I’m a long-time book author and business journalist specializing in innovation and creativity. I also do lectures and workshops on innovation and creativity in business and personal lives (in recent months I spoke at Microsoft in Seattle, TEDx in Portland, and conferences in New York, Barcelona, Rome, and Venice.)
My last book, GLIMMER (The Penguin Press; 2009), explored the power of design (and design thinking) to transform the way we live. I’m currently researching and writing a new book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION (Bloomsbury), which looks at the fascinating art and science of asking great questions—and how these questions can spark innovation and change. Over the years, I’ve studied and reported on hundreds of top creative people—in business, the arts, science and education, and in my speeches I share the secrets of these “Master Questioners” for helping all of us become more creative, original and innovative.
Amazingly creative people—in business, the arts, science, and education—tend to be “Master Questioners.” In the anecdotes Warren Berger shares, they are fearless at questioning everything—in a highly effective way that makes them and their businesses more creative, innovative and original. Learn how the rest of us can learn to ask “beautiful questions” the way Steve Jobs did, leading to positive changes in our work and in our lives.
Warren Berger leads you on an entertaining journey through what exactly design thinking is (from a layman’s perspective) and how its well-honed principles can transform your business—and your life.
View some of my presentations here. | Watch my chat with video host Ben Cheever about creativity.
if you'd like me to speak at your organization.
“Warren’s talk really got my people fired up—it introduced us to a whole new way of thinking and problem-solving.”
—Kathleen Griffith, Vice President, Saatchi & Saatchi
“We brought Warren to Venice to speak to our top Pernod Ricard brand CEOs from around the world about creativity, design, innovation, and the art of asking great questions. His presentation was chock-full of inspirational moments and fresh ideas.”
—Pascal Minella, creative consultant, Pernod Ricard
“I saw Warren deliver a keynote at the 2010 FUSE Conference in Chicago and invited him to speak at one of GE’s global design summits. His talk was fun and inspiring—challenging us to look at creativity and innovation in a fresh way.”
—Ivan Cayabyab, Global Brand Manager, GE
“Feedback from our attendees pointed to Warren’s session as one of the conference’s most thought- provoking, and his insightful thinking on questioning and how it can fuel innovation and new opportunities added significantly to the conference dialogue.”
—Chad Fleming, Conference Organizer, International Women’s Forum (IWF)
“Warren Berger’s presentation on creative thinking—and in particular his focus on “asking the right questions”—ended up being one of the most provocative and talked-about speeches of the conference.”
—Donald Hicks, Founder and CEO, LLamasoft, Inc. and host of the SummerCon International Conference on Supply Chain Design
“Warren was one of our keynote speakers at the annual DesignThinkers Conference in Toronto, speaking in front of over one thousand design and business professionals who come together for this global event. The audience really responded to his talk on questioning and how it leads to innovation and creative breakthroughs.”
—Hilary Ashworth, executive director, ARGD Ontario, organizer of the international DesignThinkers Conference
“Warren is a frequent guest speaker at the University of Colorado, and he also served as the “professional-in-residence" at our “Innovators” series—where he interviews (in front of a large live audience as well as a live-streamed TV audience) top creative leaders and business executives from around the world. He’s not only a great speaker, he’s an excellent host and moderator—he can lead just about any type of discussion on creativity and innovation.”
—Melinda Kiger Cheval, co-creator of “Innovators” lecture series, University of Colorado
The transcript (with images) below is from my presentation at the 2010 FUSE Design & Culture Conference in Chicago, on the subject of how designers think and what the rest of us can learn from that.
For the past few years, while working on my design book Glimmer, I’ve been venturing inside the minds of top designers. And I’d like to talk now about what goes on in those minds. And what all of us—whether we’re designers or not—can learn from the study of what goes on in there.
So what does go on in designer’s heads? Well, you could say that a lot of what happens in there could be categorized as “design thinking.”
But in bringing up this term, I have to step back a moment—because that term, “design thinking,” is currently right up there with Lady Gaga in terms of danger of overexposure.
A big conference on the topic was just held by The Economist magazine. Plus, there are about 27 different books on the subject currently. MBA programs are picking up on it, CEO's are talking about it. So it’s everywhere… and yet at the same time it’s a vague concept. The current discussion of it feels a little academic and jargony—all of which can be off-putting to some, including some designers.
