How to Think Like a Designer

By: Scott Steen, CAE

Design isn't just about making things pretty—it's a way of thinking that can create new opportunities for your association to excel. Here's how to put the processes and tools that designers use to work in your organization.

In a sea of ordinary, great design stands out.

Line up a row of PC monitors and hide the brand names. You would probably be hard pressed to pick out the Dell from the HP from the Acer. Now add an iMac to the lineup. It stands out like a sore thumb. A big, beautiful, sexy sore thumb.

Whole Foods turns a supermarket into a total sensory and learning experience about food, wine, and the good things in life. Oxo makes simple kitchen utensils that just work better than anything that came before. Great design attracts attention and engenders passion: Brands like Apple, Oxo, and Whole Foods, not to mention Target, Dyson, Kimpton, W, Ikea, Herman Miller,

Starbucks, and countless others, have used design as a central component of their brand identity and a key strategy to set them apart. People like Tom Peters and Seth Godin have built design into their personal brands, incorporating a clear design aesthetic into the way they deliver content.

Design thinking opens up possibilities for new products and services and for radical improvements to existing offerings. Yet most associations do not approach design in a deliberate and disciplined way. This, of course, creates an enormous opportunity.

According to Charles Eames, one of the great designers of the 20th century, design is simply "a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose." In this sense, virtually everything made by humans is designed—a paper clip (a brilliant design, by the way), a shopping cart, a car. Experiences are also designed. Shopping at Nordstrom is an example.

For associations, opportunities to use design to set our offerings and organizations apart are everywhere. The typical annual meeting is an orgy of design possibilities, from the website to the registration experience and general-session design, right on through to the evaluation. We can design our new member experiences, websites, publications, benefits packages, e-commerce experiences, communications, and countless other products and services. Even better, the design process can push us beyond the things we currently do to discover new ways to meet our customers' needs.

Like anything else, design can range from terrific to terrible. For me, great design is characterized by five interrelated elements.

Great design is functional. It accomplishes its intended purpose in the best way possible. While "best" is subjective, superior functionality is very often demonstrable. For example, the average person will be able to open a bottle of wine substantially faster with a lever corkscrew like the Metrokane Rabbit than with a waiter's corkscrew.

Great design is simple (at least to the user). It is easy to understand and easy to use. It does not require pages of instruction or elicit perplexed looks. In other words, it is not the alarm clock that was in my hotel room last week, which I had to unplug to shut off.

The Google homepage is a great example. There is virtually nothing on the page except the logo, a box, and two buttons. And with the possible exception of the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, it is abundantly clear to even the least-sophisticated internet user how it works.

Great design is elegant. Elegance is a close relative to simplicity, but with a certain je ne sais quoi. Okay, maybe I do "sais quoi": Elegant design removes the extraneous and brings attention to the important. It removes adornment and lets the inherent quality of the object or experience shine through.

The face of an iPod, for example, has exactly one word on it ("Menu"), a couple of symbols, a screen, and two concentric circles, and yet it can store about 40,000 songs or 3,000 CDs. It requires few, if any, instructions. The weight and materials feel good in your hand. The controls are exactly where they should be. It looks sleek and cool.

And we are not just talking about high-end items here. Anyone who has ever used an OXO Good Grips kitchen utensil, an Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush, or a Fisher Space Pen knows that exceptional design can make ordinary things extraordinary. And as with functionality and simplicity, elegant design holds as true for experiences (or services) as it does for objects.

Great design is natural. At its best, it becomes transparent and appears obvious. It seems so natural that it is hard to imagine another way to do it. Take that little garbage can or recycling bin on your computer desktop. It was a radical innovation at first, but one that quickly became as natural as the garbage can under your desk.

Great design surprises and delights. Even the most ordinary object or experience—a potato peeler, an ATM transaction, an airline safety announcement—can surprise and delight us. An ordinary thing that works incredibly well makes you stop and take notice and can engender devotion.

I remember being amazed the first time I used a Dyson Airblade hand dryer in an airport restroom. A hand dryer! I remember how blown away I was at the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, Georgia, that everyone from the doorman to the maids seemed to know my name. And I love the touch of whimsy that Google applies to its logo on holidays or other special occasions, such as Pac-Man's 30th anniversary. When a website logo generates enormous buzz, you know you have achieved surprise and delight.

