design transitions interview: design as working ethos

This post is a copy of an interview I did for Emma Jefferies‘ great project ‘Design Transitions’. The project explores transitions that are currently happening in design practice and features ‘untold stories of innovative design practices from around the world’. Many more interviews on the website, but here’s ours:

1. Tell us about Zilver Innovation’s design practices and describe why you do what you do.
Zilver is a creative consultancy specialized in ‘brand driven innovation’: turning vision into value. Brand driven innovation is based on the understanding that in order to innovate meaningfully and sustainably, organizations need a deeply rooted and shared vision. This vision helps to do what is required for successful innovation: take calculated risks, envision potential futures, work across silos, and understand what constitutes value to the customer and value to the company.

The brand driven innovation process consists of 4 stages:

  1. First we help companies to build a shared vision by forming a deeply rooted understanding of themselves and their customers.
  2. Second we help companies turn this vision into a roadmap for growth
  3. Third we help companies design the products and services that make this growth tangible
  4. Fourth we help companies orchestrate the touch points and implement the products and services we helped design in the third stage.

Our design background is very much at the core of what we do: we don’t only work in a visual, inspiring, and co-created way, leading to tangible and compelling innovations. Also our working methods, processes and tools have design thinking at the heart of them. What this means concretely is this:

  • We treat our clients’ challenges as ‘ill defined problems’: an important part of our job is not only to find the right answer, but first to find the right question. Helping our client discover the exact nature of the challenge they are facing or the problem they are solving is an important part of the value we offer. As designers we are very comfortable with this fuzzy stage of the innovation process where we unravel the issue at hand and explore the questions behind the initial question. Our client however may not be used to this and may perceive it as an inefficient and time-consuming process. What we have learned at Zilver is to gain the patience and trust that allow us to take our client along in this journey. This involves close and open collaboration, a very clear process despite the fuzziness, and clear visualizations of results along the way, even if they aren’t final yet. When problem and solution co-evolve, it’s vital to spend a lot of attention to capturing and sharing progress.
  • Our processes are iterative, non linear and often improvised. We don’t claim to have a one size fits all solution, and we don’t claim there’s an easy way out of complexity. Also, we dare to take a step back if a certain route doesn’t work and we keep testing and refining solutions. Again, we have had to learn to gain confidence from our clients that this is the right approach. One way we do this is to ‘productize’ our approach: we chop our process into byte size pieces, often captured in the form of tools used in client workshops, of which we can safely predict the results within a certain fault margin. We then go back to our studio, do our more open ended improvisational work, and come back again with a well-prepared workshop or tool to involve the client. So while the whole of the process may be organic and partly improvised, it sits in a well-defined framework and involves the client in finely orchestrated workshops and tools.
  • We are optimistic prototypers. This means we firmly and fundamentally believe that things can be better. It also means that we like to try things out and we are not afraid to fail. When you’ve tried something, you’re already halfway to solving it. A prototype, or an idea, to us is a new way of asking the question, not necessarily a new answer. It asks: ‘would this work? Is this a potential solution area? Is a right way to look at the question? Again this is something clients aren’t usually comfortable with. It’s part of our job to make them feel comfortable with unfinished ideas and rickety prototypes, by showing how they form a vital step towards better products and services.
  • We understand people. As designers we’ve always worked for and with real human beings. Not stats, not market segments or personas, but real humans of flesh and blood. We’ve discovered that our ‘design empathy’, as we like to call it, brings tremendous value to our clients. Our understanding for people has benefits in two distinct but overlapping areas: we help our clients get much closer to their customers by engaging them in design research, context mapping, diary studies, house visits etc etc. And we help our clients create a much stronger internal bond by making people from different backgrounds, divisions, functions and levels, work together around shared themes like customer understanding and vision.

2. What do you think are the current drivers of change in design practices at Zilver Innovation?
A very important discovery we’ve made since working with our partner agency ProtoPartners in Sydney, Australia, is this: it’s tempting to think of designerly approaches to problem solving as being diametrically opposed to businesslike approaches. Qualitative versus quantitative research, visuals versus text, creativity versus control, synthesis versus analysis, right brains versus left brain etc etc. But in fact the two need each other and work fantastically well together. This is especially true when it comes to the more numeric, quantifiable and measurable approach business managers naturally adopt. We’ve discovered ways to integrate these into our research and design processes and the results are fantastic. We now combine qualitative research and design intuition with very strict and well-defined numeric performance indicators, and solid business cases. This means we have a much more involved and committed management team on board during our work. And we’ve made it much easier for them to adopt the results of our work. I’d say that the adoption of quantifiable KPI’s into our design framework is one of the greatest drivers for our own growth at this point.

3. What excites you about design at the moment (this can either be your own practice at Zilver Innovation or other practices)?
The fact that slowly but steadily design is growing out of its straitjacket of ‘making things look prettier’ to actually helping to solve very complex human challenges. This has been my quest ever since the nineties, and it looks like we’re gaining ground. Design, and especially design thinking, is finding a foothold in health, education, finances, mobility, politics, urbanism and sustainability. It looks like it will be there to stay. Zilver’s movie ‘design the new business’ explores this topic. Watch it on www.designthenewbusiness.com.

4. What do you think the future practices of design will look like and why?
I believe in strong partnerships between design and business, design and the humanities, design and technology, design and entrepreneurship, design and economics. It’s for us designers to build these bridges and make them relevant. We have to stop moaning about being misunderstood, and reach out to make ourselves understood. I think designers and design have to stop thinking of themselves as a counterforce, protecting the pristine intrinsic qualities of whatever it is we’re working on, in splendid isolation and without any relevance to others. We have to become part of the companies we work for, the businesses they operate, the projects we are involved in and the problems we solve. In the future, design will no longer be a department in a company, but a quality you look for in anyone you hire.

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about this blog
this is Erik Roscam Abbing's blog on topics relating to the synergy between branding, innovation and design. Erik is a consultant (www.zilverinnovation.com), teacher (www.io.tudelft.nl), and frequent speaker on the topic of Brand Driven Innovation. He is also the author of the book by the same title, to appear in autumn 2010 at www.avabooks.ch. For inquiries, contact erik at erik at zilverinnovation.com
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