Design Thinking for social innovation, the “third way” to empower the Third World

The issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review was on a corner of my desk for a while, but I finally managed to find the time to read this article which makes the cover-story of Stanford’s journal : Design Thinking for Social Innovation, by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt. Both are executives at IDEO, a global Design design firm which has worked with notorious companies like Kaiser Permanente or Shimano (see this previous blog post). In this article, the authors highlight the social scope of Design Thinking, explaining in what way it can help very poor people to improve their lives.


Design For The Other 90%, an exhibition gathering numerous social design projects in New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (retrieved from

There’s maybe no other domain in which human-centered design is as important as in social issues. As the article says, “social challenges require systemic solutions“, because these problems are wicked, and demand to adress peoples’ real needs, in the most effective possible way. Look at d.light, created by two students of Stanford’s Institute of Design : what started as a way to provide affordable and safe light for people without access to electricity has now become a global company with an efficient distribution, sales & marketing strategy. And they want to “have improved the quality of life of 100 million people” by 2020.

“Design thinkers […] consider what we call the adges, the places where “extreme” people live differently”

But in what is Design Thinking responsible for improving poor peoples’ lives ? The innovation approach has already been embraced by successful companies like Procter & Gamble or RIM (Blackberry), as one of the theory’s fathers Roger L. Martin describes in his book The Design of Business. Nonprofit organizations are discovering Design Thinking as a way to find “high-impact solutions [that] bubble up from below rather than being imposed from the top“. An interesting example is provided by the authors when they depict Jerry and Monique Sternin‘s approach to decrease malnutrition in Vietnam in the 90’s. They found so-called “positive deviants“, people whose behaviors revealed a viable solution to overcome nutritional flaws : they added tiny shrimps, crabs and snails from rice paddies to the food, and they fed the children multiple smaller meals. By offering cooking courses to families, 80% of the 1,000 enrolled children became adequately nourished. Design Thinking is about finding creative ideas, including those of deviants who may have viable solutions to problems too.

The approach relies on thinkers being “T-shaped“, an expression introduced by Berkeley-professor Morten T. Hansen (the article was already published in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge in 2001). This means that beside having a deep knowledge of a specific field, the design thinkers has a broad understanding of other disciplines, as well as being open, curious, optimistic and practice-oriented. This last point is important because the implementation-part of the problem-solving system requires prototyping and trial-and-error experimentation to get to a solution. When VisionSpring asked IDEO designers to help them to design a low-cost eye-screening process for children in India, it took them long to discover that the children were intimidated by the pressure of the experience. The system was designed accordingly and VisionSpring since conducts numerous screenings with children and adults. “VisionSpring’s design efforts included everything other than the design of the glasses”, say Brown & Wyatt, thus focusing on marketing and implimenting their program.


The automotive industry has adopted a Design Thinking approach since decades, spending tromendous amounts of money in prototyping and testing. Here's the interior clay-modelling process of Audi's Le Mans Quattro presented in 2003 (retrieved March 2nd from

This culture of testing with prototypes aims to find the best possible solution by finding unforeseen problems and anticipating unintended consequences in order to achieve a viable product. In has book The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier encourages companies to think wrong, because “hundreds of ideas ranging from the absurd to the obvious” finally make up a team’s strength and creativity. Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008, IDEO designers developped a methodology by which organizations can apply Design Thinking themselves. You can download the Human-Centered Design Toolkit free under

By the way, the term “third way” used in this post’s title is used in the article to describe the alternative that Design Thinking represents to:

  1. Feeling & intuition and
  2. Rationality & analytical thinking.

Check out the Wikipedia article if you want to find out more… or read Tim Brown’s Change by Design.

Shimano Coasting, design-thinking applied to the cycling industry

I’m just reading Tim Brown’s article on design-thinking in the Harvard Business Review on June 08, and having a complicated mind, I’m thinking of another subject I love : cycling. In a year-or-so, I’ll have to write my Master and I’m desperately trying to find a way to associate these two passions of mine. Actually, I haven’t found the answer to that very question, but IDEO‘s founder’s article gave me a pleasant surprise that will postpone my reading… just until I finish this post ! An example given by the father of design-thinking to back up his reasoning is the “Coasting”-project led by Shimano since 2004, but let’s come back on it in sequence.

Source : Innovation Through Design, by Bill Moggridge (@IDCC)

Shimano is world-famous for manufacturing bicycle components, especially shifting and transmission systems (like its competitor, SRAM). By sponsoring numerous professional teams around the world and being official supplier of the UCI, the japanese company proves his leadership in the sector. High-end segments in both road-racing and mountain-bike segments provides solid growth, what leads Shimano to think about the development of a product for a “high-end casual bike“. IDEO is asked to collaborate on the project.