Four Steps Toward Design Thinking

Online Extra: Scott Steen's Favorite Designs

Here are a few of the simple, elegant, and just plain cool designs that have inspired Scott Steen, CAE—and the lessons they’ve taught him about how to use design to separate your offerings from the competition.

Timeless Design
The LC6 Table

Designed by Le Corbusier, one of the giants of 20th century modernism, this conference/dining table could have been designed last year. In fact, it was designed in 1928. And unlike the cheap imitations, it’s as solid as they come. The glass alone is more than an inch thick and weighs more than 200 pounds. I use it as my desk.

Comfortable Design
Humanscale Freedom Chair

One of the problems with most of the big-name task chairs is that they require the user to make a slew of adjustments to optimize their ergonomic potential. The Freedom chair, designed by Niels Diffrient, makes it simple. For the most part, the chair adjusts itself to you. Its weight-sensitive recline, synchronously adjustable armrests, and dynamically positioned headrest keeps the sitter exceptionally comfortable while also lowering the risk of long-term injury. That’s why it is my desk chair at work.

Magically Simple Design
The Google Homepage

You don’t have to look for things on the Google search page. You don’t have to figure out how to use it. You just put in a word or phrase, push a button, and 99 times out of a hundred, exactly what you need will appear on the first page of results. It’s magic!

Iconic Design
Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Designed in 1956 by Charles and Ray Eames, this icon of 20th century design was created to provide a modern alternative to traditional club chairs. It has been the subject of books and a documentary film and is featured in museums like MoMA in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago (as well as my living room). It is beautiful to look at and an incredibly comfortable place to curl up with a book.

Lust-Worthy Design

I have never loved a piece of technology as much as I love my iPhone. And I know exactly zero people who own an iPhone who wish they had bought something else. It is the remote control for my life. Virtually every piece of information I need, most of the knowledge in the universe, everything I need to communicate with others, an endless variety of entertainment, and a host of tools I use to manage my life are instantly available to me in one slim, sexy, fun, and beautifully designed package. Now if they could just do something about AT&T.

Universal Design
OXO Good Grips Kitchen Tools

OXO is one of the pioneers of using Universal Design in everyday objects. Universal Design means the design of products usable by as many people as possible—young and old, male and female, left- and right-handed, and many with special needs. To me, Good Grips tools just feel good in your hand and consistently get the job done well.

Better Design
Oral-B CrossAction Pro-Health Toothbrush

Design can transform ordinary objects. It’s not often that I think “wow!” when I put a new toothbrush in my mouth, but I did when I first bought Oral-B’s CrossAction brush. It just felt different. More important, it cleans your teeth better than regular brushes.

Amazing Design
Dyson Airblade

OK, I don’t actually own one of these, but I was blown away the first time I used one in an airport restroom. As inventor and designer James Dyson says in the commercial, using a standard hand dryer is an exercise in frustration. You rub your hands under the airstream for about five times longer than takes to dry your hands on a paper towel, and then give up and wipe your hands on your pants. With the Dyson Airblade, you insert your hands, slowly pull them out, and they are completely dry. Amazing.

Easy Design
Metrokane Rabbit Corkscrew

When the need arises, I can open a bottle of wine with a waiter’s cork screw. But a Rabbit cork screw makes the task incredibly easy, particularly when you need to open several bottles for a party. Grip, push, pull, and the deed is done—in five seconds, tops.

The foundation of great design is a process known as "design thinking." Design thinking has become a popular idea in management literature in the past few years, with a proliferation of books and articles on the topic. According to Tim Brown, president and CEO of design giant IDEO, design thinking "is a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity."

Writing in Fast Company, Mark Dziersk calls design thinking "a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results."

While there is no uniform agreement on what constitutes the design thinking process (Fast Company lists four steps, while the Institute of Design at Stanford University teaches seven "modes" in its Design Boot Camp), the steps presented in descriptions of design thinking are typically similar.

Step 1: Define the problem. This is not as easy as it sounds. In the documentary Objectified, a fascinating film about the industrial-design process, a group of designers charged with designing a new toothbrush ask the unobvious first question: Why does it have to be a toothbrush? With that starting point, they eventually redefine the problem as "creating the future of oral care."

