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Design Thinking. Innovation lernen – Ideenwelten öffnen

reviewed by Frederik G. Pferdt - June 23, 2009

coverTitle: Design Thinking. Innovation lernen – Ideenwelten öffnen
Author(s): Hasso Plattner, Christoph Meinel, and Ulrich Weinberg
Publisher: mi-Wirtschaftsverlag ,
ISBN: 3868800131, Pages: 224, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

After a meeting with the evangelist and “spiritual” father of Design Thinking, David Kelley, in March 2009 at Stanford, I was curious what the “financial” father and his colleagues in Potsdam would have to say about this innovative approach in their book Design Thinking. Is this book the Bible for innovation for the 21st century? Design Thinking. Innovation lernen – Ideenwelten öffnen, by Hasso Plattner, Christoph Meinel, and Ulrich Weinberg, offers insights into developing innovations, the Design Thinking process, and viewpoints on future issues. It consists of 222 pages and is published in German. The book is divided into four chapters: 1) The history and founding of the HPI School of Design Thinking, 2) The world needs more innovations, 3) Future developments, and 4) Examples of Design Thinking projects.

On the first few pages, the founding of the HPI School of Design Thinking is described, and Hasso Plattner mentions how he actually came to meet David Kelley, founder of IDEO, and with him, learn about Design Thinking. The d.school at Stanford was originally founded by Hasso Plattner (financially) and David Kelley (ideologically), and soon after, HPI at Potsdam was created as a sister institute. The authors write that Design Thinking is based on using healthy common sense. Design thinking is lateral thinking. Both d.schools and their programs are characterized by the collaboration of students, professors, and business people from different fields and businesses. Plattner uses the metaphor of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and his strategy of recruiting help in painting a fence by displaying joy in the task. Design Thinking is a kind of participation in painting a fence. But we aren’t just watching; we also want to participate in working on the ideas of tomorrow.

In the first chapter, the authors argue why we need more innovations in the world. Germany’s “Germany - land of ideas” initiative, is used to frame the problem that Germans have not capitalized and transformed enough innovations compared to other countries. Indeed, continued effort is needed to advance that state-of-the-art. Various statistics are presented to underline the argument that nationwide change must take place in Germany in order to produce innovative results. The claims include the following: networking is underestimated, R&D is lacking, company-wide innovation-cultures have to be created, the society lacks innovative capability, entrepreneurship is missing, women are not participating in the innovation processes, German behavior is ambivalent towards new things, and there is a general lack of commitment. The list ends with a statement about the need to reshape the future by educating the innovators of tomorrow. The book presents pessimistic and negative descriptions of Germans, describing them as unopen to change during times of crisis and unwilling to embrace the inherent opportunity of challenging situations.

All of this prompts the question: How and with which method can we awaken an innovative mindset in people?  One approach suggested by the authors to solve this “innovation problem” is the Design Thinking method. They define Design Thinking as inventive thinking and clarify the different meanings of design in German and English. Design Thinking is described as a learning process which enables people of different disciplines to generate new knowledge, then based on that knowledge, create better solutions. Different phases in the Design Thinking process are defined and combined iteratively. These iterations grow and scaffold knowledge. The Design Thinking method consists of analytical phases, where information is gathered, ordered, and analyzed, as well as synthetic phases, in which solutions are generated, tested, and improved. This process leads from real world activity into a knowledge sphere with abstract theories and ideas, which are then translated back to solutions in practice.

The authors mention that Design Thinking requires new skills and collaboration between disciplines. But these new skills, such as creativity, are not part of the education system and are especially missing in American and European schools. A culture of innovation within an organization requires skills or talents that are associated with Design Thinking: teamwork, empathy, a mindset for innovation, the ability to change, and mental mobility. The profile of a design thinker includes the following descriptors: empathetic, integrative thinker, experimental mind, team player, and optimistic. In the remaining pages of Chapter One, the Design Thinking student program in Potsdam is introduced and some examples of projects presented.  

Chapter Two starts with insights about the Design Thinking process and its core elements, such as multidisciplinary teams and open space, which are both explained in detail. The concept of a “variable space” is seen as a synonym for an innovation culture, which incorporates the idea of working as someone likes to work in a specific situation. In total, the Design Thinking Process is divided into six harmonized phases or processes, which lead to a fully functional, high-quality solution. The six phases of the Design Thinking Process are: 1) Understand, 2) Observe, 3) Define point of view, 4) Ideate, 5) Prototype, and 6) Test. The phases were developed based on broad practical experience. The phase “Define point of view” serves as a hinge between all other linked phases. After running through these phases, technical, social, or economic questions are addressed. On the next ten pages of the book, the single steps are described in more detail. After that, comprehensive rules and principles are introduced. These include iteration, revisiting prior phases, visualizing, adopting brainstorming rules, and imposing time constraints. In particular, learning from failure (fail early and often) is mentioned as an important factor.

Future developments are the main foci of Chapter Three. Different possible areas for applying Design Thinking are discussed. According to the authors, one important point is focusing on customers. Under the claim that imitation is desirable, executive education is described shortly before some research questions and projects are introduced in the Design Thinking Research Program. It is claimed that there is an immense need for research in the area of Design Thinking to generate verifiable theories. But the currently existing “action-model,” namely Design Thinking, works. Prerequisites now need to be considered to inform how the sequences are designed.

Chapter Four presents nine Design Thinking projects, each described briefly along with the students, teachers, and project partners. The titles suggest the variety of problems to which Design Thinking can be applied: 1) Personal supply chain, 2) TV-series authoring, 3) Transforming social awareness into action, 4) Social finding strategies, 5) Sustainable event for sustainable action, 6) Autonomy for mentally handicapped, 7) Alternative usage models for fairgrounds, 8) Sustainable energy usage, and 9) People trusting people.

The book is an easy read for anybody interested in an innovative approach to generate innovations. Containing an immense number of pictures and quotes, it gives you a feeling for the excitement inherent in Design Thinking at its best. It is definitely not the Bible, but it is a clear statement on where future innovation, research, and education should point.

In my opinion, the phases outlined by this action approach are innovative but not new. The novel and remarkable thing is actually to implement this approach for all kinds of challenges and problems. Personally, I think there is a lot of potential for research in every single stage of this process. The most promising aspect for me is to use and test this approach in education to attempt to change and innovate the way teachers and educators “design” think. Everything can be a Design Thinking challenge and should be, even building a new Design Thinking Education!

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 23, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15669, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 9:08:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Frederik Pferdt
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    FREDERIK G. PFERDT is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at EdLab, Teachers College, Columbia University and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Paderborn in Germany. Prior to joining EdLab, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Design Research at Stanford University. He received his Master of Business and Economics Education from the University of Constance and studied at Shanghai Jiao Ting University and California State University Long Beach. Interested in changing education through consulting educators about innovations and technology, he just founded the Learning Design Lab in Germany. His research focus is on designing learning environments with social media and design thinking in education.
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