The Risky Business Of Design

I’ve been following Metacool, the blog of Diego Rodriguez, for a while now, and he always comes up with interesting resources. Rodriguez is a designer for IDEO. He seems to “get” design thinking, and is adept at explaining how it is applied in design work. But just lately I’ve been discovering some of his articles as well. The latest one I’ve come across is in a must read magazine for design thinkers – the Rotman Magazine. The Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto is one of the leading schools at integrating design into the study of business.

This new Rodriguez article (co-authored with Ryan Jacoby) is titled “Embracing Risk to Learn, Grow and Innovate” (go to page 57 in your browser to get to the article which is page 54 in the magazine). In this article the authors “set out to understand how designers approach risk”. What they find is that designers do have a somewhat unique way of looking at risk. Rather than perceiving risk as a downside to taking action, they see risk as an upside for opportunity. They find that “if the risk isn’t great enough designers might well ask theyselves why bother?”. Here are the key observations made about the designer’s approach to risk-taking:

1) Designers don’t seek to eliminate risk; they embrace and even amplify it. Design thinkers actively seek out failures knowing that what they learn will put them ahead in the long run.

2) Designers take risks to learn. As one designer interviewed for the article is quoted saying “If I’m not taking risks, I feel uncomfortable because I’m not learning.”

3) Designers embrace risk but their process of thinking keeps risk manageable. Yes, designers like to take risks but to an extent they know their way of thinking keeps things from getting out of control. There are several reasons:

   a) empathic design – the more you understand the people who will be your customers the less likely any product introduced to them will fail.

   b) prototyping – with its process of seeking feedback and testing multiple iterations of products the design thinking approach reduces the chance something will fail.

   c) storytelling – simple, emotional, concrete stories help reduce risk by allowing good communication that makes sure all parties are on the same page.

In closing out the article Rodriguez and Jacoby provide some ideas for using design thinking to deal with risk in more productive ways. These include emphasizing desirablity, acting on one’s informed intuition, prototying – and then prototyping some more, think big but start out small, treat money as a positive constraint and seek challenges. Each is proposed to eliminate risk by mitigating it. As they say in conclusion, “We can’t all be designers, but we can use aspects of design thinking in our lives to embrace, amplify and mitigate risk in order to create lasting value.”

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