Here’s one definition of design thinking by one of the pioneers in the field, Tim Brown of IDEO: “Design thinking is a non-linear approach to problem solving that integrates what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable by seeing patterns in the environment and taking a human centered approach to engage people and address problems.”
Now that’s a perfectly valid definition. But by the time you get to the end of that sentence, you need a cold beer.
So I would like to humbly propose a new, simpler definition of Design Thinking, as follows:
Design thinking = how designers think.
Simple, right? So obvious, yet it makes sense. And you don’t have to be part of the Stanford University graduate design program to get your brain around it.
Now, I would also like to propose this: All of us can learn to think more like designers.
Even if we’re not designers. Especially if we’re not designers.
And even if you are a designer—which presumably means you already “think like a designer”—this whole discussion and analysis of “how designers think” is relevant. Because designers can benefit by better articulating what they do, how they work, and what they bring to table.
Designers have long complained that their mothers don’t get what they do for a living—so maybe that’s a good indication that designers need to get better at explaining what they do. (If you’re doing something and you can’t explain it to your mother, you’ve got a problem.)
So, let’s accept the premise that there’s value in understanding and articulating how designers think. This then raises the question… How does one go about studying “how designers think?”
In my case, I started by studying one designer, Bruce Mau, then expanded into studying Yves Béhar, Brian Collins and many others. I kept interviewing more and more people, and by the time I was done I’d talked to upwards of 100 different designers, who I refer to in my book as “The Glimmerati.”
Rather than presenting my findings in the form of interviews, I focused on stories. I tried to recreate the stories of how designers solved problems. What was going through their minds: what questions were they asking themselves, what mental connections were being made, and how did they act on all of that.
I looked at how the designer Van Phillips created a revolutionary new prosthetic foot; how the design student Deborah Adler redesigned prescription medicine bottles to be more readable; how Yves Béhar designed a groundbreaking new laptop computer for kids in the developing world.
I looked at people designing everything from a simple peanut-shelling device to a complex marketing campaign designed to get teenagers to stop smoking.
And I found that within almost all these stories of how a particular designer solved a particular challenge there were common threads and shared principles with regard to the process that leads to innovation. That process is a way of thinking and then acting.
Many of the designers I studied seemed to go through the same basic steps:
- Questioning the existing reality;
- Envisioning that which does not exist;
- Using lateral thinking, to connect unrelated ideas;
- Experimenting and prototyping.
This was kind of a “Glimmer moment” for me. When I saw these shared principles and methodologies, I said, “Aha! That’s design thinking." Forget all the complex and conflicting definitions and academic theories… this is a way of thinking and then acting. It starts with looking at the world around us with an eye toward improvement. And then, having envisioned a new and possibly better way of doing something, it's about how you make that vision a reality.
Some people have been doing this kind of creative problem-solving for a long time, and they’re quite good at it. That’s why it makes sense to study those people.
So what did I learn, as I observed this species known as Designer?
I learned they really are, in some ways, a distinct breed. With their own language...
And, when you study a group of people, you begin to notice tendencies and idiosyncrasies. For instance, I discovered designers are a communal species.
They huddle together at meetings, conferences, awards shows, etc.—which seem to be going on every day in the design world. They like to “talk amongst themselves.”
But while a close-knit community, I discovered that designers are also prone to suddenly attacking and tearing each other apart.
And when this happens, it usually occurs in the comments section of the design blogs.
But putting aside these idiosyncrasies and quirks, there were 5 ways of thinking and behaving that really stood out for me—five characteristics that the best designers seemed to have, each of which is critical to bringing about change and innovation.
First: Designers don’t see reality in the same fixed way the rest of us do.
Which is why they are so prone to… Asking Stupid Questions.
Van Phillips asking why can’t a prosthetic foot be as flexible as a real one… The designers for OXO, asking, “Why does a potato peeler have to hurt your hand?”… Dean Kamen, who told me about seeing a guy in a wheelchair who couldn’t get over curb, and asking, “Why can’t someone design a wheelchair that climbs curbs and steps?” And then he designed one.
That ability, and the willingness, of designers to question the most basic assumptions is perhaps best captured in this joke that I’ve heard a number of designers tell about themselves:
How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?
The answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?
And this gets at the heart of how designers challenge assumptions, by asking “Why?” … (or “Why not?”)
When you challenge basic assumptions, it can make you seem naïve… which is why I refer to these as “stupid questions.” A lot of people are afraid to raise their hands in a business setting and ask those kinds of fundamental questions. But designers are expected to ask those questions.
