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These ‘design thinking’ strategies can keep your agency innovative

What is design thinking and how can you leverage it for agency growth.

Profile picture of Ido Lechner


6 min read

Innovation is a key underpinning in every agency’s growth strategy, now more than ever. In an ever-changing business landscape under the pressures of economic uncertainty, it’s reinvent or fade, which means agencies need to innovate to stay relevant and resilient.

How can agencies make innovation a systemic practice, instead of a sporadic undertaking?

Two words: design thinking.

Design thinking is a collaborative methodology agencies can leverage to create an innovation process that withstands the test of time. The term was first coined by cognitive scientist and Nobel prize laureate Herbert A. Simon in 1969, but it didn’t hit the mainstream until 1991 when global design and innovation firm IDEO popularized it as a business practice. Now, it’s been rapidly adopted by some of the world’s leading brands, including Google, Apple, Airbnb, Netflix, Starbucks and Nike, and is also taught in leading universities across the globe.

Design your way to a better innovation process model

Design is more than creating beautiful websites; you can also design processes, policies, business models and ecosystems. As Steve Jobs famously said, “design is not just what it looks and feels like, it’s how it works.”

That’s what design thinking stresses: a non-linear, iterative process used to deepen teams’ understanding of users, challenge assumptions, and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. It's a way of reflecting on concepts to create feasible, viable and desirable solutions to complex problems.

For agencies, this can be used to address roadblocks along the customer journey, redefine strategies, improve the employee experience or launch a new service altogether. The opportunities are limitless, so prioritize which road you’ll go down by assessing the impact, difficulty and cost of not addressing each problem.

The phases of a design thinking process

Design thinking isn’t only used to solve problems; it’s used to identify the right ones to tackle. Teams often discover halfway through the process that the original challenge they embarked on doesn’t quite hit the target of the deeper, more profound issue at play. Through this work, they unravel new challenges initially invisible to the naked eye, that when solved, yield profound impact.

Consider this example. When dental care brand Oral B enlisted the help of designers Kim Colin and Sam Hecht to upgrade its electric toothbrush, the company’s original request was to add more functionality such as frequency tracking, gum sensitivity detection and playing music. By undergoing the design thinking process, they came to realize that for many people, brushing their teeth often feels overwhelming; they don’t necessarily want gimmicky features (see: avoiding ‘featuritis’), instead they made the product easier to charge on the go and created replacement heads.

This is one of many examples that point to the importance of not assuming what your clients want. Instead, follow the design thinking process—up next—to discover their true pain points and unexpressed needs.

Empathize: Determine a challenge and map out all the stakeholders involved (hint: it may be more than just your clients). Understand each stakeholder’s needs and pain points by speaking with them directly. Don’t form any opinions just yet; remain objective and open to collecting information. So, if you’re working on a web design project for instance, you’d first want to form a cohesive understanding of your client’s clients, partners, investors and competitors before jumping to any conclusions.

Define: This is where you can begin to pool your information and identify patterns. It’s here teams synthesize information to express the big ideas behind them. This stage is sometimes referred to as sensemaking, so keep in mind that you can only ‘make sense’ of accurate information. That’s why the empathy stage is so important.

Ideate: Once you’ve crystalized your understanding of all the stakeholders and their respective core values, you can begin to mix and match insights to create new solutions. Collaborate with your team to envision the best possible ideas to take forward.

Prototype: Transform your solutions into tangible MVPs (minimal viable product). That is, the most basic, barebones form of your idea that conveys its core functionality. It's best practice to isolate the most important aspect of your idea when creating tangible solutions, as opposed to trying to bake in every ingredient in one shot.

Test: Run qualitative and quantitative analyses of your prototype. Use your MVP to determine how people think of and use your creation. This is critical for reflection and iteration since design is never truly finished. There’s always room for improvement, so it’s up to the discretion of the team when to iterate and when to move forward with a solution.

How design thinking helps agencies innovate

To change your agency’s process, you need to change your agency’s thinking. Design thinking encourages agencies to challenge what they know to be true to see the world in a different light.

Champion diversity to cross-pollinate ideas

Many of the best ideas for your agency are sitting in your employee’s heads right now. To truly embrace design thinking is to form diverse teams made up of different roles, ethnicities and lived experiences where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas. That’s because diversity yields divergent thinking, whereas homogeneity leads to ‘more of the same.’

To reach greater team diversity, create horizontal roles in your agency that unite the company by connecting teams from different departments or verticals. Implement new ways of getting together to encourage teamwork (such as running hackathons) and consider switching to a pod model.

Innovate with your clients, not for them

Design thinkers rarely create on behalf of users. Instead, they engage them throughout the process to design alongside them instead.

This speaks to the collaborative mindset designers must foster to craft solutions that resolve issues at the heart of the matter. But co-developing ideas with your clients isn't a one-and-done moment; true collaboration means ongoingly engaging your clients to bake co-creation into your innovation process. This is powerful, because engaging clients in your innovation process minimizes the risk and uncertainty involved with innovating.

The best way to open up your innovation model to accommodate co-creation is to clearly define your objectives, as well as points of contact with people outside your agency. The saying ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ rings true here; more important than mapping out action steps is developing a culture of curiosity that allows anything to be questioned.

Build your agency’s storytelling capabilities

The stories you tell inform the way you innovate. Storytelling is critical for design thinking because it provides clarity, aligns employees and informs your strategy. Some of the best designers are also great storytellers because they embed themselves in the shoes of others to project a narrative as if it were their own. Fortunately, storytelling is a muscle you can build in your agency by hiring strong writers, using data to inform your branding and narratives and articulating your agency’s mission and vision.

Make agile decisions

As an iterative process, design thinking affords agencies the ability to pivot on the fly. By testing prototypes early, agencies can optimize for what works and resonates with their clients. This is critical, as agencies often need to move at the speed of insight to deliver against tight deadlines.

Return to the prototyping and testing stages of your project frequently and maintain short feedback loops to address problems and new discoveries as they arise. Run usability tests to interpret how your audience makes sense of your proposed solutions, and of course, make sure learnings are communicated across your agency.

Since design thinking is non-linear, you can use the results of your findings to inform which stage of the process you’ll jump to next. If your solution works, it might be time to start the process anew with a new challenge, otherwise you’ll need to go back to the drawing board to determine what went wrong and how to address it. (Related: Win back strategies to turn angry clients into satisfied customers)

Grow your human-centric innovation

According to the Harvard Business Review, two of the most common innovation traps are (1) pursuing a phantom opportunity because it seems so big that there must be money in it somewhere, and (2) wandering into a new market where you have no natural advantage. Design thinking avoids both by maintaining a customer-centric stance.

Ultimately, design thinking’s hidden superpowers can be summed up in 4C’s: collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. Together, these ingredients combine into a whole greater than the sum of its parts: human-centric solutions that shift paradigms.

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