Associations face similar challenges of definition. We think we are in the membership or meetings or publications business, when perhaps we are in the connections or community or learning or knowledge business.

This may sound like semantics, but this step is actually the most critical in the design process. If you ask the question, "How do we improve our membership numbers?" you will get one set of answers. Ask "How do we expand our community?" and you get an entirely different set. The seeds of the solution are in how you define the problem. Ask an ordinary question and get the same old answers.

In the design thinking process, the question of "What problem are we trying to solve?" is asked again and again, employing a host of tools. In some systems, there is a step before the problem definition stage in which the designers deeply probe the behaviors, attitudes, and opinions of the eventual users of the product or service, with a particular emphasis on the extremes; for example, those designing a new kitchen tool (obviously, I like to cook) might pay special attention to a casual home cook with severe arthritis and a professional kitchen worker. The Stanford program calls this the "Empathize Mode" and places it at the beginning of the design thinking process.

The tools used for problem definition might include deep-dive interviews, questionnaires, demographic and lifestyle comparison studies, camera studies (in which participants might be asked to take photos of a typical day or a week), observational exercises or shadowing (in which people are observed doing something), and many others. Gaining a deep level of understanding of those you are trying to serve can have a significant effect on how your problem is defined.

Step 2: Develop many potential solutions. In my experience, we in the association world tend to stop at one or two potential solutions to a problem or challenge. Someone has an idea that seems viable, so we quickly move to implementation, often before we even have a deep understanding of the problem. Membership or meeting attendance is down and we are out the door with a new offer or marketing campaign or benefits, ideas thrown like so many darts at a dartboard.

Design thinking is different. Not only do designers take significant time and effort to understand the challenge, they also develop many possible solutions that can be evaluated against each other. Often, different people or design teams are assigned to develop a number of competing options. The chances of finding a great solution increase exponentially when you consider dozens of possibilities rather than one or two.

Step 3: Prototype and test. Once many potential solutions have been identified, the options are narrowed down, prototypes are developed, and the best designs are tested.

Prototyping can take many forms. Industrial designers often build dozens of working prototypes of a product for both the design team and actual consumers to test. For OXO Good Grips, designers created hundreds of handles for kitchen tools in all different shapes and sizes (the first prototype for the potato peeler was an old metal potato peeler stuck inside a bicycle handlebar grip).

Experiences can also be prototyped. Companies like McDonald's and Starbucks create prototypes of new restaurant designs. Websites, conference registration lines, member service centers, and other association staples are all candidates for prototyping.

Prototypes help designers identify the weaknesses of a new product or experience idea in ways that would otherwise not be possible. Testers are observed using the product or service and then interviewed about their user experience.

Step 4: Execute. The final step is to select a winning idea and move to execution. Data and outcomes from the prototype and testing stage are analyzed, and strengths and weaknesses are identified. Refinements are then made, and the product or service is then retested before final implementation.

Design Your Way Out of the Box

The design thinking process is, at its core, an innovation process. And while the tools used in each stage draw on the creative resources of the design team, one of the surprising things about it is that it is not at all squishy or touchy-feely. Design thinking requires discipline to stay the course and contains the creative process within a fairly rigorous structure. Those very constraints are what allow innovation to flourish.

While the design thinking process provides a framework for people to evolve new opportunities and solutions, it does not replace the need for individual creativity or inspiration. A random group of people using the design thinking process are unlikely to come up with the next big thing. You still need to hire, nurture, and value creativity.

The design thinking process can be both time and resource intensive in the short term, and as leaders of what are essentially small businesses, we have limited amounts of both. The benefit, however, is that design thinking will save us time and money in the long run. The process is not only rigorous but proven over many decades. Virtually all major product and service innovations are the direct result of some version of design thinking.

The design thinking process is the pathway to better product and service design—and to products and services that can set associations apart from the competition. It is time for us to get in on the action.

Scott Steen, CAE, is executive director of the American Ceramic Society in Westerville, Ohio. He will be speaking on "Associations by Design: Using Creative Principles to Deliver Maximum Member Value" August 23 at the ASAE & The Center Annual Meeting & Expo in Los Angeles. Email: [email protected]