request


Connecting decision makers to a dynamic network of information, people and ideas, Bloomberg quickly and accurately delivers business and financial information, news and insight around the world.


Financial Products

Enterprise Products


Customer Support

  • Americas

    +1 212 318 2000

  • Europe, Middle East, & Africa

    +44 20 7330 7500

  • Asia Pacific

    +65 6212 1000


Industry Products

Media Services

Follow Us

Bloomberg Customers

Roger Martin and Tim Brown on Design Thinking

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on July 15, 2009

Lots of good talk about DT—Design Thinking. Good preparation for two books coming out in the fall by Rotman School of Management’s Roger Martin and IDEO’s Tim Brown on Design Thinking.

Here are a just a few examples of what I would call successful Design Thinking. They are what others might call Service Innovation (it’s all nomenclature).

Bank of America’s Keep The Change product.
Mayo Clinic’s SPARC Innovation Lab and reorganization
Kaiser Permanante reorganization
NYC’s Quest to Learn digital school opening this fall
Nesta’s design policy work in the UK
John Thackara’s work in the UK and India
Acumen Fund’s work
TSA’s work

What do they all have in common? They reify and use the traditional tools and methods of designing products to design social systems, services, experiences (patient, student, saver, traveler).

Here’s a quote off Tim Brown’s blog about what Design Thinking can do in health care:

“Productivity is just as important as prevention when it comes to creating affordable health. The tendency is for the political argument to jump straight to rationing as the cost control strategy but I believe there is a wealth of opportunity for innovation that creates greater productivity. Some of that will come from technology (although there are precious few examples of that so far) but much can also come from process innovation. Kaiser Permanente found ways to bring the time it takes nurses to change shift down from 40 minutes to 12 by going through a design based exploration led by nurses and other practitioners. Multiplied by every nurse on every shift on every ward in all forty hospitals this added up to a huge amount of extra time available to serve patients. The key here was that the innovations came from the ward floor, not from the executive suite, never mind Washington. Getting design thinking into the hands of health care practitioners may just offer one route to affordable health.”

Watcha think? There are tons of other examples of Design Thinking at work.

Reader Comments

Scott Pobiner

July 16, 2009 6:47 PM

Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, seems to be shaping up to be quite the Design Thinker. Her administration has been innovative and transformative in New York. In a time of shrinking budgets and raised frustration she has succeeded in some of the city's most challenging arena's. The Broadway transition to a pedestrian thoroughfare and the repainting of many cities streets to make room for Bicycle traffic seems to be helping the city that never sleeps to at least get a little exercise and fresh air - and she is the Comish of the DOT!!

Another, quite amazing piece of DT genius is the civic answer to urban warfare. In Baghdad, and more recently in Afghanistan, there is a distributed, solar-powered street lighting network (see links below). There were no really detailed articles about the specifics of either program, but one article mentioned that the primary value to people in Baghdad is the assurance that in the future people would retain some electrical generation capacity throughout the city. Not enough to feed an army or a government, but plenty to keep a family or even a few families alive as they hide from fighting and work to rebuild a society. The initial costs may be high but after initial distribution, you can alleviate the danger of overt destruction and systemic failure. No doubt, within a few years, if this program is sustained, we will see some amazing knock-on reinvention on the local level. - That's Design Thinking to me.

Thanks for the post Bruce!


July 17, 2009 10:12 AM

Dear Bruce,
A couple of questions come in mind:
How is this different from lets say management thinking?

Design's output is visual, how can you relate a solution to the design discipline without it?

Sergei Dovgodko

July 18, 2009 7:05 AM


Your examples of social design are not convincing. There is big difference between designing a service (such as "Keep the Change") and designing a social system.

Perhaps it could be useful to examine the definition of the "social system" or social structure (see Wikipedia's definition for example).

I have no problem with "process design". It is well studied discipline that is called, in its latest re-incarnation, Six Sigma. The product/process combo design is called DfSS.

Also, the latest push of product designers into anthropology indeed produces great results.

But please don't advocate social engineering. People who believe that they can (and have the moral right) design and implement a new social system are either delusional or villains.

Sergei Dovgodko, St.Paul, MN

Sergei Dovgodko

July 18, 2009 7:06 AM


Your examples of social design are not convincing. There is big difference between designing a service (such as "Keep the Change") and designing a social system.

Perhaps it could be useful to examine the definition of the "social system" or social structure (see Wikipedia's definition for example).

I have no problem with "process design". It is well studied discipline that is called, in its latest re-incarnation, Six Sigma. The product/process combo design is called DfSS.

Also, the latest push of product designers into anthropology indeed produces great results.

But please don't advocate social engineering. People who believe that they can (and have the moral right) design and implement a new social system are either delusional or villains.

