The Iceberg Canvas

Will & Kar
Sep 7, 2017 · 7 min read

The Iceberg Canvas is a design framework for re-evaluating value propositions.

It’s different from standard value proposition canvases in that it takes into consideration ‘below the iceberg’ ramifications, i.e. the forces at play below the polished surface of products and services we use and experience today.

These include:

  • invisible or unseen factors
  • unintended consequences
  • STEEP analysis
A collection of ‘below the iceberg’ examples. Credits: FT, The Atlantic, Jean Julien and Christoph Niemann.

This notion of below the iceberg first came about when Will and I were doing a value proposition exercise. We realised we seemed to be only addressing the tip of the iceberg.

A picture of Will’s notebook doodles from last summer.

By only looking at customers’ needs and product/service benefits, we fail to plan for and anticipate unintended consequences as well as take into account multiple user and service actor needs. Below the iceberg gives us a wider frame of understanding that isn’t always present in how we design.

Some have likened such below the iceberg thinking to service design.

But we see it going beyond the front- and backstage of service design. Perhaps we could call it a form of conscious systems thinking.

But enough of the jargon. Let’s talk about how we can use the Iceberg Canvas.


How to use the Iceberg Canvas

1. Start by filling in your value proposition canvas with the same coloured sticky note. (We used Peter J Thomson’s modified version of Strategyzer’s value proposition canvas.) For this walkthrough, we’ve used Deliveroo as an example.

2. Using different coloured sticky notes, start flipping each ‘above the iceberg’ [yellow] sticky note to its ‘below the iceberg’ counterpart. This means scrutinising every sticky note and trying to figure out what its below the iceberg implications are, if any.

Here, you can filter each below the iceberg sticky note into three layers and use corresponding colours to denote them:

  • individuals
  • society
  • (S)TEEP (Societal, Technological, Environmental, Economical, Political)
A view of below the iceberg ramifications overlaid on above the iceberg insights.

Looking at the visual above, you can see how different a below the iceberg view is.

However, below the iceberg is not always negative. For instance, food delivery could free up people’s time to do other things, or expose people to new cuisines.

3. Next, bring in your Iceberg Canvas for synthesis. First, look at the tip of the iceberg ideas [on yellow sticky notes] on your existing value proposition canvas, and extract the most pertinent and resonant ideas. Then paste them on the relevant above the iceberg quadrants (either customer or product/service).

4. Repeat step 3 for below the iceberg.

5. Now that you have your synthesised insights for above and below the iceberg, look at your canvas, and try to briefly summarise each quadrant into themes.

What becomes interesting here is that if you only look at the top half of the iceberg (in yellow), these are our digital copycats. This is what every food delivery service — from Seamless in New York to Deliveroo in Hong Kong — is all about: tasty food on-demand. No one ever talks about the stuff below the iceberg, e.g. how to reduce waste or improve the welfare of the riders who deliver the food.

But what if we looked at what lay below the iceberg? What would a product or service look like if we combined quadrants one and four — for example a speedy food delivery service that encourages us to learn about and minimise our food and packaging waste?


A natural phenomenon

We learned from our talk that icebergs naturally flip 180 degrees. This is due to the equilibrium of an iceberg changing when it melts, causing it to flip.

This is what an iceberg’s underbelly looks like. Snow- and debris-free, and absolutely striking. (Sidenote: unfortunately flipping icebergs are becoming more frequent, due to climate change.) Link: Smithsonian

What would a world look like if below the iceberg propositions were part of every day design? If ‘conscious design tools’ like this one were embedded into our design process? If organisations wholly adopted this as their core reason of being?


Extending the Iceberg Canvas

We don’t see below the iceberg thinking being reserved only for value propositions.

Below the iceberg can be used as a plug-in tool for enhancing design tools and methods: customer journeys, service blueprints, design research, etc.

I (Kar) recently tested it with my clients — a global B2B firm based in Hong Kong. We used below the iceberg to critique our ideas around a future state customer experience. To do this, we flipped each above the iceberg customer action to its below the iceberg counterpart and added two extra rows on a service blueprint: what it meant for the customer and the organisation. The results were fascinating.

Highlights of our below the iceberg exercise.

We discovered that by simply placing ‘48 hours service delivery’ as a differentiator for my client’s new e-commerce service, we could be risking a potential high turnover amongst their front-line staff. This was because theirs was a global business whereby time difference and geographic location mattered— i.e. where an order was placed, and where the service would be executed — and my client hadn’t completely planned for how going digital would affect their business operationally and globally.

Integrating below the iceberg thinking into our design process helped us uncover crucial and refreshingly different insights. Moreover, it placed my project team and clients on the same page: we were liberated to critique. We gained a new perceptiveness and sensibility moving forward with our service design.

So what?

We encourage you to adopt below the iceberg to help shape your thinking and critique your own bias. Use it as a plug-in to your existing design process to be more conscious of why and what you design.

Why? Because we’re entering a new epoch in the history of our planet: the Anthropocene. What differentiates it from past ages is the hyper awareness attached to our each and every action.

A dried-up reservoir in South Korea. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA (Guardian)

The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, meaning “human”, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. […] The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. We’re not only driving global warming and ecological destruction; we know that we are.

“There you are, turning the ignition of your car,” [Tim Morton, a philosopher] writes. “And it creeps up on you.” Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, “let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event in the four-and-a-half billion-year history of life on this planet”. But “harm to Earth is precisely what is happening”.

(Source: “ 'A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene” — The Guardian; our emphases)

In hindsight, perhaps the Iceberg Canvas was borne out of this — an attempt to break free from the one-dimensional, copycat products and services we seemed to be creating, as well as the somewhat entitled people we tended to imagine as users of our products or services (because “everyone totally needs seamless, personalised services… And a chatbot.”). In a world of climate change, maybe it’s somewhat fitting and ironic that we’ve chosen an iceberg to represent our thinking. ❄️

Thank you for reading! Do give it a try and let us know how it goes. You can download the Iceberg Canvas here.

And read more about our SXSW talk here.

– Karwai Ng and Will Anderson

Will & Kar

Written by

Design strategists and advocates of conscious design. We like icebergs. Berlin- and Hong Kong-based.

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