Tim Brown urges designers to think big

Tim Brown urges designers to think big

I’d like to talk a little bit this morning about what happens if we move from design to design thinking. Now this rather old photo up there is actually the first project I was ever hired to do, something like 25 years ago. It’s a woodworking machine, or at least a piece of one, and my task was to make this thing a little bit more modern, a little bit easier to use. I thought, at the time, I did a pretty good job. Unfortunately, not very long afterwards the company went out of business. This is the second project that I did. It’s a fax machine. I put an attractive shell around some new technology. Again, 18 months later, the product was obsolete. And now, of course, the whole technology is obsolete. Now, I’m a fairly slow learner, but eventually it occurred to me that maybe what passed for design wasn’t all that important — making things more attractive, making them a bit easier to use, making them more marketable. By focusing on a design, maybe just a single product, I was being incremental and not having much of an impact. But I think this small view of design is a relatively recent phenomenon, and in fact really emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as design became a tool of consumerism. So when we talk about design today, and particularly when we read about it in the popular press, we’re often talking about products like these. Amusing? Yes. Desirable? Maybe. Important? Not so very. But this wasn’t always the way. And I’d like to suggest that if we take a different view of design, and focus less on the object and more on design thinking as an approach, that we actually might see the result in a bigger impact. Now this gentleman, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designed many great things in his career in the 19th century, including the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and the Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe. Both great designs and actually very innovative too. His greatest creation runs actually right through here in Oxford. It’s called the Great Western Railway. And as a kid I grew up very close to here, and one of my favorite things to do was to cycle along by the side of the railway waiting for the great big express trains to roar past. You can see it represented here in J.M.W. Turner’s painting, “Rain, Steam and Speed”. Now, what Brunel said that he wanted to achieve for his passengers was the experience of floating across the countryside. Now, this was back in the 19th century. And to do that meant creating the flattest gradients that had ever yet been made, which meant building long viaducts across river valleys — this is actually the viaduct across the Thames at Maidenhead — and long tunnels such as the one at Box, in Wiltshire. But he didn’t stop there. He didn’t stop with just trying to design the best railway journey. He imagined an integrated transportation system in which it would be possible for a passenger to embark on a train in London and disembark from a ship in New York. One journey from London to New York. This is the S.S. Great Western that he built to take care of the second half of that journey. Now, Brunel was working 100 years before the emergence of the design profession, but I think he was using design thinking to solve problems and to create world-changing innovations. Now, design thinking begins with what Roger Martin, the business school professor at the University of Toronto, calls integrative thinking. And that’s the ability to exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions. In the case of design, that means balancing desirability, what humans need, with technical feasibility, and economic viability. With innovations like the Great Western, we can stretch that balance to the absolute limit. So somehow, we went from this to this. Systems thinkers who were reinventing the world, to a priesthood of folks in black turtlenecks and designer glasses working on small things. As our industrial society matured, so design became a profession and it focused on an ever smaller canvas until it came to stand for aesthetics, image and fashion. Now I’m not trying to throw stones here. I’m a fully paid-up member of that priesthood, and somewhere in here I have my designer glasses. There we go. But I do think that perhaps design is getting big again. And that’s happening through the application of design thinking to new kinds of problems — to global warming, to education, healthcare, security, clean water, whatever. And as we see this reemergence of design thinking and we see it beginning to tackle new kinds of problems, there are some basic ideas that I think we can observe that are useful. And I’d like to talk about some of those just for the next few minutes. The first of those is that design is human-centered. It may integrate technology and economics, but it starts with what humans need, or might need. What makes life easier, more enjoyable? What makes technology useful and usable? But that is more than simply good ergonomics, putting the buttons in the right place. It’s often about understanding culture and context before we even know where to start to have ideas. So when a team was working on a new vision screening program in India, they wanted to understand what the aspirations and motivations were of these school children to understand how they might play a role in screening their parents. Conversion Sound has developed a high quality, ultra-low-cost digital hearing aid for the developing world. Now, in the West we rely on highly trained technicians to fit these hearing aids. In places like India, those technicians simply don’t exist. So it took a team working in India with patients and community health workers to understand how a PDA and an application on a PDA might replace those technicians in a fitting and diagnostic service. Instead of starting with technology, the team started with people and culture. So if human need is the place to start, then design thinking rapidly moves on to learning by making. Instead of thinking about what to build, building in order to think. Now, prototypes speed up the process of innovation, because it is only when we put our ideas out into the world that we really start to understand their strengths and weaknesses. And the faster we do that, the faster our ideas evolve. Now, much has been said and written about the Aravind Eye Institute in Madurai, India. They do an incredible job of serving very poor patients by taking the revenues from those who can afford to pay to cross-subsidize those who cannot. Now, they are very efficient, but they are also very innovative. When I visited them a few years ago, what really impressed me was their willingness to prototype their ideas very early. This is the manufacturing facility for one of their biggest cost breakthroughs. They make their own intraocular lenses. These are the lenses that replace those that are damaged by cataracts. And I think it’s partly their prototyping mentality that really allowed them to achieve the breakthrough. Because they brought the cost down from $200 a pair, down to just $4 a pair. Partly they did this by instead of building a fancy new factory, they used the basement of one of their hospitals. And instead of installing the large-scale machines used by western producers, they used low-cost