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Think Inside the Box

Design thinking can solve your problems even if you’re not a unicorn

Office renovation will put your problem-solving skills to the test. There’s no way around it. Sure, there’s the benefit of an improved space, tailored to your team. But there’s also a journey to get there. And that can be an intimidating proposition. How do you ensure you get what you want from a space? And more importantly, how do you get what you need? That’s why people hire designers, isn’t it? Yes, but if you’re reading commercial construction blogs, you’re probably looking for a way to be more immersed in the process. Maybe you’re considering design thinking. 

As a concept, design thinking has been around for decades. In the last decade, it’s become really buzzy. Some people buy in all the way. Others are intimidated. They assume it’s for off-the-chart geniuses designing software in Silicon Valley or hyper creative types. For the button-down spreadsheet crowd, design thinking feels a bit abstract.  

According to AnneMarie Dorland, those arguments don’t stand up. After years as a graphic designer, she immersed herself in the study of design thinking, earning a PhD in the process. She was drawn to the process by watching designers work. These people were idea machines that innovated on the regular. They dealt with failure over and over, but they had a toolkit to deal with it. Ultimately, she says design thinking isn’t as complicated as people think.  

“The old definition of design is to take an existing state and change it to a preferable one,” she says. “Designers can do that in a way that now, out in the world, we’re starting to articulate as design thinking."

Design thinking can be used by anyone

IMAGE CREDIT: Ford & Brown

I watch people come up with new ideas in ways that other people aren’t coming up with new ideas.

AnneMarie Dorland, PhD

Coming up with new ideas


Why do we need it?

Ultimately, design thinking can help you break patterns of thinking. Humans fear change. That’s a thing. We crunch numbers and watch the bottom line. We worry that a new way of doing things won’t work as well as the tried and true. This fear can prevent us from moving forward.  

“We have a bunch of data on the past and present,” says AnneMarie. “It’s this way, it’s always been this way. It looks like this and feels like that. And then we look for a pattern and then we project that into the future. All the behavioral economists and psychologists have taught us that this is wrong.”  

“That’s why we’re not terribly creative when we think this way, because it’s based on exactly what it looks like now.” 

Apply this to your office renovation project. Why would you want to build a space that only works for you now? You want something that will last into the future. And you need a way to figure out what that is. That’s where design thinking is perfect. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Christophe Benard Photography

Thinking inside the box

This is where a lot of folks will tell you to think outside the box. AnneMarie disagrees. “[That] is a phrase that makes me want to throw a punch on a regular basis, because designers build a box,” she says. “That’s the first step. They say ‘what are the parameters? What is the lived experience up to this point?’ They build a box. And they get right inside and then they bounce around from the walls as hard as they possibly can.” 

When it comes to planning a new office space, this is a perfect approach. Because your soon-to-be-new-office is really just a box that has to be filled. The blank potential of that space is exciting, but it’s also intimidating. There are support walls, a surrounding structure and possibly some immovable features. And a big question mark for the rest. Sure, you could create walls or a meeting room, but finding the best way to do that is key. Luckily design thinking isn’t a super power. “It’s just a series of practices that everyone can do that bust you out of mental rut or an easy solution or an assumption,” says AnneMarie. 

What would you do with this space?

How to do it

For those that don’t make their living as a designer, having a process is important. That moves it from being a creative concept into the realm of problem solving. AnneMarie suggests beginning by generating empathy. It’s that deep dive into the lived experience she mentioned before. How do human beings use this space? What do they want out of it? How does it need to change? Whether it’s surveys, job shadowing or incorporating anecdotal evidence, getting this information is crucial to make sure everyone is working towards a useful common goal. 

Our only way out… is imagining a way out.

AnneMarie Dorland, PhD

The next step is asking “how might we…” to generate ideas. How might we create a work environment that encourages collaboration? How might we address the problem of limited building space. At this point there are no wrong answers. Just ideas. They might not be good ideas, but they allow us to explore our options. It also frames the issue as a question, rather than a complaint. Never underestimate the importance of keeping things positive. 

Armed with this information it’s time to think about how to answer that how-might-we statement. Once you get an answer that might work, it’s time to take it to the next level. “We prototype the crap out of it,” says AnneMarie.  “And then we test it, and we know why we are testing it. We know what we are looking for in data.” It’s not a good versus bad situation. It’s more like what worked and what didn’t? The test is the first step in finding what comes next. 

The human solution

As AnneMarie points out, right now our largest export now is ideas. With that in mind, we have to leverage those ideas to solve our problems. “Our only way out… is imagining a way out,” says AnneMarie. “The audacity of even asking ‘what would happen if we tried this.’” Whether you’re trying to maximize office space or deal with climate crisis, design thinking is an effective and scalable way to do that. According to AnneMarie, it’s not magic. People are using bits of the process all the time without even realizing it. 

“They are not unicorn skills,” she says. “Like asking questions — human skill. Learning about someone’s lived experience — human skill. Making things out of cardboard for prototyping. They are all empirically human skills.” 

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