Empathy, experience and the rise of design thinking in business

Fifteen years ago, design research – and design thinking more broadly – were unknown, niche domains. No longer. More and more, they’re the drivers behind strategic business change – the forces reshaping individual corporations and even entire industries.

Today, when forward-thinking companies look to disrupt or evolve how they reach their customers, their approach is design-led: qualitative, iterative and fundamentally human-centric.

The core: Connection and context

Design thinking and research are fundamentally human fields. They’re about marrying an understanding of cultures, people and interactions with the design process. “Tell me my customers’ stories” is a request designers hear with increasing frequency. More and more CEOs and CMOs are becoming aware that connecting with consumers means understanding their unique perspectives and contexts. Good design demands empathy.

From numbers to nuance

Traditionally, corporate executives looking to better understand their customers turned to hard numbers for guidance. Survey results, segmentations, percentages, themes … quantitative often trumped qualitative.

Now, we’re seeing an inversion of that paradigm. Today, designing with true understanding means far more than consulting figures. It’s about establishing a real connection. Meeting people face-to-face in the contexts that matter to them. Sitting down to talk to people in their homes or riding with them in their cars while they’re on the road.

It’s about people listening to people tell their own stories in their own words.

Disruption demands innovation

Today, when disruption hits an industry, incumbents often find themselves suddenly adrift – struggling to stay relevant and compete. Consider the position of many major brick and mortar retailers. Given the onslaught of digital giants, many have found their top lines beginning to decline.

More broadly, many companies whose assumptions about the products, services or experiences they need to deliver are based on their own internal business goals and customer definitions have also been hard-hit. This type of approach needs a rethink. It’s not about how businesses define the customers they serve. It’s about how those customers define themselves. It’s about looking at what people have done to make the world work for them – and seeing how it could work better.

There, it’s possible to assess the opportunities for design. Only after getting to grips with what is truly, deeply and contextually meaningful to people can companies begin to deliver.

Making design meaningful

Can a design thinking mentality be taught? Can a design-led focus find its way into any c-suite? Three ‘bridges’ – mindset, metrics and momentum – are beginning to span the divide.


Interestingly, the idea of teaching design thinking has invoked a certain degree of criticism – particularly from designers themselves. The censure has included reductionism – taking the design specialism and transforming it into little more than a 5- or 7-step process.

Key, however, is that creating meaningful design is not a process. It’s an approach. A way of thinking. Some of its hallmarks: An obsession with collaboration. A willingness to be iterative and prototype often. An emphasis on always being empathy-driven and orthodoxy-breaking. If that’s the mindset – and what drives behaviour in the design space – the process itself becomes far less relevant.


Good design, it seems, pays dividends too. According to The Design Management Institute’s Design Value Index, companies that embrace design outperform their competitors. A market capitalisation-weighted index of design-driven companies revealed their 10-year returns (between 2004 and 2014) were 219% above the benchmark S&P 500 Index.

There’s growing demand, too, for business school graduates with strong design thinking skills – and a consequent uptick in demand for design-led business school educations. Since 2014, for example, the Kellogg School of Management’s highly design-focused MMM Programme has witnessed a 40% increase in applications – and 111% increase in women applying to the program. Thinking in the South African education space is beginning to align.


There’s great potential to be unlocked when CEOs adopt a design thinking mentality – and many are. However, there’s also a need to re-invest in and reclaim designers’ own importance – and embrace getting designers back into the boardroom, where they belong.

Great design comes through true understanding – the kind of understanding that comes only with real, human connection. Moreover, design thinking is never about asking: ‘What do you need?’ It’s about looking at what people have done to make the world work for them. And from there, assessing the opportunities from a design perspective. In any design engagement, the first question is this: ‘How can we get in touch with what truly matters?’

Martha Cotton
Martha Cotton

Design Research Lead At Fjord

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