CAD/CAM prototyping technology. They are now the biggest manufacturer of these lenses in the developing world and have recently moved into a custom factory. So if human need is the place to start, and prototyping, a vehicle for progress, then there are also some questions to ask about the destination. Instead of seeing its primary objective as consumption, design thinking is beginning to explore the potential of participation — the shift from a passive relationship between consumer and producer to the active engagement of everyone in experiences that are meaningful, productive and profitable. So I’d like to take the idea that Rory Sutherland talked about, this notion that intangible things are worth perhaps more than physical things, and take that a little bit further and say that I think the design of participatory systems, in which many more forms of value beyond simply cash are both created and measured, is going to be the major theme, not only for design, but also for our economy as we go forward. So William Beveridge, when he wrote the first of his famous reports in 1942, created what became Britain’s welfare state in which he hoped that every citizen would be an active participant in their own social well-being. By the time he wrote his third report, he confessed that he had failed and instead had created a society of welfare consumers. Hilary Cottam, Charlie Leadbeater, and Hugo Manassei of Participle have taken this idea of participation, and in their manifesto entitled Beveridge 4.0, they are suggesting a framework for reinventing the welfare state. So in one of their projects called Southwark Circle, they worked with residents in Southwark, South London and a small team of designers to develop a new membership organization to help the elderly with household tasks. Designs were refined and developed with 150 older people and their families before the service was launched earlier this year. We can take this idea of participation perhaps to its logical conclusion and say that design may have its greatest impact when it’s taken out of the hands of designers and put into the hands of everyone. Nurses and practitioners at U.S. healthcare system Kaiser Permanente study the topic of improving the patient experience, and particularly focused on the way that they exchange knowledge and change shift. Through a program of observational research, brainstorming new solutions and rapid prototyping, they’ve developed a completely new way to change shift. They went from retreating to the nurse’s station to discuss the various states and needs of patients, to developing a system that happened on the ward in front of patients, using a simple software tool. By doing this they brought the time that they were away from patients down from 40 minutes to 12 minutes, on average. They increased patient confidence and nurse happiness. When you multiply that by all the nurses in all the wards in 40 hospitals in the system, it resulted, actually, in a pretty big impact. And this is just one of thousands of opportunities in healthcare alone. So these are just some of the kind of basic ideas around design thinking and some of the new kinds of projects that they’re being applied to. But I’d like to go back to Brunel here, and suggest a connection that might explain why this is happening now, and maybe why design thinking is a useful tool. And that connection is change. In times of change we need new alternatives, new ideas. Now, Brunel worked at the height of the Industrial Revolution, when all of life and our economy was being reinvented. Now the industrial systems of Brunel’s time have run their course, and indeed they are part of the problem today. But, again, we are in the midst of massive change. And that change is forcing us to question quite fundamental aspects of our society — how we keep ourselves healthy, how we govern ourselves, how we educate ourselves, how we keep ourselves secure. And in these times of change, we need these new choices because our existing solutions are simply becoming obsolete. So why design thinking? Because it gives us a new way of tackling problems. Instead of defaulting to our normal convergent approach where we make the best choice out of available alternatives, it encourages us to take a divergent approach, to explore new alternatives, new solutions, new ideas that have not existed before. But before we go through that process of divergence, there is actually quite an important first step. And that is, what is the question that we’re trying to answer? What’s the design brief? Now Brunel may have asked a question like this, “How do I take a train from London to New York?” But what are the kinds of questions that we might ask today? So these are some that we’ve been asked to think about recently. And one in particular, is one that we’re working on with the Acumen Fund, in a project that’s been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. How might we improve access to safe drinking water for the world’s poorest people, and at the same time stimulate innovation amongst local water providers? So instead of having a bunch of American designers come up with new ideas that may or may not have been appropriate, we took a sort of more open, collaborative and participative approach. We teamed designers and investment experts up with 11 water organizations across India. And through workshops they developed innovative new products, services, and business models. We hosted a competition and then funded five of those organizations to develop their ideas. So they developed and iterated these ideas. And then IDEO and Acumen spent several weeks working with them to help design new social marketing campaigns, community outreach strategies, business models, new water vessels for storing water and carts for delivering water. Some of those ideas are just getting launched into the market. And the same process is just getting underway with NGOs in East Africa. So for me, this project shows kind of how far we can go from some of those sort of small things that I was working on at the beginning of my career. That by focusing on the needs of humans and by using prototypes to move ideas along quickly, by getting the process out of the hands of designers, and by getting the active participation of the community, we can tackle bigger and more interesting questions. And just like Brunel, by focusing on systems, we can have a bigger impact. So that’s one thing that we’ve been working on. I’m actually really quite interested, and perhaps more interested to know what this community thinks we could work on. What kinds of questions do we think design thinking could be used to tackle? And if you’ve got any ideas then feel free, you can post them to Twitter. There is a hash tag there that you can use, #CBDQ. And the list looked something like this a little while ago. And of course you can search to find the questions that you’re interested in by using the same hash code. So I’d like to believe that design thinking actually can make a difference, that it can help create new ideas and new innovations, beyond the latest High Street products. To do that I think we have to take a more expansive view of design, more like Brunel, less a domain of a professional priesthood. And the first step is to start asking the right questions. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Comments (85)