Sergei Dovgodko, St.Paul, MN

Michael Melnick

July 20, 2009 3:18 AM

Walmart's plans to reinvent product labeling is design thinking at its best.
I have written a comprehensive paper on how this approach can help rebuild broken industries read about it here:

It's all about design thinking.

Murli Nagasundaram

July 20, 2009 9:44 AM

Sergei's point is well-taken. However ... the distinction between 'process design' and 'social design' is largely fictitious. I firmly believe that sructure and process co-evolve and have impacts far beyond the limited domain for which they may have been initially intended. Process Re-Design almost always requires Structural Re-Design of some sort which in turn will impact Social Processes. Further, Social Design is something like Decision Making in that whether you do or whether you don't you still do: not making a decision is still a decision, and not engaging in any kind of social design still generates (or sustains) a social design. The most seemingly innocuous of changes in process or structure, not infrequently, have large-scale consequences.

Also, there is really no need to cite only negative examples of social engineering from the worlds of fascism and communism. Social engineering is carried out all the time in healthy organizations, communities and nations (whether or not intended). Why not be conscious of the larger impacts of one's decisions regarding process and structure rather than putting up pretence of innocence? Isn't that what Systems Thinking - whether of Bertalanffy variety or the more business-school-friendly Senge kind - is all about? And Design Thinking - or at least my understanding and practice of it - is necessarily founded on Systems Thinking.

Scott Pobiner

July 21, 2009 1:13 AM

Bjorn, with respect, you are severely limiting the term design by claiming the output to be merely 'visual'. Even saying that the output of design is 'physical' is forgetting a huge proportion of the actual practice of design.

Here's one example - aeronautical design. That airplanes fly is certainly not a visual product and innovation's such as fly-by-wire systems have long made flight more than even a physical activity by incorporating a significant amount of digital simulation.

Sergei Dovgodko

July 21, 2009 3:44 AM


Totally agree with you on the connection of process and social design. Processes are not executed in vacuum, they are executed in social/psychological systems of the organization.

I also agree that Systems Theory is the right theory behind the issues of business design. And Senge's work on learning organizations is a landmark and useful.

The question is why this great theory of learning was not really capable of penetrating corporate walls in the last 20 years. I had a number of complex projects were we tested some of Senges ideas with mixed results. Part of it was probably our inexperience. But the other part was the creeping complexity of real situations.

In one project we tried to use the language of archetypes to depict the dynamic relationships among business and social factors. We noticed that once the number of factors goes above two dozen, the the dynamic picture becomes incomprehensible both for business people as the business design specialists. So exponential complexity of the business/social issues appears to be key barrier in using systems thinking paradigm in real projects.

You are right, I probably over-did it with negative examples of social engineering. We really need to have more positive examples out there that could bring more credibility to the notion of social design.

We found the use of re-framing to be highly useful and practical in business design. Especially when re-framing is combined with with inductive inquiry.

Bollman and Deal wrote a classic textbook called "Re-framing Organizations". We tested the approaches advocated by the authors with very positive outcomes.

So it seems to me that the complexity of business design can be solved by a deliberate and structured application of maximum possible frames of reference to the systemic business challenge.

Our experience has been that re-framing can help find the leverage point that typically resides somewhere in the social-psychological frames rather than the economic or technological frames. Yet from the "design" standpoint, the best thing one can hope for is minimizing the side effects of proposed system interference.

Sergei Dovgodko
3M Company, St.Paul, MN


July 22, 2009 9:38 AM

We're on the same page here, Sergei. To me, the most critical issue you have pinpointed is the complexity of social systems. Two systems ideas that have developed by leaps and bounds since Bertalanffy and the Original Systems Theorists are Chaos and Complexity, which are pertinent to any application of systems theory to social systems.

I don't know if Design Thinking assumes any degree of determinism with respect to outcomes (not of the design per se, but its consequences). I had assumed not, but perhaps that's because my own perceptual filters which are governed by principles such as tentativeness and emergence.

Design is only partially an intellectual exercise; after setting out a tentative design, one gets down and dirty and tries to build the darn thing - and inevitably runs into the imperfections and disconnects present in physical reality. Which is where prototyping comes in.

I think the traditional Systems View tends to make things overly intellectual - which, among other things, makes practitioners justifiably wary of pointy headed academics. Fred Collopy sort of alluded to this problem in his recent Fast Co. piece.

The Systems View improves your chances of homing in something that works well and helps improve a design; and the best of designers have an intuitive sense of systems, having managed to internalize (through some combination of innate talent and practice) complex interconnects among the forces that shape design.

