Democratising design: Q&A with David Kester
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Democratising design: Q&A with David Kester

Design thinking

Jo Maude our producer pins down our founder David Kester. Jo has run courses and events for senior leaders in and around the creative industries for more than 20 years and asks David to explain himself: Why design thinking? and why create the Design Thinkers Academy in London?

Jo: What is design thinking in your view?

David: Design thinking is not a new thing, it’s a helpful term for capturing the role of design in business and the management of complex services and systems, so you can separate it out from the craft-based discipline of design.

The way I like to think about this is that all good businesses need finance professionals and accountants but that doesn’t let others off the hook with regard to money management. It’s the same with HR – dealing with people is part of every manager’s role. It’s also no different with design and dealing with ideas and innovation.

Design thinking has become the terminology to apply when bringing design tools and approaches into the DNA of business culture and process. It serves to connect the principles and practice of human-centred design to everyday management.

In practical terms, it emphasises techniques such as gathering effective customer insights from the real world, rather than more artificial settings like focus groups or labs, ways of identifying, testing and improving new ideas, and collaborative working.

It is now taught in most leading business schools and has been widely adopted by management consultancies and corporates.

Jo: Why is design thinking important for leaders?

David: Design thinking is important for creating a culture of innovation in organisations, an environment where ideas aren’t just generated, but people have the tools and resources to develop and prototype, then take them to market.

It’s easy to spot businesses that are really doing it right. Leaders in those companies are big fans of design thinking, and it starts right at the top in the board room.

Jo: Who does design thinking well?

David: I’m a big fan of Joe Gebbia one of the co-founders of Airbnb, and Mark Parker the CEO of Nike who started life there as a shoe designer.

In fact, there are so many examples of great design thinkers today who have disrupted the market. I love Jeremy Moon who set up clothing brand Icebreakers in New Zealand. They have been massively innovative in the way they’ve reinvented extreme sports clothing by finding a new way of using natural fibres like merino wool.

Jo: When did you first become an advocate of design thinking?

David: It was when I started at the (UK) Design Council as Chief Executive. We supported use of design within commercial companies, but what particularly excited me was the amazing new opportunity to be a strategic innovation partner for government. We helped deliver some some transformative projects around complex issues, such as Designing out Crime for the Ministry of Justice and Designing out Bugs in hospitals for the Department of Health.

We learnt through our own practical experiences, and from talking to leading businesses, how you can tackle complex challenges. We perfected the ‘Double Diamond’ approach which is now widely used and published many case studies demonstrating the impact of a design thinking mindset.

Jo: Why did you set up the Design Thinkers Academy London?

David: It’s because we’re passionate about design thinking, as are the global experts that we work with. We enjoy sharing our experiences and making change happen working with others. We are enjoying seeing the amazing impact a group of design thinkers in an organisation can have.

Our London training business is part of a growing global network. In 2011, the Design Thinkers Academy was founded in Amsterdam in response to the demand from clients – big players like Coke, Google, Nike and many others. They were seeking advantage, especially in the area of service innovation, through the adoption and diffusion of human-centred design principles and tools.

It provides training for business leaders to learn design thinking skills and excel. The model brings leading practitioners to coach on fast-paced learning-by-doing training. On the open courses we work on “social” challenges set by real clients such as charities and public services. We also deliver bespoke training where we can focus on client challenges.

Over 2,000 senior executives have now “graduated” from the mix of Bootcamps and other short Design Thinkers Academy courses which now run around the world.

I was originally involved as a coach. Now, working with the founders in the Netherlands – Arne van Oosterom, Marjo Staring and Tim Schuurman – I’ve set up the Design Thinkers Academy London as centre of excellence for the network in the UK. We’re working in collaboration with the UK Design Museum with a percentage of our client income funding education projects.

Jo: What makes the training different to other courses?

David: Our coaches are best in class, global experts and between them bring years of experience from the coal face. We also have brilliant facilitators.

We draw on the expertise of our partners in the Netherlands and their network around the world and other great practitioners: Becky Rowe, ethnography guru from Revealing Reality; Joe Ferry, service design wizard from Merlin Entertainments; Professor Eddie Obeng, top-TED innovator; Arnoud Koning, leading design thinker at Procter & Gamble.

We also, of course, offer the lure of London as the venue for our open courses, a leading creative and commercial capital in Europe, and a great place to visit!

Jo: What are your hopes for the future for Design Thinkers Academy London?

David: Design thinking is such a powerful concept. I’d like to find ways to democratise it. More than 1 billion people in the world are employed by businesses and organisations – imagine the impact if they were all design thinkers.

As our world gets flatter and smaller, so design becomes one of the most important qualities that defines our humanity. However fast the computer, however clever the algorithm, the solutions that we need to make life on our crowded planet worth living will be a human endeavour.

Harnessing our creativity and turning ideas into reality around the needs of people – that’s design. And as someone once said, design is far too important to leave to designers.