  1. Better than that sappy chick I got tricked into watching.

  2. Some of us is watching this on a 52inch LCD tv with full HD resolution. In that case this video is just a small ractangle on the screen. And choosing fullscreen gives really bad picture.

  3. Quit bitching about something that is free.

  4. Mr. Brown – the first question for you is: how do you expect to maintain your rich, high-profile lifestyle designing water systems for the world's poor?

  5. Rounded simplistic design is always the best

  6. If you don't like this TED talk, you don't know what usability is.

  7. He's not talking about 'design', he's talking about 'pragmatism'.

  8. yea not the best one. Some of the talks are amazing thou

  9. yea this one is not that interesting. Some of them are amazing

  10. There's Tim Brown! I guess he got bored of being an old lady

  11. He didn't say anything that's new. Same old, same old. weak talk.

  12. we now know what we do not want. we now have to remember how to remember what we do, what feels right, where is passion, compassion fun. feelings must be honored . can we access our feelings ?

  13. YES, weve traded quality for marketability

    people are getting what they want and not what they need

  14. Must start with asking the right questions to the right ears in the right climate.

  15. Many talks will continue to remind man kind to get of his but and think outside the box – leap over the bounds of what has been and seek out something new… this is simply another one – – we will hear these from time to time until we start
    TO DO IT… hmmmmm?

  16. This didn't make much sense. Did he expect his first employer to hire him to solve world thirst, rather than designing the housing for a table saw? Did he think Brunel's first design job was the Great Western?

  17. science is art. engineering is design.

  18. I think he's talking more so about engineering, because design is exactly what it is, design, style, which is why designers always come up with more than one variations of certain products. Engineering is where revolutionary things happen. Though a designer can be an engineer and vice-versa

  19. 4:55 Is a crumpled up suit that looks like it has been slept in part of the image and fashion that he is a fully paid up member of?

  20. why does almost everybody who speaks at TED throw in Global Warming? Haven't they heard?

  21. About the bird? Everybody knows that the bird is the word!

  22. I posted my CBDQ "How can we meet world energy requirements while also maintaining an equilibrium in climate?

    That I feel is the real challenge, although I should include ecosystems in the balance.
    That being the thought for centuries to come. (if we have that much time to think… that is)

  23. Dont you know about the bird!?

  24. Maybe because it's our main environmental priority :b

  25. isn't it the word

  26. Talks by architects and designers tend to be boring and not going anywhere.

    Better skip this one!