Importantly, though, Design should not be made to subserve Systems Thinking. It may be that in the world of social systems design, Systems Thinking makes a good servant but an excruciatingly fussy (and hence, impractical) master. Systems Thinking is a fine tool for thinking about Design but not necessarily actually doing it.

Your point about finding Leverage Points makes a huge amount of sense: you cannot push an elephant around, but you could find ways of coaxing it to move in the manner and in the general direction you wish -- and minimize, as you say, the side effects. And organizations, especially large ones, are like elephants: they have minds, attitudes, power, and we'd like to try to figure out how to us all of that constructively, to achieve our goals.

Thanks for bringing up Bollman and Deal -- I need to go back and revisit that classic. I notice now that the industry zeitgeist (or at least that of those who write about the industry) has shifted over the years emphasizing one sort of frame over the other. At least in the US, until WW II or so, the Structural Frame was king. The Human Resources Frame developed as a reaction to that and so much of organizational training is founded on this. For the past couple of decades, the Symbolic Frame seems to have been in ascendance with the CEO-as-Tribal-Leader meme having caught on, Steve Jobs being one of the more prominent ones. The financial meltdown and the consequent angst and anger is certainly pushing people to search for meaning in their lives and work. At least in the present context, organizations might consider linking their business design initiatives to suitable Symbolic Frames.

As you point out, the Leverage Point tends to reside in social-psychological frames -- something that companies like Apple understand exceedingly well (especially with respect to its market). And Google has done the same with respect to its internal stakeholders, its employees).

Murli Nagasundaram

July 22, 2009 11:09 AM

One last point, distilled from Bruce's posts and the discussions going on in this forum (and at Fast Co.):

Think Systems, Do Design. And find and build as many connections as possible between Systems and Designs (and of course, the two will co-evolve). Hopefully, the Designs that emerge capture at least the most essential aspects of the Systems that were imagined. At any rate, the evolution of Designs never should cease, since the environment is in constant flux. And Systems Thinking is what helps to capture the essence of what's going on in that environment.

Perhaps Design Thinking should be treated as a convenient portmanteau of "Systems Thinking and Design Doing" rather than literally being, "Design Thinking"; since, as Fred Collopy and others point out, Doing is such a key aspect of Design. (And it sounds a lot better than "Systems Doing")

Finally, as Saul Kaplan says (at, let's quit quibbling; deep inside, we understand what this is about, it's just that we haven't quite figured out an elegant way to articulate it. The fact that so many persons of sound intellect and imagination are excited about it suggests that it provides a useful (even if semantically imprecise) metaphor that they are able to intuitively connect with.

And then let's move on (even while trying to articulate it better). For some time, we'll have to make do merely with concrete examples and anecdotes that fit into some larger, presently inexpressible Gestalt of what Design Thining is. I recall this happening with Decision Support Systems in the 1970s and 1980s, with so much breast beating and endless debates (mostly in academia) about whether such a thing existed at all. Meanwhile, folks in industry said, "Hey, give us what you got, we find it useful; and by the way, we really don't care what you call it, of if you think it is intellectually valid or vapid". It also seems to be happening in the area of IT economics -- a number of academic studies seem to suggest that investing in IT does not yield commensurate ROI. Meanwhile, I haven't noticed corporations ripping out their networking infrastructures. Maybe the academic models are missing a variable here or an exponent there. Like in the case of the bumble bee, which was not supposed to be able to fly as per the extant models of Bumble-Bee Mechanics.

Murli Nagasundaram

July 22, 2009 12:17 PM

I offer this Times article on the Rise And Impending Fall of Crocs for consideration:

Tens of millions of dollars in the bank is nothing to be sneered at; design thinking ain't just for the Fortune 100 or even 500.

How, if at all (in an alternative universe), might Design Thinking have contributed to the success of Crocs, and also prevent its potential failure? Are there some situations where randomness/ BlackSwanEffect plays such a significant role that some auxiliary strategies and processes might be necessary to be able to catch the wave when it hits?


July 23, 2009 5:09 PM

Dear Bruce,
I'm flattered that you replied on my comment throw your video blog.
To simplify my question, let's put a side the terminology of doing and thinking.

Every concept is realized by several disciplines, one of them is design of course.
When you realize a concept, different disciplines translate it into actions.
Design is the discipline that translates the concept into a visual form.
I guess what I was trying to say is, why or more important how one discipline (design) influences all the other disciplines in the realization of a concept?
The examples that you gave weren't design oriented or dependent.
I'm still not sure what kind of affect the design had on the realization of these concepts.

Best wishes,



July 30, 2009 10:58 PM

I think one of the reasons Great Theories (which are supposed to be, in part, great by virtue of being broadly applicable) don’t penetrate the walls of corporations, so to speak, is that it is very, very hard to get people to think across disciplines.

