Design Mindset: Bridging the Gap Between Product Design and Systems Thinking

Our Design Mindset series has attempted to define some of the many abstractions around “good” design – what is it, and how can it be quantified and consistently achieved? It’s easy to understand the importance of design in creating new products, both to stand out in an increasingly crowded market and to develop a user experience that resonates with consumers. It’s more difficult to implement design in other aspects of business, but the rewards are significant for those that do.

In an article published by McKinsey & Company, designer John Maeda remembers a client who had a realization about the importance of design, saying “Oh, so design isn’t about this pixels thing. It’s about systems thinking… it isn’t just about the appearance.” Good design values aesthetics, but perhaps even more so it values the integrity and functionality of systems. Let’s explore how successful companies bridge the gap between product design and systems thinking.

Design Principles that Create Business Value

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman writes that “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” He’s talking specifically about product design, but nonetheless exposes a core principle of systems thinking – the power of communication and understanding. This is the underlying message of McKinsey’s Ten Principles of Design Thinking, which illuminate the ways in which companies can embrace a design mindset to create ongoing value.

The first several principles address the place of design within a business. McKinsey encourages companies to center design and consider it integral to all parts of the “system.” By removing design from a silo-ed department and placing designers within cross-functional teams, companies benefit from the design mindset at every stage of product development, marketing and public relations, and customer service. McKinsey notes that companies with a closed-off design department “generally performed less well financially than those that let designers off the leash and distributed design experts into cross-functional product-focused teams.”

Because consumer-facing design is becoming a convergence of the physical, digital, and service sectors (due in large part to the booming Internet of Things), it’s also vital to think of design in multi-disciplinary terms and to create teams that can collaborate and communicate about all aspects of design at all stages of the creative process. McKinsey refers to this as creating “garages” rather than “cubicles,” noting that “the environment (should be) more like a workshop than an office, designed to encourage collaborative focus on building a great product together.”

This holistic approach to the product design process not only results in better-designed products, but better functioning teams. This is the power of design, which (as Jules Pfeiffer said) “is so important because chaos is so hard.”

The Elements of Good Design are Universal

The principles of good design can be highly instructive for companies that are seeking to embrace the design mindset both internally and externally. As all evergreen principles should, they illuminate universal truths and help us turn chaos into order and failure into success.

Some of the most famous design principles come to us via Dieter Rams, a German industrial engineer and academic who was a pioneer of “functionalist” design – that is, design in which “Every decision about the object (shape, texture, cost etc) is made to maximize the object’s capacity to fulfill its intended purpose.” Just as this approach results in highly functional objects, it can also help create highly functional teams, departments, and companies.

Rams’ first principle of good design is that it must be innovative – it must push forward our understanding of what it is meant to achieve. This is a tall order but an important mandate for today’s companies as they attempt to build and maintain a unique identity in marketplaces that are evolving more rapidly than ever before. A focus on innovation keeps companies moving forward.

Additionally, good design is unobtrusive. This principle applies to systems thinking as well – the more a given process intrudes into the natural order, the more it threatens the integrity of the system as a whole. This principle can be seen in some of the excesses of today’s business culture, in which the bells and whistles of employee experience may do more to distract from the team’s function than to aid it.

Rams also exhorts that design must be honest. There’s nothing worse than a product that promises what it can’t deliver. There’s also no quicker way to create chaos than to allow dishonesty to lead companies, teams, or consumers astray.

And so we return to the observation that “Design is important because chaos is so hard.” With so much chaos in the world, it’s remarkable to note how the principles of design can bring order to our lives and our work. When we bridge the gap between product design and systems thinking, we reveal a path to organizational success through conscious choice, embracing the design mindset to create value for ourselves and others.


1 thought on “Design Mindset: Bridging the Gap Between Product Design and Systems Thinking

  1. Pingback: Reader Feedback: Design as the Removal of Disorder | Eidson & Partners

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