  27. Isn't there anyone interesting TED can invite to do a speech next? or does the world only have such a small handful of people

  28. he's also praising social state…….. no wonder why companies he worked for went out of business.
    Don't deny the enlightened word of Al Gore!
    If you aren't a believer keep quiet and be ashamed!

  29. To sum up this presentation: If you own a company, do not hire Tim Brown. He will drive your company into the ground by designing products for it that will be defunct in a matter of months.

  30. I not trying to rag on this guy but all the stuff he talked about that was successful sounded like engineering, invention, and management. Is that what this guy is saying design is because it looked like what he did was take existing technology and make it more user friendly, and apparently, he didn't do very well.

  31. Interesting stuff as always from The Onion.

  32. good topic. important topic.

    but damn. this guy has issues communicating his ideas.

    that was one boring and messy talk

  33. please forgive me for seeking out better, more up to date, third-party, non-biased information.
    All praise Allah Gore! 😉
    For all of you "thumbs down" types. Look up a CBC documentary called "Global Warming – Doomsday called off" and many related videos. CO2 levels follow climate change, not the reverse.

  34. The way I see it, the main key thought is for everyone to engage their minds in the process of producing ideas instead of leaving it to the "market". This is not socialism, it is about participation: developing a passion for ideas, of being creative, of not being bored and TV channel surfing to cover it up.

    When I lived in New Town, in Sydney, Australia in the late 70s, there was a piece of graffiti on the wall down our street: "Consume, be silent, and die".

    Do we want this as our epitaph?

  35. Nah. It's the last step BIG step up in resolution.
    The future innovations will be better color management, better contrast and offcourse, 3D.

  36. or just type in "judge Al Gore" in any search engine and see results – judgement on his powerpoint presentation.
    Personally I like The Great Global Warming Swindle from BBC – it's packed with scientific data and it's not a powerpoint presentation 😉

  37. You know sometimes I think way too big, and too hard to me to accomplish my goal…

  38. yeah!!! save the world!!!
    can it be bigger than that? 😛

  39. you've learnt your lesson then.. Just use that vaselin.

  40. damn, that sounds familiar…

  41. actually, yeah, saw that one too but forgot. better title, too, eh?

  42. yea, and those socialists hate it very much 🙂
    Because it hits (shows the truth) their believes, so it's personal.

  43. when it comes to the water-problem: SEVERAL designers have already designed SEVERAL objects that allow people to drink straightly from the filthy water and it filters everything and there is clean water coming out of it IMMEDIATELY.

    The big question is not: how do we do this?

  44. I've been to their site and you can request or suggest speakers. I asked for Bill Mollison / Sepp Holtzer / Geoff LAwton and so on…
    know who they are?

  45. comparing big objects with thinking big is a bit too naive. maybe it meant those objects that we see/use/buy daily, but even those that are "a tool of consumerism" are still needed, quite desirable and important. there was e.g. a pen and sunglasses on the slide – not important? maybe not the matter of life and death, but certainly very important, when it comes to human centered design. could be just a bad choice for the slide..

  46. not quite a smart idea comparing electric water boiler and a railway. not all design can be shoved into the same sack, especially not in this way.. maybe i misunderstood, though.

  47. yes, he is comparing things that cant be compared in that way.

  48. from CH4 – i thought it's BBC… maybe not 😉

  49. @dontOVERREACT would u back up to check a fly you ran over?

  50. Design Thinking is truly phenomenal.

  51. wtf is this guy talking about?
    blah blah blah mr. fancy words

  52. this guy knows the secret to talking about absolutely nothing but fooling everyone hearing to thinking that it's something.

  53. As an active designer and degreed engineer, I found this very stimulating and not at all blah-blah-blah. I believe this is an important movement–perhaps as important as the movement towards user experience designing. I hope those who watch this realize these aren't buzz words, but specific thought process methodologies as important and defined as "the scientific method".

  54. Completely agree. Next step…eradication of advertising. It's a real sin to create a desire where there wasn't one before.

  55. @nims60 All you can change is the 'be silent' part. SHOUT! If it makes you happy

  56. @crudhousefull I can change the consume part as well…at the moment I am on a mission to reskill myself in some old style skills. Current interests: bread making, building lime and sand walls, cooking almost everything I eat, and growing a lot of it as well. Oh, and investigating the health aspects of food we eat. I find myself very critical of food nowadays when I eat out, which annoys my husband no end!

