What Value Design?

Text by Tony Lai
Photo by Shawn Khoong

After partying “like it’s 1999”, two major interlocking themes led to the resurgence of Design from the 2000s. The first was the emphasis on innovation. A wave of new ideas, fueled by the release of the World Wide Web to mass audiences, flooded the world from Netscape to Amazon to Facebook and even Angry Birds. Business gurus like Gary Hamel, Clayton Christensen and even Michael Porter began to reemphasize the value of creation, originality and innovation in their strategy perspective. A new way of thinking was necessary for organisations to cope with the radical new world ahead of them because incremental improvement was not going to be sufficient. The second was the transformation of Apple after years of languishing in the niche markets with the Macintosh and iMacs. The second coming of Steve Jobs, after a critical stint with Pixar, finally integrated form with function and the world was captivated both by the external usability of the iPods, MacBook’s and iPhones as well as the deep internal intelligence of the iTunes store and apps platform. In both instances, design took center stage.

For decades during the industrial and manufacturing era, design was relegated to a post-production activity. Designers were simply asked to make something already produced ‘pretty’. But that was never how design was taught to designers. The basic curriculum of design begins with identifying a user need through a process of discovering insights. Insights enable designers to reframe a situation and/or a context. Insights then drive creativity and a flurry of ideas will emerge and the best ones are often the amalgamation of several smaller ideas. They start to form a system as a pattern emerges. Ideas start to become solutions. It is then visualised – drawings, cardboard models, LEGOs, etc. and so begins the process for prototyping – turning ideas into workable models in order to iterate the idea even further. Heightening the tempo of creating ideas only to slow it down later to create viable prototypes. This is design thinking. This is the process for innovation.

19(a) credit to The Idea Factory(Image credit: The Idea Factory)

By the end of the first ten years of the 2000 era, design thinking’s street cred was on an all time high. It provided the process for Levis Strauss Asia Pacific to grow its business, enabled Pernod Ricard Taiwan to innovate its distribution channels and Kellogg South Korea to uncover new breakfast markets *. Beyond business, something else started to take place. Organisations in the social-driven space like the Singapore Ministry of Education and SINDA (a self help organisation for the Indian community in Singapore) invested in design thinking to find new solutions to complex social issues. Even Roche Australia used design thinking to find new ways to encourage people in Sydney to follow through on their organ donation pledges *. A new trajectory was clearly emerging. The need for new answers to society’s problems was growing but is design thinking the saviour? What value design?

Societal issues are complex. They may look seemingly uniform or consistent on a global scale but once the intricacies within a country context are recognised, any doubt about complexities is removed. Societal issues are both multi-faceted as it is multi-disciplinary. So many things come into play – the history of the issue, the demographics of the issue, the politics of the issue, the economics of the issue, etc. So many answers have been attempted so often that we cannot help but wonder if the right questions have been asked. Yet the landscape for social change has never been more vibrant than it is today. With a growing number of social enterprises across all of Southeast Asia, many individuals and organisations are attempting to do good well. Different business models are being experimented with at social enterprises such as the Yangon Bakehouse in Myanmar while private equity funds like the Lotus Impact Fund are investing in social enterprises in Vietnam. New variations are emerging and emerging fast.

Beneath all these structural changes lies the question – what sort of answers are we providing today for the future of our society? How do we come up with these answers? Are we integrating our ideas into a solution or are we emotionally moved such that we simply want to get something done fast?  How are we thinking about the issues when we have more access to better technology and fresher ideas? How do we equip those who are keen to enter the social space with new skills?

It is on that premise that design thinking may have a useful role to play as a complement to traditional linear thinking. Design thinking embraces the full complexities of a problem during the early divergent stage and this allows for fresh insights to emerge rather than linear thinking that tries to isolate the problem early. Design thinking welcomes a process that involves multi-disciplinary individuals so that the answer could be richer. Design thinking can and should be a skill that all leaders and members of societal impact organisations must have. Design thinking is just too important to left to designers anyhow.

For that to happen, a new breed of societal leaders will need to emerge, one that is comfortable with ambiguity and working without a specific end in mind. Not the easiest for many. We can do this with undergraduates and start them young with these capabilities but societal organisations do not yet enjoy the domination of talent even though the early signs are encouraging. So perhaps the reality is that the value of design for societal change is still at the perception stage and hardly at the execution stage. Everyone knows it is important but how could it be embraced to create real change remains the final mile dilemma.

* The companies referred here are due to the author’s direct knowledge of work done in the realm of design thinking during his earlier years with The Idea Factory.

About the author:

As the Chief Strategist for the Institute, Tony Lai provides leadership on all areas with regard to strategy development and execution from a business and organisation perspective. His role covers the annual workplan planning, the Southeast Asia country insight process, regional marketing and engagement and capability programmes that target adults and undergraduates. He is also the non-executive director of The Idea Factory – an innovation strategy company that moved its global operations from San Francisco to Singapore in 2002 to focus on Asia. Tony’s experience in both strategy and business has seen him hold positions in the past such as the Chief Operating Officer with APM Pte Ltd (a property management subsidiary of the ARA Group) from 2013-2014, Managing Director of Experiences at Mediacorp Pte Ltd in 2013, Assistant Chief Executive with the Singapore Tourism Board from 2009-2012 and CEO/Managing DIrector of The Idea Factory from 2001-2009.


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