08/30/2013 05:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013

A Design Thinking Retrospective: How History's Biggest Mishaps Could Have Been Averted

Design thinking, also known as human-centered design, has been the hot topic as of late, at least among the forward-thinking tech and business scenes. Although the concept has been around for awhile, and some of the basic premises have been traditionally known under different names (e.g., market research, R&D), design thinking has come into vogue because of its alternative problem-solving techniques to the scientific method and the popularization of the idea and its related lexicon by IDEO, an award-winning consultancy. According to IDEO CEO, Tim Brown, "Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success." This "designer's toolkit" is the application of processes conventionally associated with designers - think creativity, flexibility of ideas, acute understanding of people's ever-changing tastes - towards other disciplines such as business, engineering, education, and beyond.

There are three main components of the design thinking methodology:

1) Discover
You must start with a broad goal, not the narrow parameters of a problem or hypothesis that you are looking to prove (like in the scientific method). Taking an example from Acumen &'s Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation course I have just finished up, an example design goal would be to provide healthier food options for people who need them (as opposed to starting with a hypothesis such as "more green markets would provide healthier food options for people who need them"). Once the goal or challenge is defined, you must approach your target market head on by getting information around your subject matter (e.g., barriers to healthy food) through immersion, interviews, expert opinion, and observations in a variety of settings.

2) Ideate
With the un-biased and broad understanding you would have hopefully attained in the Discover phase, you can now gather meaningful insights to fuel your brainstorming session for solutions to your challenge, all while keeping a strong connection to and empathy for the end-user in mind. It is important during brainstorming not to filter your ideas or judge others' - it's about quantity, not quality, so let your creative juices flow! Once you get every last crazy thought out there, you can refine the ideas with your team.

3) Prototype
After you've streamlined your most popularly appealing, technologically possible, and economically sustainable idea in the Ideate phase, you would create a prototype to test it with your target market. The emphasis should be about building rough sketches, cardboard mockups, paper mâché models, or mock advertisements - even simulating situational role-play; the point is: get the idea out there quickly and tangibly and see how if flies with those whose support you would need to make it work. It is expected that after getting crucial feedback on your design without having spent a great deal of time or money developing the product or prototype thus far, it will have to be revised - starting from step 1 and going through the process again - one or several times more until the team is ultimately satisfied with the final result. At that point, launching the product or idea and scaling it appropriately would follow.

Sounds so logical, so simple, doesn't it? What if all the world's problems could be solved by design thinking? In the spirit of exercising what we've learned (and because history rules, amirite?), let's muse on some historical calamities that could've had a thing or two to learn from this new-wave, problem-solving protocol...

French Revolution (1789)
In the fabled words of Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake!" Then replace 'eat' with 'violently remove' and 'cake' with 'my head' and you'll find that the French people were, in fact, very open to actioning the ideas of the monarchy. Now if twee Marie had just been a little more au fait with her design thinking skills instead of getting her kicks pretending to be a milkmaid in her peasant town made out of crazy, then she might have been able to counter the (be)heady atmosphere of hatred for the royals. From the country's dismal economy and meagre harvests to its unjust taxation system and skyrocketing prices, King Louis XVI and his Queen purposefully isolated themselves from the rising indignation of the people. The monarchy's indifference to the festering resentments and prominent complaints of the time was what set the peasant and working classes over the edge. I would classify this as a pretty terrible example of "discovering" the needs of the people.

Berlin Conference (1884)
Game night at the Euro-Boys' Club circa 1884 must have been interesting. I imagine they started off with a few cheeky whisky sours, then had a real-life game of Africa Monopoly, followed by charades and a coffee break so Otto von Bismarck can sell tupperware from the pyramid scheme he got caught up in in '83. Sorry, what was that about Africa? The Berlin Conference formalized rules for European colonization and trade throughout most of Africa. As a result, many feuding tribes - who had previously had their own, separate, tribal lands - were forced into the same political boundaries drawn by Europeans thousands of miles away who exhibited no consideration for the consequences that such a complexly intertwined world economy might yield in the future. I'm sure any, even remote, thought into the feasibility or long-term viability of this situation would have dissuaded these powers from drawing boundaries the way they did (if at all). Come on people, get your empathetic and human-centered acts together!

Ford Edsel (1957)
The Ford Edsel was an unholy union of bad moniker, poor timing, and mediocre design, culminating in a vehicular mess akin to the four-car pile up the Edsel never had the chance to cause because no one wanted to buy it. This is a textbook example of a company failing to understand its users' desires and integrate their needs with solutions in the realm of technological and economic possibility. Production of the Ford Edsel was discontinued two years after its debut with a loss of $250 million in development costs ($1.85 billion in today's dollars). According to MSN Money:

The Edsel line of cars were supposed to be the cars of the future... But critics slammed their design, and their mid-range pricing didn't appeal to either the budget or luxury consumer. People didn't seem to like the name, either... The Edsel was a victim of poor timing as well. People had no use for a flashy car just as an economic recession was hitting.

Perhaps a few rounds of ideation and prototyping with Ford's target market would've helped here, or at least saved the company from hemorrhaging that amount of time and money.

All tongue-in-cheek aside, hindsight is 20/20, of course, and I don't seriously intend to suggest that design thinking is a panacea for each and every issue. Nonetheless, it can be valuable to apply these practical, creative-thinking design principles towards broader uses in order to allow individuals, businesses, and organizations of all shapes and sizes to revitalize their current approaches to ideation in order to reach greater levels of innovation.

If you'd like to learn the concepts of design thinking in depth, consider taking the following (free!) online courses: