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Tech & Innovation
FEB 28, 2018

Design Thinking: A Long Journey to Japan

By Zsuzsanna Járfás
iStock photo/x-reflexnaja

As customer tastes diversify, businesses are using design thinking more and more to meet demand. GLOBIS is offering a course on Design Thinking as well.

But what is design thinking, and why is it the go-to answer?

Design thinking can be best defined by its holistic and future-looking approach that focuses on user experience. The system is comprised of several interactive cycles of unconstrained experimentation meant to widen the net of ideas by drawing members from a great variety of disciplines and functions.

IDEO CEO Tim Brown summarizes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs and desires of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements of business success.”

The design thinking concept was widely discussed in Japan in the early 2000s, but failed to gain a considerable following. The concept has become the focal point of heated debate in academia and business management circles again. However, it remains to be seen if and when Japanese corporations will employ the practice as a strategy for competitive advantage.

Roots – Creativity and Mass Manufacturing

To find the roots of design thinking, we need to look to Europe in the era of the Industrial Revolution (late 19th and early 20th centuries). It was then that people began to worry about manufacturing’s role on art. These fears gave rise to the Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus movements, both of which attempted to reunite the creativity disrupted by the Industrial Revolution. They also sought to find a new purpose for the arts in a modernizing society.

The Bauhaus Academy (literally, “house building” academy) was established in Germany in 1919 and revolutionized education by integrating artistic and industrial design media into “research science.” There, practical education was enriched with free experimentation in both the arts and sciences. Opposed to the traditional practice of copying existing models, students were encouraged to experiment without any stated purpose and to problem solve based on their own creative perception. Freedom of expression was complemented with a focus on economic sensibility, simplicity and reproducibility – scalability.

In the end, political pressure forced the Bauhaus Academy to close its doors in 1933. Subsequently, faculty members dispersed across the globe. The three most influential members found themselves teaching at universities in the United States.

It wasn’t until 30 years thereafter that the first formal model for design thinking was developed by Nobel-prize laureate Herbert Simons’ book Sciences of the Artificial.

Design Thinking Process and Successes

Though the concept has been around for a while, the term “design thinking” wasn’t coined until the 1990’s by the founders of IDEO in Palo Alto, US.

At the time, IDEO’s founders were looking to develop a method that would incorporate user needs and desires from the very early stages of IDEO’s innovation process. By incorporating these features into the early stages of the creative process, the acceptance and roll-out of new innovations were improved significantly.

The company used a five-step method, or iterative loop, in the innovation process:
1. Empathize to understand customer needs
2. Define to reframe a problem in a customer-centric manner
3. Ideate by brainstorming to open possibilities
4. Prototyping for hands-on adoption
5. Testing of the prototype

The method proved to be very successful and gained a strong following after the publication of the article “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown in the Harvard Business Review (June 2008).

Since then, modern-day design thinking has been used by North American and European corporations, NGOs, government agencies, and start-ups.

One business example is the case of Siemens.

The company opened the Industrial Design Thinking Center in Beijing, its largest market, with the aim to discover the hidden needs of customers. The specific goal was to understand and address problems that required complex social or cultural change.

Using design thinking, Siemens came to understand the customer much better. The company effectively overwrote the market’s sensitivity to price (ever present in the Chinese market). The new corporate message spoke to customers in a way that shifted their thinking from being price-sensitive to having an appreciation of the product value instead.

As a result, Siemens entered a market that was previously dominated by Chinese competitors and moved customers from a low-price point to a moderately high price range.

Why not Japan?

Japan has seen relatively low recognition and appreciation for design thinking. Even with several warning signals in the early 2000’s, many businesses in Japan failed to anticipate the looming disruption stemming from the digital revolution, globalization, and drastic changes in demographics that occurred all at once. Most felt no urgency to change; it was business as usual.

Is this the only reason design thinking hasn’t caught on?

Some point to an additional problem: a gap in communication styles between Japan and the West. The consultative, high-intensity approach of design thinking involves the customer in co-creation. Customer feedback is taken into account, and drafts are adjusted time and time again until a scalable prototype takes shape.

This interactive discussion doesn’t exactly align with the Japanese concept of customer service.

To a Japanese development team, comments received after a presentation tend to be taken as a sign of failure, a lack of understanding the customer’s thoughts, feelings, and needs.

As for brainstorming, a strong sense of group belonging in Japanese culture tends to limit the range of ideas. Input from outliers tends to be rare. The discomfort that comes with diverging from the mainstream leads to a preference for incremental improvements and so-called “kaizen,” as opposed to radically new approaches and innovations.

What’s Next?

It’s no secret that this is a time of uncertainty. Businesses worldwide (not just in Japan) have come to share a sense of urgency to improve business processes. As the marketplace becomes ever more complex, the acceptable time a company has to bring a product to market drops significantly. Customer behavior and needs are evolving at an increasing speed, and innovations become the new representation of value.

Recently we’ve witnessed designers moving from researching and developing products to developing processes, services, communications, and collaboration platforms. Perhaps it’s time for others to take notice of their thinking and follow suit.