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Design Thinking at Kessels & Smit

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Last year Kessels & Smit went on a learning journey with colleagues and friends to Berlin. We visited many different places and one of them was ‘Invented Here’, a startup working on design thinking. This is where we met Elias Barrasch, a graduate from the Hassno Platner Institute of Design Thinking in Potsdam. This year Elias is on his own learning journey, taking half a year to visit organisations that have a strong culture of innovation. On June 6th, Elias visited Kessels & Smit in Utrecht to join us in a session on design thinking and innovation.


What is design thinking?

First of all, you may wonder what design thinking means. There are many definitions but you could say that it is a culture and an approach. The cultural aspect has to do with a safe environment where you can try out new ideas. It is important to take care of crazy ideas as they are fragile and even if we manage to get them into the world, they need to be protected for a while in order to grow and work. Next to that it is also about a culture of aliveness, of having fun and enjoying the process of trying new things. The approach itself has a lot of methods you can use to ‘design’ a process or service using the way of thinking that product designers have come up with. If you're looking for practical tools and activities, you can download the Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators.


How do you do it?

During the afternoon we spent more time doing design thinking rather than talking about it. The following should give you an idea of what we did and how you can do design thinking yourself. In general it is good to keep a strict time limit for each activity. It may feel a bit strange in the beginning, but it helps to postpone your own judgements and to simply create something very fast. 


Visual thinking

We started off with a quick exercise in visual thinking. The idea is to use images rather than words as it helps to express new ideas and to build on them. It is easier to share a picture with others to gather feedback than to write a longer text.


Exercise: draw visual explanations of a series of abstract concepts. You have 30 seconds per drawing to help silence the ‘critic’ in your head.


Human needs

Putting human needs first is a key aspect of design thinking. It means that you start off interviewing or observing people and only then do you start to generate new ideas. The idea is that you try to get to people's deeper needs in order to be able to offer them a new solution. For example, people don’t want a car but they want to go somewhere. Or: people don’t simply want to take part in a course or event, but they want to learn and experience something. Knowing these deeper, underlying needs allows us to then be more creative in meeting them.


Exercise: interview someone in 5 minutes on an important learning moment. Explore what happened to the person and what their needs had at that moment. 



Design thinking, despite its name indicating otherwise, has a bias towards action and sees it as a tool to think better. It values craftsmanship and creating prototypes as a way to make our thinking process more tangible, concrete and open. Prototypes allow us to create a sample of our idea before it is finished, making it easier to dispose of the idea or change it if it turns out it doesn’t really work. If you only focus on creating a final product for just one idea, it is more difficult to let go of your attachment to it.


Exercise: create a prototype in 15 minutes to strengthen the learning experience you explored before. Draw rather than write, tell a story and make it specific.


Designing with, not for

A lot of design thinkers work with the idea of designing with rather than for other people. For example, Emily Pilloton shares in her TED talk how she designs with students, teachers and other people in a rural community. Elias also told us about his experience at Deutsche Telekom where a design thinking space was created in the company building. From this place design thinkers worked in the company with the employees on the complete design process. This had a big impact on its success as it allowed for a stable presence of the design thinking culture. So it seems that the collaboration of designers and non-designers appears to work if there is enough time to create a shared innovation culture.


Prototyping at Kessels & Smit

Our meeting ended with a conversation about how design thinking fits into our way of working at Kessels & Smit. We all like to explore new developments in our field and we invite clients to try new approaches with us. Design Thinking tools can support us to co-create our new approaches more easily with each other and clients. Prototyping could help us to consider lots of options by making our ideas visible very quickly. This approach fits very well to the K&S Sparks sessions for example!