So with a plug for the value of Interdisciplinary Thinking, here are 2 recent examples of how Educators have been talking about (again) the profound need for real world problem-solving oriented interdisciplinary thinking:

Mark Taylor in a recent NYTimes Op-Ed:
End the University as We Know It


Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, on TED:

There are lots of really capable systems thinkers out there, in all kinds of fields. But there is a problem of people not being able to understand one another across disciplines of thinking and fields of vocation, in order to work together to find solutions to real problems—whether in the form of products or services.

The Tim Brown/IDEO example of work with Kaiser and nursing sign out practices/productivity was one of the things that got me looking down this road of Design Thinking. And like Bjorn, I was wondering, how is this different from what management consulting is supposed to do? The NPO world is often the poor stepchild recipients of some kind of this latter application, which has been my familiarity with the mindless surveys, interviews, bound reports with charts and comparisons, recommendations, etc. Plus, for reporting, as with areas like healthcare, we are required to do evaluations of a similar ilk for foundations and government grants. But the oft-cited frustration is how these things don’t capture the true value of the work. And for the future recommendations, the form of the evaluations/assessments doesn’t capture the work enough to produce much meaningful stuff—for a variety of reasons, like the world of management consultants are more used to org’s with deeper pockets and longer timeframes to make it worth their while or the high staff turn-over at NPOs because so much is single grant-dependent, project-based work.

And in the public service sector, traditionally, it has been the domain of public policy research and action that has served this role. But I think that is most useful on the macro policy level. Meanwhile, the actual implementation of goods and service delivery happens on a smaller agency/organization level that needs help with insights/efficiencies that are shaped to the beasts that they are—which is more similar to a for-profit business of equal size (staffing, budgets) than to the large public systems on behalf they serve.

So back to the issue of Form vs. Function. And let’s pull Systems into this. And the value of the Visual.

I love the example that Sergei gives of using the “language of archetypes.” I am a big fan of archetypal thinking (e.g., of Joseph Campbell and all the wisdom his work illuminated, or Jung’s work in feeding the development of the MBTI).

But Language has limitations. So I’d like to hear what people have to say about the value of The Line.

I was trying to get a point across to a co-worker the other day and I ended up drawing a line. It was a concaving sloping upward line that peaked and then went straight across (forming a plateau) with an arrow at the finish. I wasn’t thinking about it. I was eagerly trying to communicate a complex set of events involving several groups of people across a timeline. And with that line, and some addition markings across it, she understood my plan for the upcoming year.

The Napkin and VizThink people have been saying the same thing. But I think Design Thinking/Strategy has the potential to take those ideas beyond “effective communication” into the area of “Strategy,” which is what people are looking for.

The value of The Line in Art and Design—and I am not the first to say this—is the freedom of where it goes. In the Forms we are taught in other fields—first, we are way more dependent upon words and numbers. Second, they take restricted forms, often defined by things like the software—a Power Point, a graph, etc.--not open-ended ones.

With Systems—it’s a similar thing. More complex “lines” coming together to form relationships/dynamics, to be closed or open.

I think there are plenty of people out there already practicing great Design Thinking. But as Scott pointed out with his 2 examples—I wonder if that’s just plain old “smart,” forward-thinking or socially responsible thinking, rather than Design Thinking. I don’t think Design Thinking should be predicated on the existence or non- of any form of technology.

Designers (not all, but the discipline teaches it) map things out in lines and pictures. Your average McKinsey consultant does not. The biz-speak of ROI and optimization of this and that, with endless spreadsheets, often doesn’t speak to me. But something these Design Thinkers are saying does—something having to do with the freedom of The Line, the manipulation of Forms, and the Desire for Beauty. (Again, your average management consultant isn’t trained to advise you on aesthetics, whether or not your design, service or product, has a kind of elegance that is inviting or appealing, that makes more people want to engage than not.)

If Design Thinking/Strategy is just the latest “fad” of these various management/org dev theories/philosophies of the past, just a euphemism for what has come before, then maybe we are all just talking in circles...

But I really do think we have to take a closer look at the Form of Doing. I think it’s possible that the abstractions of forms that designers engage in can yield a new level of understanding. Maybe it’s just a platform, a kind of bridge, for people to navigate to be able to understand each other across disciplines. Or maybe it is like what Dan Pink describes in A Whole New Mind—a whole new level of thinking. But we do need something like this, for people to think and do across disciplines, across different Systems, so we can all become more aware and solve more problems.

With all this, I still don’t know if Design Thinking/Strategy is real and lasting. But thanks to Murli for the Saul Kaplan posting—my response to his exasperations--that I am eager to get going with my own experiments. :)

Post a comment



Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!