Change By Design

As the leader of one of the most successful design companies of all time, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, has learned a few things about how to make “change by design”.  In his book of the same name, Tim draws upon his experiences to teach us the fundamental principles required to travel from problem to solution.  He emphasizes the fact that these principles can apply to not only physical products, but to any type of problem, from an order taking process to global poverty.  This is not a ‘how to’ book with explicit details, but more of an explanation of the essential methods used by a ‘design thinker’, which can be anyone at any time – not just the creative types in their studios.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Design Thinking

"Design Thinking taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.  It is not only human-centered; it is deeply human in and of itself."
- Change By Design, page 4

The word ‘design’ and the connotation of ‘designers’ often conjures up images of creative people in a studio creating pencil sketched drawings of sleek, sci-fi looking products.

Tim Brown wants to change that image by explaining how design is really inherent in all that we do; not only for physical products, but for processes, organizations, movements, policies, and global issues.  If we understand design thinking simply as “the ability to understand the bigger system”, we can use it to solve any problem we may face; from adult illiteracy to global warming, or how to get kids to clean their room.

Innovation doesn’t just come from places with the smartest, most creative people, but from environments where everyday people have the freedom to experiment, take risks, and explore the full range of their faculties.  It’s the diversity of individuals and their experiences that provide the breakthrough fodder for new solutions, but that fodder can only be surfaced in the right kind of environment.

Through multiple stories and examples, Tim outlines the principles and processes that create the right kind of innovation nurturing environment.  Specifically, he describes the continuum of innovation as a system of overlapping spaces called inspiration, ideation, and implementation, where projects may loop back through these spaces more than once throughout the process.  The iterative, nonlinear nature of the approach can feel uncomfortable to some, but it embodies one of the favorite sayings at IDEO, “Fail early to succeed sooner.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Putting People First

"The evolution of design to design thinking is the story of the evolution from the creation of products to the analysis of the relationship between people and products, and from there to the relationship between people and people."
- Change By Design, page 42

We’ve heard the corporate mantras of ‘People First’ that attempt to claim that their people are their #1 asset.  In Change By Design, the concept of ‘people first’ is that new solutions need be designed with human beings at the center of the story.  It can sometimes be difficult to determine the needs of individuals because they are so skilled at adapting to inconvenient situations.  So the challenge of the design thinker is to find out needs that people may not even know they have.

Brown names 3 mutually reinforcing essential, human elements for any successful design project – insight, observation, and empathy.

Insight involves learning from the actual experiences of others.  When people aren’t able to articulate their needs, we can usually find them by watching their behavior for clues.  Insight is a totally different type of “need assessment” than analyzing reams of hard data or statistics, but it can ultimately reveal more insight into any particular problem.

Observation is about being keen in seeing the whole picture; including watching what people don’t do, or listening to what they don’t say. Tim says that “good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary.”  By looking at everyday occurrences or situations as a detective at a crime scene, you’ll notice things that you might have taken for granted.  And by always questioning ‘why’ you can unveil the secrets that are hidden in the mundane.

Empathy is walking in the shoes of others.  By actually experiencing, for ourselves, what our customers are experiencing and feeling, we can enter a new realm of understanding.  Brown uses the story of designers being patients in an emergency room to comprehend what really happens as opposed to how someone describes the process.

‘Putting people first’ to me meant that to understand a design is to understand how the people act and feel in relationship to the design.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Power of Prototyping

"One of the measures of an innovative organization is its average time to first prototype."
- Change By Design, page 106

Another common misconception that Tim Brown tries to redirect is that a prototype is one of those last steps in the process; the creation of an item that looks almost exactly like the final product and built just before the product is about to be manufactured.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Good prototypes are meant to clarify and test ideas throughout the entire process.  They are not designed to work flawlessly, but to teach us something about a specific aspect or characteristic.  They should be quick and dirty so that ideas can be made tangible faster.  And the faster ideas become tangible, the sooner you’ll be able to evaluate, refine, and zero in on the best solution.

The best part is, you don’t have to limit yourself to physical things.  Prototyping processes, new business, or other abstract challenges are also feasible using methods such as videos, role plays, storyboards, or testing ideas in public.

IDEO learned was that prototypes “slow us down to speed us up.”  By taking the time to prototype continually throughout the process, they avoided costly mistakes.


There are plenty of gems to learn in this work by Tim Brown, along with numerous stories of how IDEO applied these principles in the journey of building design solutions with their clients.  Toward the end of the book, Brown expounds on the most challenging yet significant design problems of society – improving the lives of people in extreme need.

For many of us, these global social, political, or cultural issues seem daunting or even impossible to consider tackling.  But if the fundamental problem solving tools of design thinking can work for a wide range of simple to complex challenges in business, isn’t it possible that they might be effective in solving our world’s most extreme issues, too?

Tim Brown thinks so.

And he’d like everyone to become a design thinker so that our collective innate human potential and capabilities can be applied toward the problems that matter most.

Change by Design will be a book to reference as you encounter perplexing challenges throughout your life.  And as you practice the skills of being a ‘design thinker’ you’ll become a more valuable contributor to your business, family, and society.

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Rex Williams

ABOUT Rex Williams

I'm a curious connector of people and ideas. I crave learning new things and invoking a creative twist to my methods. By day, I work as an engineer, general problem solver (and recently video producer) at the Boeing company as I fight the status quo and start movements, but after work I hang out with entrepreneur and rabble-rouser types online (like this group...
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