Mark Argent
Creativity design composition spirituality work with organisations

Design thinking
— weaving-in creativity and psychoanalysis

Design thinking is an idea most famously associated with IDEO. In some contexts design can seem like an afterthought: an example might be a new computer that is built and at the last minute a designer is brought in to make it look good. Design thinking is a much more integrated approach, which means design is part of the whole process, from conception to delivery.

Design thinking in essence

One formulation of design thinking is as a five-stage process:

empathise with the end users to find out about their needs
define the objectives
develop ideas
prototype them
test and refine them

In something like a web design project, this might involve significant work with the client before any actual design ideas have been formulated, to develop a sense of the business and define the objectives, and also include monitoring to see how end users are actually finding the site. Although that description sounds linear, it is not at all unusual for the process to go through several iterations — for example if the prototyping shows that more work is needed on defining what is needed.

Design thinking and groups

In itself, design thinking is a very rich approach. An extra layer is how far it takes the designer into the processes of the client organisation. It is not organisational consultancy, but the processes of an organisation are part of what is being explored in the process. If, for example, there is a tension between what the sales force of an organisation needs from its web site and what the rest of the organisation wants, the integrated approach of design thinking is likely to enable this to be addressed as well.

My own interest in design thinking began with the realisation that it brings together two strands of activity that are important to me. Holding these two apart had felt artificial, as if part of me was being hidden to engage in one or other area. Since starting to bring the two together I have been struck by two really rich areas of connection:

  1. Design holds creativity and technical skill in balance. Good design needs both of these working together. Too much free-floating creativity can mean nothing actually comes into being, but if the technical skill dominates then creativity is inhibited and the result is lifeless.

    The free-floating creativity feels very much like the free-floating attention needed to be present to individuals, groups or organisations in order to hear what is happening below the surface. Technical skill has a similar feel to psychoanalytic knowledge in an organisational context: held lightly it becomes a great source of insight, but held too tightly it gets in the way of what might be seen.

  2. The potential for design thinking to touch on what is happening more widely means that it is much more likely to achieve design that works --- it is sensitive both to the commercial and marketing needs around what is being designed, and to what is happening in the organisation.

    The flip side of this is that it is an approach which can highlight problems, but that is primarily about enabling solutions rather than finding dead ends.

  3. The design of organisations is another form of design, and is also amenable to design thinking. Organisational consultances are often brought in because a problem seems intractable, where the seemingly-obvious solutions have already been tried. Applying design thinking to the organisation can be a useful extra tool. As with designing physical objects, this approach can become second nature, but it is sufficiently integrated to offer some rich possibilities.

When things are out of step

Sometimes a business, or part of a business, realies on being unaware of what it is doing. If it needs to sell widgets regardless of whether people want or need those widgets, then people might need to not perceive reality in a distorted way.

I remember a magazine where the person selling advertising seemed absolutely sure that the adverts were the most important thing in the magazine. That boosted the sense of job-satisfaction, but was also self-defeating: the market research showed that most people bought the magazine for its written content and not its adverts. The failure to perceive reality made it much harder to explore how content and advertising could work together for the publication’s success: part of the skill of the person selling advertising is to ensure that it is carefully placed, so readers don’t feel bombarded, but “happen” to spot adverts at relevant moments. That actually needs a very integrated understanding of the whole.

There are times when a business makes “mistakes” which end up playing to its advantage. Ryanair might be a good example of a business where, from the outside, the institutional narrative appears to be about low-cost flights, yet the popular perception is of cheap-seeming flights with so many extras that they turn out to be quite expensive. That ought to create a reputation for appalling customer service, and yet I can think of people who choose to fly on Ryanair because of the thrill of the apparent bargain and the sense of trying to “get one over on Ryanair”.

At a more subtle level, one of Bion’s revealing insights into the bahaviour of groups was to realise that what a group thinks it is doing is often disturbed by much more primitive emotions which can seem quite opposed do that objective. There’s wisdom in recognising the more primitive as well, so that the vision of what an organisation is about is more integrated.


Here are a few examples to illustrate the potential of design thinking. They are loosely based on real experiences, but heavily altered to protect confidentiality.

Designing a logo for a new organisation

The brief was to design a logo for a not-for-profit organisation that was coming into being. One approach would have been to work out who the key people were and design something which pleased them. If the organisation were forming around those people, then it is possible that the design they liked most would have been the right one for the organisation. The snag is that this would also made the logo reflect the founders’ instincts, and become part of their retaining control as new people joined.

In this case it was possible to take a rather richer approach that saw the logo as the symbol representing the organisation to itself and to others as it was coming into being and as it was shaped by new people joining. It became possible to think of the logo as what represented the organisation to itself in the process of growing and welcoming new people, so the design process became an important controbution to the process of moving forward.

In technical terms this meant a discussion with a large number of rough sketches so that people involved in the client organisation were engaged in the coming-into-being of the logo, rather than simply chosing one of a few ’final” versions. There is a vulnerability in presenting things at an earlier stage, which can feel unprofessional, but the vulnerability exactly matched the vulnerability of the new organisation coming into being, and helped it move forward.

Problems with a web site and its organisation

I am thinking of a web project where there were significant problems, most notably around getting content for routine changes. There were a number of times when things happened in the life of the organisation that should have been celebrated on the web site, but content was not forthcoming.

It turned out that there was an unacknowledged competition between the client and its parent organisation. There was pressure to achieve, but achieving too well left individuals in the parent organsation afraid that the high-fliers from the organisation which had engaged me would be promoted and become rivals. The upshot was pressure on the client to achieve, but not to be seen to achieve. That was a toxic combination, and all too visible in what I was seeing as a designer.

Local computer problems in a multi-national company

Here the presenting issues were around the use of spreadsheets to record information in a local office of a multinational company. The main IT infrastructure of the company seemed robust, but people in the local office had become used to using spreadsheets to record additional information, and were beginning to run into the limits of what spreadsheets can do, so there was a constant stream of “spreadsheet problems”. Conversations were beginning about a database solution to replace some of the spreadsheets locally. The presenting issue looked like one of software design, but the substantive issue was around the whole business’ understanding of itself. The big picture would have involved engaging with the business globally, but the local solution involved naming the sense of frustration with the global company and developing some pragmatic local solutions which took some of what had been happening on spreadsheets, but didn’t lead to frustration with the global company over-complicating the local solution.