Design Thinking Should Make Designers Think

By Ronald de Vlam, CEO & Global Managing Partner, Webb deVlam

Web deVlam sketching

A high velocity, collaborative team session.

The title of my piece is meant to provoke: Of course designers “think” and use their brain to do their work, I am being contrite.

But there is a movement in my studio that is asking some deeper, fundamental questions of our profession; be it industrial design or graphic design. We have seen a growing trend in the commoditization of design: as often clients want more for less. They are internalizing a lot more of what we traditionally serviced in the back-end (implementation) of a design project. Procurement within these organizations is trying to buy creative services like widgets by the pound. The ‘doing’ of design is cheaper in New Delhi than in Delaware. Bottle manufacturers can claim design to production with impressive shots of a busy design studio next to their engineering department.

Like many of my contemporaries, Webb deVlam is migrating upstream using planning, strategy and innovation to hook our clients. This requires us to be a lot more nimble and flexible as we carve new methods and processes that solve bigger, more complex business problems. Designers are integrated into the Discovery process so that they can empathize with the challenges; they help visualize potential solutions as observations are synthesized into insights. No longer are we sketching, or even further removed, switching-on our Mac to play around on Illustrator. We are busy analyzing, ideating, co-creating, prototyping and writing stories.

web devlam meeting

Following an inspirational safari through vibrant Chicago neighborhoods, the project team crafts their experiential stories using stimuli.

I have noticed some resistance from the traditional designer to get involved, perhaps showing some anxiety as they’re exposed to new practices. I am empathetic; it used to be fun to indulge in doodling and designing with your headphones on, but the times they are changing. Design needs to add value; designers need to be more flexible. Design Thinking has become an important lexicon in business management and is increasingly deployed as a creative thinking-in-action tool to focus on growth and profit potential. Designers need to embrace this trend and think less about their skills in keyboard shortcuts and think more about thinking.

Ronald de Vlam is CEO & Global Managing Partner of Webb deVlam, a brand strategy and design agency with offices in London and Chicago. Upon graduating from the Royal College of Art 20+ years ago, Ronald developed a fascination for building brands. In 1992, he and two partners founded Webb Scarlett deVlam. Webb deVlam currently engages clients like Procter & Gamble, Kraft, and 3M with services in Design, Discovery and Innovation.


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