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Are you thinking big enough about design thinking?

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For a lot of traditional creatives (those typical pairings of art director and copywriter), design thinking translates into thinking about design–i.e., being smart about what they do.

For a lot of new creatives–and, increasingly, for clients who have been at all involved in the digital space–design thinking means a lot more. It’s a philosophy, process, and way of putting users at the center of design–in other words, it’s a much bigger idea than you may think, and mistaking it for a small idea could set you (not to mention your clients) up for disappointment.

While purely thinking about design may coincidentally land you in a similar place (though that’s doubtful), approaching your project with true design thinking at its heart lands you side-by-side with your client versus at opposite ends of the table. You end up partners jointly solving a problem, instead of (as is more typical) opponents facing off, with you needing to win their approval.

When you’ve got a savvy client who values design thinking, but you rely on the tried and true creative method instead:

  • You only rely on what the client or strategy team told you and realize you should have been learning about what designs users find valuable and delightful.
  • Your client puts the designs to the test and they underperform, eroding faith in the team’s ability to design things that work in the real world.
  • Your client asks about design strategy and decision-making, and the creatives respond with their personal preferences.


So here’s how you can explain design thinking to your traditional creative team (without alienating them before you’ve even gotten started):

  • Clients know part of the problem; users know the other part. We need to understand both parts to know how to create solutions.
  • Our solutions will be judged not just in a single client review, but in the market–so the designs need to perform well with actual people, whose input we need along the way.
  • The client will sign off on solutions that either are proven to work or tell a grounded story of why and how they work better than what exists today. They explain the experiential, tangible, and measurable benefits of good design.


With your team thinking along the right lines, the next step is implementing design thinking in your process. Keep in mind:

  • It’s a cross-functional sport. Expand your team and include specialists in research, design, and creative. Good collaborators bring necessary perspectives about users and experience design that make the most traditionally minded teammates capable of solving more complex design challenges.
  • It’s iterative. Plan short sprints of creating, learning, and sharing results with your clients. Getting them in the habit of seeing the work and insights evolve on a regular cadence reassures them progress is being made.
  • It’s collaborative. Design reviews are more like design workshops where clients buy into the process, understand the thinking behind decisions, and are more apt to follow creative directions since they’ve seen the evolution.


Once you’ve got your team rowing together toward this new future, you should reap some big benefits:

  • Clients will feel and experience a partnership with your team–which, over time and ideally, should lead to repeat work.
  • Your creatives won’t be shooting in the dark–rather, they should have lots of insights to spark and grow ideas.
  • The process will be transparent. You’ll see how things are tracking, and you’ll have a footing so you can realign the work should it wander or get off-track.


Over my years in this business, I’ve seen clients become increasingly savvy as their goals shift from winning design awards to earning design results. So much of their business rides on creative teams that intuitively get design thinking. I’ve seen creative teams try to do things the old-fashioned way and wind up punished by clients who demand they take a different approach. Nobody enjoys the difficult realization the team doesn’t have what it takes, so do yourself a favor by updating how you’re thinking about design thinking. Give it the space it needs to make your team shine and do bigger and better things.