The supply chain of design: an interview with Barry Katz of Stanford

October 4, 2019 Matt Vermeulen

The philosophy behind design thinking can be best summed up by Steve Jobs’s quote, “design is not the way it looks, design is the way it works." And it’s popularity rose hand-in-hand with the rise of Apple. But its founding is much more than Steve Jobs and much more than just a methodology to make sleek designs for new technology. 

Our host, Ron Volpe, sat down with Barry Katz, professor, IDEO fellow, author, and pre-eminent design thinking scholar to discuss the rich history of design thinking and how it influences the way companies use design to solve problems and design products with their users in mind. 

We started out by discussing Barry’s illustrious career and what design thinking really means. 

So why Silicon Valley? Why did design thinking evolve in Silicon Valley, and how did it start? 

In 1979 there were only nine design firms in the Bay Area. And today we have the largest concentration of designers in the world. All the major consultancies are based here. And world-famous corporate design groups, most famously Apple. 

What I discovered is that there was some design activity before Apple in the 70s. And I researched further and found some more activity in the 60s. And I kept digging until I got back to August 4, 1951, which is the date in which Hewlett Packard hired the first professionally trained designer to work in what is now Silicon Valley. 

So Apple really came at exactly the midpoint and was a fulcrum that pivoted everything. 

How did Apple’s view of design as much more than just sleek products influence others in Silicon Valley?

Steve Jobs said "design is not the way it looks, design is the way it works." He wanted to move us away from thinking that you can take technology and put it in an attractive box and call it design. Instead he moved us toward a more comprehensive idea that design is not something separate from the actual product. 

Design thinking has almost nothing to do with the appearance of products and everything to do with a strategy for creating innovative experiences. It's not the aesthetic skin, or the radius, or the fonts or the color. It's the entire experience of using a product, and it's delivering that experience. So in Apple, and subsequent generations of designers in Silicon Valley, they really began to work around that idea, and we saw a real shift in thinking. 

I learned from IDEO that design thinking can help develop business processes, not just products. Was IDEO first at thinking of design as more than just products? 

IDEO was a real pioneer in exploring the margins, exploring the perimeter around what we can call design. So at one point IDEO introduced the concept of Human Centered Design, and began to guarantee that everything that went out the door would not just look good and work well. But it would have gone through a rigorous Human Factors Analysis by very highly trained Human Factors professionals. And this really opens the door to a much wider range of ideas that feed into the design process. 

Do you work with a lot of companies to do organizational design work as opposed to service, or product, or experience design work?

That is an increasingly important part of the practice at IDEO. It can, in some respects, be traced to a recurrent experience that many of our clients had, which is that we'd present them with something and then something internal to the culture would kill an otherwise good idea. Or cause it to go through so many reductions that by the end of it, it was not an exciting product any longer. So you've probably heard many of the standard cliches about how organizations can develop antibodies to kill off exciting new ideas. And why? Because of threats to people's positions, because of uncertainties as to where this will lead, a fear of risk, which I think is a very dangerous thing for individuals as well as organizations. 

So we began to look not just at the product that we were being asked to work on, or the solution we were asked to find, but also at finding a hospitable home within the client organization for that product. 

How do organizations design for success? 

I certainly don't have the answer to that beyond saying that it's imperative that you do so and that you create an effective means or modality for doing exactly that.

We’re working on another project for the Los Angeles County voting district, the largest and one of probably the most diverse voting districts in the United States. They're using a voting machine that was developed in the 1960s. So they initially asked us to redesign the voting machine. And we preferred again to take it to the next largest context. So really, we’re looking at how to design for democracy. 

And the process included thinking not just of the person who goes to a neighborhood polling station on election day to vote, but also the guys who drive the trucks that deliver the machine to those 4,200 polling stations, the retired school teachers who assemble the machines, the volunteers working in the polling stations, and the attendant to the blind person who is voting. 

So gathering and solving for the greatest diversity of stakeholders is no guarantee of success, but leaving them out is a guarantee of failure.

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About the Author

Matt Vermeulen

Matt Vermeulen writes about B2B commerce for Tradeshift. Whether he's writing about Accounts Payable best practices or debunking AI myths, Matt enjoys making complex topics easy to understand and fun to read.

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