During the first phase of the design-thinking process praised by Brown (Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation), the stakeholders realize that it would be smarter to target a larger audience than the tech-freaks who would by an expensive commuting bike. The reasons are simple : they discovered that a lot of Americans are “intimidated by cycling“, the reasons being various (roads, technology, culture etc.). Long story short, Shimano decided to tackle this problem by proposing “a whole new category of bicycling [that] might be able to reconnect American consumers to their experiences […] while also dealing with the root causes of their feelings of intimidation“. The concept Coasting was born.

You can find an extensive case study of the project on IDEO’s website, but basically Coasting means that the bike is simple and fun to ride, user friendly and technologies like the automoatic shifting are well-hidden. Branding was built on enjoying life on a bike and promotion was partly based on public relations (local governments, cycling organizations) that promoted safe and easy riding for everyone. At the begining (launch in 2007), only three major manufacturers decided to follow Shimano on the coast path : Giant, Raleigh Bicycles and Trek Bikes.

The Lime, Trek's Coasting bike designed by Chad Price (source :

On Shimano North-America’s website, where the above picture is taken from, there are ten manufacturers listed for the 2008 launch of the Coasting Bikes, Trek being one of them. On the current website of the Coasting project, there are still 7 : Giant, K2 (my bike brand!), Phat Bicycles, Raleigh, Schwinn, Trek and Fuji. However, the idea of designing futuristic but simple-looking cruisers for the masses (at a price of USD 700!) worked : Coasting won the Gold Idea Award for Design Exclellence (Industrial Designers Society of America and BusinessWeek) in 2008 and earned a lot of applause since. Brands like Cannondale are thinking about developping similar concepts, as this “concept-bike” by Dutch industrial designer Wytze Van Mansum shows.

The Designful Company, by Marty Neumeier

Marty Neumeier is president of a consulting firm called Neutron and based in San Francisco, CA. He began his career as a designer and nowadays also writes about innovation and corporate culture, his two previous books The Brand Gap and Zag (“When other Zig, Zag”!) dealing about radical differentiation and business strategies regarding innovation. In this book, published very recently, the American defends a corporate culture based on design thinking, in which innovation is driven by a new approach : radically new creation, fuelled by designer’s minds.

In his survey led with Stanford University, Neutron’s CEO revealed that top executives’ most “wicked problems” to solve in their daily business life is :

  1. Balancing long-term goals with short-term demands
  2. Predicting the returns of innovative concepts
  3. Innovating at the increasing speed of change, and so on…

You would probably argue that these challenges, even if he calls them “wicked problems” (expression first used by the German design theorist Horst Rittel), aren’t new to companies since they always needed to be competitive by innovating. This is actually true, but Marty Neumeier tells us he has found the best way to conciliate these problems with company benefits is to adopt design thinking : using empathy, creativity and rationality of designers to fuel innovation, and thereby drive business success.

The mistake would be to say what I just said : “of designers“! But with designers, I don’t (only) mean a weirdo who draws sketches all day long, but the whole creative class (Richard Florida, 2002) made of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, artists etc. which thinks like designers. One example is given by railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, who once said “Your Eiffel Tower is all very well, but where’s the money in it?” when a journalist asked him about a critique, just after the completion of the monument. According to Neumeier, the  designer’s reaction would more likely sound like this : “What a stirring symbol of achievement! From now on, people will never forget their visit to Paris“. The designful company will have to “think […], feel […], work like designers“.

Antother idea that Neumeier defends is that design is change. Therefore, whether you find a situation worth improving or not, innovation should be design-driven because it focuses on imagining what could be. An example regarding this is the Freestyle dispenser imagined by Coca-Cola : making drinking Coke a whole new experience. They are designing the drinking experience in a whole new way, check it out yourself ! Together with other marketing & branding tools like storytelling, and management tools like branded training, your company will build-up a culture of nonstop innovation, according to him. Let’s not forget that it’s actually his business to fuel change in companies, by consulting and training services offered by Neutron !

A phrase I loved in the book is the following one : “Companies will create wealth from the conversion of raw intangibles -imagination, empathy and collaboration- into finished intangibles -patents, brands and customer tribes“. As synthetic as this quote is his book, designed to be read and understood very easily, but also to give useful tools to implement change in your very own company !

If you want another review of the book, check this post from