  57. @nims60 Great move. Became a vegetarian a couple of months ago myself. Less consumption is a LOT of work and a LOT of self control. Better if less consumption was there from the beginning

  58. Very enjoyable thank you

  59. great video thanks

  60. Very enjoyable thank you

  61. thats a good start!

  62. Now sponsoring bloggers and graphic designers! Message me on or Add me.

  63. Great TED talk, thank you.

  64. I don't feel like he said anything new or compelling :/

  65. why my videos are turned to private?

  66. This is one of the BEST, thought provoking ideas – Design Thinking. Participation instead self centered priesthood thinking is a point focussed on community development and participation.  In a fast paced world, innovation is based on competition to get more cash, marketability.  Instead of giving people what they want, the system wants them to believe this is what they need.  That is success.  His idea is an anti-thesis to what is going on now.  Apple's designer will hate Tim Brown, for socializing an individualistic designers' domain of priesthood.  Who cares about people, they need to like what designers think is right.

  67. design is human centered.

  68. Excelente presentación sobre la importancia del design thinking como una metodologia que permite resolver los problemas atacándolos desde otra perspectiva, la perspectiva del diseño.

  69. I feel so lucky, that i found this speech. Awesome!

  70. Thank you Tim Brown, you changed my life for the better!

  71. excelente presentación sobre el Design Thinking, gracias Tim Brown….!!

  72. lol twitter's website back in 2009! And I am glad people are calling out so called turtle neck designer glasses DESIGNERS out!

  73. This talk cured my cancer. It also made me rich and filled me with zen. I feel whole now. Thank you Tim.

  74. Thank you for your contribution to india….

  75. Reached minute 10 and still didn't know what as the talk about. Thumbs down.

  76. Wonderful talk. Thank Tim

  77. Short version of this video:

    Intrepid white man unironically bemoans the decline of infrastructure projects in the West by blaming a caricature of trendy hipster CEOs. Intrepid white man then columbuses the Systems Development Life-Cycle (as though it hasn't existed for decades), rebrands it "design thinking" and claims it as some major innovation. Intrepid white man promotes design as a vehicle for building your own white saviour fantasy stories (if only us Westerners could help people in the Third World organise themselves better!).

    Basically nothing in this video is innovative or new, and quite a lot of it is actively problematic as a social narrative.

    Anyone who has studied politics or history can rip his context-absent nostalgia-baiting infrastructure fetish apart – the decline of large-scale infrastructure projects in the West is primarily political (neo-liberalist and neo-conservative politicians trying to push for small government and offload all responsibility for major infrastructure onto the market, which is not capable of shouldering the cost or the risk involved to do large-scale infrastructure projects). It has nothing to do with corporate culture – and in fact the infrastructure projects of the time period he's talking about were typically wealthy individuals liaising with government (and typically employing borderline or actual indentured labourers) to create monopolies for themselves. Culture-wide infrastructure projects just don't happen without government involvement, and fetishizing places with infrastructure deficits as somehow better or more interesting places to work is actively problematic.

    Anyone who has studied sociology or history would be able to see the problem with him claiming ownership of projects that are primarily enacted by people of other cultures.

    Anyone who has studied IT or engineering should already be aware of the concept of engaging with stakeholders which is the most basic component of project planning analysis (it is literally the first step on the Systems Development Life-Cycle).

    In sum this video is actually just an argument for getting rid of "designers" as a profession because they're fundamentally ignorant and wield aspirational rhetoric to sell their crap.

  78. It is funny how much IDEO talks about consumer/humand centered theories but in practice, IDEO just put consumers aside and don´t care about how they treat them all. Once I used to believe in IDEO practices until one day, in which, I was completely ignored by IDEO customer service. Blah blah blah

  79. 10 years ago…and he was right, but know everything is faster than before.

  80. #DesingThinking #Ontología #Reconocimiento #Amor
    Al escuchar a, detecto en su discurso una invitación al reconocimiento del otro y a su mirada desde el amor, lo que me es familiar y tiene significado desde el #CoachingOntológico.

    También identifico una competencia a del líder del siglo 21: Realiza las preguntas necesarias y oportunas con coraje y transparencia.

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