Getting practical with design thinking

Paul Stead still can’t believe just how inept politicians are when it comes to the value-add that creativity brings! So, as a small counterbalance to a world of candyfloss commentary and value-free advice he shares some hard-earned, real-world tips on documentation, team working – and creativity.

Good idea concept crumpled paper ball lightbulb on blackboard - creativity design thinking innovation - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
By 2020, ‘creativity’ will be in the top-three most important skills for future jobs – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The World Economic Forum forecasts that by 2020 ‘creativity’ will be in the top-three most important skills for future jobs, and many children going into education now will grow up to do a job that doesn’t even exist yet.

Also, the emergence of smart factories, Industry 4.0, AI and multiple pressures on the environment will mean we will all have to be more flexible in our careers and outlook as we live and work longer.

In 2016, the creative industries generated £91.8bn for the UK economy. Its gross value added (GVA) rose by 7.6%, or more than twice as fast as the average 3.5% growth rate for this measure across the whole UK economy.

By contrast, in the same year, the manufacturing sector generated £546bn for the UK economy, with a somewhat slower growth rate, making the UK the eighth-largest manufacturing economy in the world (unfortunately, we have just fallen to ninth).

Interestingly, both sectors employ around 2 million people – creative industries just below 2 million and the manufacturing sector somewhat more at 2.6 million. Together they sustain over 4.6 million in productive and generally rewarding employment.

 This article first appeared in the October issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.

A professor once told me that innovation is, “Problem solving in an unexpected, novel and useful manner”, that “Anyone can have a good idea” and the challenge is “Making that idea work in the real world”! Really!

These statistics and well-intentioned opinions are all well and good, but they do give a sensation of eating candyfloss. Sticky, puffed up with air and providing a short-term energy rush – afterwards, though, there’s an empty feeling.

They also seem somewhat at odds with what’s happening in schools, Further Education and industry. There has been a marked downturn in people studying creative/arts subjects. A-levels are too focused on the end-of-course exam, and by all accounts, apprenticeship numbers have plunged thanks to the rigidity and complexity of the new Apprenticeship Levy.

So, please, can someone tell me how the UK’s manufacturing and creative sectors will be able to maintain positive growth in the long term when the talent pool is shrinking?

Over the next few months, I’d like to share some of the practical tips, tools, techniques and mental models we developed for US-based SMEs and corporate clients.

So where to start? See opposite for some hard-earned valuable tips.

Tip 1: Personal documentation

Capture your thoughts, meetings, ideas and concepts (even dreams) as you go, using a notebook.

Young woman writes to black diary on a white table notepad innovation meeting note taking - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
A notepad is a great memory jogger, cannot crash and will never fade – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

My dyslexia creates challenges when reading, writing, ordering information and communicating.

The way I (and other dyslexics) have learnt to turn this into a strength is by visualising information with a series of sketches, notes and mind maps – plus other techniques, ranging from audio and video, to 3D models.

But, far and away my preferred medium for recording information is in a plain A4 book, where I jot down the date, copious notes, diagrams and doodles.

It’s highly portable, immediate and personal. It never runs out of batteries, it doesn’t need a user manual – just a pen.

If I don’t understand something then I ask others to draw in my book – everything from their concepts and inputs, to their team and company structures. I can even share back to them with the click of a mobile phone camera.

It’s a great memory jogger, cannot crash and will never fade in my lifetime.


Tip 2: Create ‘commonmental’ models

A picture paints a 1,000 words, so visualise the objective, the problem state and the tasks ahead. That way, everyone in your team (company) has a common understanding.

Businesswoman working with flip board in office innovation design thinking - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
A flip chart can help you build up a visual record of the day- image courtesy of Depositphotos.

In a large proportion of the US meetings I attended, we regularly underwent death by PowerPoint. One or more person talked and everyone else furiously took notes.

Some typed directly into laptops, while others wrote copious lists in trusty notepads, some with paper snatched from the photocopier.

One CEO insisted that internal presentations must consist of a maximum of two PowerPoint slides, which led to meetings where everyone could neither read the 8-point text, nor understand the print outs.

At the end of most meetings there was a debate and summary – we agreed next steps, and then everyone set off for their next meeting. In adjacent corridors we often passed a group of people arriving for yet another face-to-face. Sound familiar?

What I started to realise from all these meetings, was that many of the participants left with very different expectations, with different notes, and while someone inevitably sent out minutes, it was clear that time, energy and valuable resources were wasted in note taking overlaps, gaps or plain simple drops.

In one meeting I decided to take a little-used flip chart off its stand, put the pad on the table and commenced recording the meeting as a series of large bullet points and sketches – I used different coloured pens to highlight different topics. When I didn’t understand a point being made I’d ask for it to be drawn.

As the meeting progressed, I tore off completed pages and stuck them to the wall, building up a visual record of the day. During key points of the meeting I asked everyone to stand up and we reviewed the walls, prioritising and agreeing next steps.

At the end, after we’d all debated and agreed, I photographed the output and in the morning had photographs (via express processing) on everyone’s desks together with typed up notes.

Clearly, this was pre-digital – now, we all have a range of hi-tech: camera phones, touch screens and multiple ways of recording meetings. There are even cartoon illustrators who will come along and do this for you.

However, none of this technological sophistication matters unless there is a shared immersive experience, where the team comes together to solve the problem, and in so doing, creates a common mental model, shared goals and ownership.


Tip 3: Everyone can (and should) be creative

If meetings or workshops are more problem solving or creative in nature, PowerPoint, paper and pens are no longer sufficient. Stimulus is required to engage the team, to provoke new thinking and allow alternatives to be explored, to rapidly prototype and to view problems from others’ perspectives.

Innovation Stock Image
Stimulus is required to engage the team, to provoke new thinking and allow alternatives to be explored.

For some clients, we have facilitated teardowns of competitors’ products with all the development team present – everyone learning through doing.

However, rather than being just a ‘dry’ exercise, we also inject competitive and fun elements. Where sub-teams are formed, we encourage competition to find the alternative best practices, potential cost savings, dumb mistakes or even IP infringements! ‘Points = Prizes’ always helps!

For one client, looking to create a new chocolate snack, we created a pre-workshop ‘London shopping’ tour of key retailers and ingredients providers. The three teams each had to get very specific items and carefully catalogue their experiences along the way.

Once everyone had reconvened and shared their journeys, we then collected the entire physical stimulus and started to create new product formats – new packing and taste sensations. We made the day truly experiential and memorable, as well as creating new team bonds.

In other instances, we have provided a ‘Blue Peter’ approach, providing creative workshops where everyone can work with foam and sticky-back plastic to instantly create first-off concept prototypes.


To find out how design tools + design thinking can help your business grow, contact us today! info@thebrewerygroup.com