Tim Brown’s Thoughts on Change by Design

My Love Affair with Human-Centered Design.

In the last of my four years spent at North Carolina State University, I was asked, as most seniors are, to write a final paper, summing up my academic college experience/the most important lesson I’ve learned/or the subject I’d carry with me into my professional life.

This paper, we’ve come to know as, the thesis.


As daunting as that word has become, I’ve found it has its benefits in focusing what is often a stressful and confusing time in a soon-to-be college graduate’s life.

I spent four years in the College of Design, in the Design Studies program. A curriculum equally weighted in the history, theory, and practice of art and design. In such a broad major, it’s easy to lose sight of your end goal and dream profession but I found in researching and digging into my final assignment, those goals became clear again.

And thus, began my love affair with Human-Centered Design, the focus of my senior thesis. HCD is a concept driven by design fundamentals but was lost with new advances and ulterior motives. It’s something Design Idealists, like the people at IDEO, are hoping to bring our field back to.

I’d like to share a bit of my research with you here:

In 2011, IDEO founded their very own NGO called IDEO.org, a sect of the company that focuses in working with nonprofits forming long standing designed decisions. Their mission being, “ IDEO.org focuses on the challenges of poverty. Our mission is to spread human-centered design through the social sector and improve the lives of people in low-income communities across the globe. Human-centered design enables organizations to create and deliver innovative solutions to pressing challenges that are rooted in the needs of people. IDEO.org works directly with non-profits, social enterprises and foundations on projects using the human-centered design process across a wide range of focus areas related to poverty alleviation, including health, financial services, gender equity, water and sanitation, community building and agriculture.” Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, believes that designers have, at some point in their history, began thinking small. Designers have begun solely focusing on aesthetics rather than true innovation. Brown is charging his own designers and others to “design big.” The strides that the design world has taken allows an opportunity to make systemic change not only for everyday, first-world products but for causes like global warming, world hunger, poverty etc.
IDEO.org believes in giving smaller, local nonprofit firms the tools to succeed in making the long-term change they desire. In order to make this possible, IDEO.org concocted the Human Centered Design (HCD) Toolkit. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded this free-to-download, pdf that was designed for NGOs set in internationally. The toolkit focuses on the research, prototyping, and solutions of nonprofits. The HCD Toolkit allows for flexibility between NGOs with different missions. It serves as a 200-page template chock full of images, icons, graphs, statistics, and text. IDEO reference some successes of the plan through case studies and field guides. The toolkit is literally a step-by-step guide to applying design thinking to any organization. IDEO pulls straight from their design beliefs by encouraging interdisciplinary teams of people. They explicitly speak on the importance of having a rich diversity of race and genders.
The writers of this toolkit took a number from Tim Brown and applied his “Three Spaces of Design Thinking” and translated them into the nonprofit terms. The three spaces here are called the HEAR phase, the CREATE phase, and the DELIVER phase—as seen in the graph pictured on page 7. These phases have similar meanings to inspiration, ideation, and implementation but altered a bit to become more human centered—meaning there is a great deal more community based research moving to prototyping and abstract to concrete to abstract thinking and then implementing solutions. During the hear phase, a team will collect stories and inspiration from people. The team will prepare for and conduct field research. During this step, nonprofits need to take the time to really understand the problem: what is causing it? Who is it effecting? In the Create phase, teams will work together in a workshop format to translate what you heard from people into frameworks, opportunities, solutions, and prototypes. This ties to IDEOs belief in have specified workspaces for ideation, creation, and problem solving. During this phase teams will move together from concrete to more abstract thinking in identifying themes and opportunities, and then back to the concrete with solutions and prototypes. This is a step that requires thorough analysis of the problem, solution, and community involved. The Deliver phase will begin to realize solutions through rapid revenue and cost modeling, capability assessment, and implementation planning. This is the practical step in the process. How feasible is your solution and will it lead to your nonprofit’s ultimate mission? This will help you launch new solutions into the world.
The toolkit believes that those final solutions reached by an organization should be at the overlap of three lenses: Desirability: is this needed or wanted in the community? Whats the objection? Feasibility: what can you technologically do? and Viability: does it make sense financially? Is it sustainable? By the end of these three objectives, you should find a truly human centered solution. The HCD Toolkit will help nonprofits hear the needs of constituents in new ways, create innovative solutions to meet these needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind.

Designers and philanthropic workers have the capabilities to work together to create true systemic change in the world. Design Thinking should be applied when researching a problem, forging a solution, and implementing a solution. Designers need to take initiative and get on board with the Human Centered Design movement. Design cannot only be about innovation in beauty or streamlining a product anymore. To reiterate: designers need to start thinking big again. In the future I’d like to take an even closer look at design thinking as a model. How has it evolve and where can it go from here? Can it be applied to education or government policies? Philanthropy and nonprofits, need design to survive in the media fueled world. The tools are out there its only a matter of who is going to apply those tools to create changes.

Delving into a subject like Human-Centered Design has created a spark in me to do good in the world through the skills and the resources we are lucky enough to have. Let’s get rid of the Bandaid Effect and start creating real systemic change!

Thanks, Thesis!

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