Design Thinking: What It Is and Why It Matters to Marketers


May 2, 2017

by Carla Johnson

When people hear the word “design,” it conjures up images of architects, graphic designers and maybe a programmer. These are the people who stereotypically take an idea or concept and bring it into the real world. They put different pieces together, many of which seem unrelated, and ultimately solve problems for their clients.

But design is much more than that. It has the opportunity to impact the way we do business, regardless of company sector, size or geography. New technologies have empowered customers. That’s forced brands to listen and respond rather than preach and prescribe. Taking an empathetic listen-learn-and-respond approach is the premise behind design thinking.

Clark Scheffy IDEO

I recently spoke with Clark Scheffy, a managing director at IDEO, a global design company that creates positive impact through design. Clark focuses on the intersections of business strategy, brand and designed experience. In his previous life, he worked in the field of civil engineering for the University of California, Berkeley. He was also an editor on the best-selling how-to …For Dummies series and wrote several books for the brand. In the midst of all that, Clark toured as a professional musician and spent a couple of years as a chef.

Here’s what Clark had to say about design thinking and why marketers need to take note…


What’s design thinking?

Design thinking is the use of the designer’s toolkit to solve challenges that affect business and society. Specifically, using the techniques of human-centered design, prototyping, cross-disciplinary collaboration and creative problem solving to impact one’s business.

Why does design thinking matter so much in business right now?

I don’t think anyone would say that the world is getting simpler or more predictable. And so the old tools of analysis and planning as a way to manage business or a marketing effort, in the face of increasing uncertainty, are less and less effective. The past is less and less of a predictor of the future. So we need ways to explore and test assumptions creatively, ways to gain comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. These are some of the key tenants of the designer’s process – finding ways to create a future that does not exist today. Applying that to business begins to answer the challenge of this.

“Design” is something we usually think of with product development or operational efficiency. We design the things we sell and design how the process works. Why does design thinking matter to marketers?

On the one hand, design is about aesthetics and making things desirable. On the other, it’s about solving problems – whether that’s making a chair more comfortable, a paragraph more readable or a mobile experience more usable. The big idea behind design thinking is that the same techniques can be applied to other challenges that aren’t physical or interactive – we can prototype new businesses and approaches to gain confidence in a strategic direction. We can design new business models to create new sources of revenue. These are design challenges. Marketing is no different—it’s part of business, it faces uncertainty, and is too attached to ‘best practices’ that are becoming less relevant and effective. Traditionally, marketing is seen as a creative practice. If that’s the case, then it’s time to approach it with a creative mindset.

Marketing has historically been the brand cop, the brochure factory, and the sales support team. How can design thinking help marketers look at the work they do with fresh eyes?

The days of command and control branding have been in decline for a long time. Would any marketer say that those practices and standard ways of working are getting easier? Probably not. But I think we’ve been the frog in the slowly warming water…not enough to shake the habits, but enough that we might have an inkling of feeling uncomfortable!

We need ways to enable our brands to live and breathe. To be permeable, more human. We need ways to empower our frontline branding and marketing people with tools to achieve this. The customer is already there.

We often say, “know your customer.” But how much time do marketers actually spend interacting with their customers? What techniques do they have for doing that?

Some of the things we do with clients are challenging for them in how they need to learn to listen and observe. We do exercises that bring out fear and then help people overcome it. People are more afraid of rejection when the point is to learn something. In many cases, that opportunity to learn comes from an engagement with a customer. That’s what makes people struggle when they talk to customers. There’s something human in talking to other people and wanting them to like you and being afraid they won’t.

As Peter Drucker said, “Marketing is about knowing what your customer wants and delivering it. It should make selling superfluous.” That’s also the textbook definition of the design process.

In the startup world, investors are very wary of companies that haven’t talked to customers. They want to know that the pitch team has learned from real people and taken lumps, rather than relying on analysis. Marketing can learn a lot from design thinking and the startup culture – how to be agile, better, faster and more effective.

As marketing’s role expands and marketers need to collaborate with people across an organization – IT, HR, R&D – how does design thinking help break down silos?

One of the key elements of a great design team, or startup team for that matter, is the cross-disciplinary nature. It’s about agreeing on the goal and getting there together, solving the challenge holistically. Marketing is no longer just a communications challenge. For many of the most amazing brands today, it’s difficult to discern what elements of their experience are a service, an object, a product or a message. That’s actually how it should be. Customers don’t distinguish between any of these and why should they? If that’s the case, it doesn’t make sense to have teams functionally siloed when our role is to serve the customer.

Design thinking creates better outcomes for customers, but it also creates buy-in for ideas that solve internal political issues. It’s not one person coming up with an idea and then having to sell it. Bringing people together from different backgrounds brings together new vantage points from which to look at problems. Inter-disciplinary teams help address the organizational and cultural hurdles. There’s a lot of incentive in what’s funded and how people spend their time.

For example, plenty of B2B companies look at the digital component of a company and the digital component of a product as two different things. But customers see them as one experience. Coming back to human-centered design, we need to understand digital as one experience and weave a seamless experience, rather than chopping it up into marketing, demand gen, sales and so forth.

I think we’re not quite there yet, but I believe we are on the verge of completely new organizational thinking for marketing groups. The model in which we operate is essentially a vestige of the Industrial Revolution. It’s probably not fit for the pace of change and flexibility that companies need to stay relevant. The hints for how the marketing organization will be built in the future are in startup and technology companies and how they are organized.

Design thinking looks at bringing people together from different backgrounds and areas of expertise. How does team diversity affect overall creativity?

When you have multiple perspectives solving a challenge, it always improves the outcome. It’s hard because it creates challenges integrating? people’s different opinions. But those are good tests for the outcome. Different perspectives create more robust solutions, uncover bias and challenge assumptions. All of this leads to better solutions.

If you think about this from a sports analogy, no sports team has been successful by having everyone play the same position. That same is true in business. We need people with different strengths.

How does prototyping apply to the marketing world?

It’s a way to gain confidence and de-risk new ideas. We define a prototype, quite simply, as a question made tangible. It’s a way to show something to a user and get feedback. Not, “Do you like this?” or “How much would you pay for this?” But rather, “Here…try this…what does it make you think? Or say? Do? Feel?”

The prototype doesn’t need to be perfect. It needs to be adequate enough to ask the question. A prototype gives us a lot more insight into the possibilities of a new idea than any amount of planning in a conference room, from even the smartest people in the business.

B2B marketers do focus groups to get feedback on what’s already in the works. I think it’s more interesting to go to a specific customer and show them ideas, get their feedback and use that to make your idea better. There’s a difference between design research and market research. Marketers use focus groups for validation. A design process makes things more provocative because you’re designing ideas, not validating them. You try ideas out, and that helps you flush out language you can use to articulate what the functional benefits of something are.

I encourage B2B marketers to check out the book The Lean Startup by Eric Reiss. He has so many good stories about prototypes. Prototyping for marketing isn’t that different than prototyping for product development.

Would you like to learn more about design thinking and how to integrate it into your work as a marketer? Then register for the ANA Masters of B2B Marketing Conference, May 31-June 2 in Chicago and add Clark’s pre-conference workshop to your agenda.

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.