A corollary of this questioning thing is: Designers also tend to believe that there are answers to those questions. They tend to have incredible optimism.
Bruce Mau likes to say: “A designer does not have the luxury of cynicism.”
They are simply expected to solve problems. It’s their job. So they have to be optimistic.
At one point I was discussing all of this with Roger Martin of the Rotman School, and my question to him was, “Are designers insane? Why do so many of them believe they can change reality?”
And his wonderful answer was: “They believe they can change reality because they’ve already done it.” The more designers are able to innovate and solve problems during their careers, the more they come to believe they can do it again in the future.
Martin, who has studied the way Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser think, has referred to this as “The upward spiral of problem solving.”
That’s a big part of design thinking—this alternate way of looking at the world as something that can be changed. And I think everyone could use a bit more of that mindset today, given all the challenges we currently face.
* * *
Now, moving onto a second key characteristic of the design mind: I talk a lot in Glimmer about designers and empathy—which is really all about paying attention to people and caring.
Designers care. I suppose it’s because design is rooted in craftsmanship and problem-solving... and through the years, it’s been entwined with Utopianism—with making a better world. So designers bring a history of caring to their work.
I don’t want to sound here like I’m suggesting designers are all saints. The flip side of believing you can improve everything—and that you can see solutions others can’t see—is that it means you have a healthy ego. And many designers, especially some of the star designers I was dealing with, have huge egos.
Also, in terms of people “caring” a lot, that can sometimes make someone a real pain—I found that designers can get so obsessive about details they drive everyone around them crazy. Designers obsess about everything, from the condition of the world…
…to the kerning of type.
But I do think this caring aspect really becomes important with regard to meeting people’s needs. Because when you observe and study people as closely as good designers do, your intentions matter.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about advertising, and I love advertising—but sometimes, it seems to me that when advertisers study us as humans, they’re often looking for psychological weak spots, irrational desires—areas they can tap into to sell us something we may or may not need.
Whereas designers, ideally, are studying us to figure out what our actual needs are, how our lives could be improved.
And it can involve small things, such as a measuring cup. The OXO measuring cup is a great example of what can happen when a company and its designers, in this case Smart Design, care enough to take the time to really pay attention to people and their basic needs. Only by watching people in their kitchens, as they actually use a measuring cup, do you begin to notice certain unarticulated needs. With existing measuring cups, people had to bend over and look at markings on the side of the cup to see how much liquid was in it. But most people weren't even aware they were doing this, so it's not something you'd ever learn in a focus group. You have to care enough to go out into the world and observe and pay close attention to what's going on. And that leads to the Glimmer moment: What if the cup had markings that could be seen from above?
Okay, so designers are really good at:
1) Questioning reality
2) Caring about needs
Now here’s a third thing that I observed about them: Designers can be really good at making mental connections that lead to radically fresh ideas.
Why are they good at this? Well, I found that the designers I studied, when searching for new ideas, open themselves up to the widest range of possibilities.
A lot of us are straight ahead, logical in our thinking—our brains follow a predictable neural path (just out of sheer laziness.) But the best designers seem to have this knack for lateral thinking—whether consciously or unconsciously.
When I talked to Stefan Sagmeister about this, he told me he uses little tricks and techniques to nudge his mind so that it moves off the beaten path. He did an exercise with me where he had himself design a lamp by using a random influence from the immediate surroundings in his office. He glanced around the space and there was a picture of a fish, so he forced himself to combine the idea of a lamp with the concept of a fish. And by the time he was done he had a pretty cool idea for a lamp with fish scales.
Designers are very good synthesizers and specialize in connecting ideas that seem to be unrelated. This is important because often when you’re trying to innovate you find that, as the designer Jennifer Morla says, “There are no completely original ideas anymore—it’s a matter of connecting existing ideas in new ways.”
Another designer, John Thackara, uses the term “Smart recombinations,” meaning Connect A and B, and you get a brand new C.
In Glimmer, I have lots of stories of everyday designers creating these “smart recombinations,” taking the form of everything from the “Wovel” (a shovel combined with a wheel) to the “Clocky” (an alarm clock combined with wheels). The latter product was created by a young designer, Gauri Nanda, who kept oversleeping because she always turned off her alarm clock. And her idea was to make a clock that would wake her up and then roll away, loudly beeping, forcing her to give chase.
Smart recombinations are everywhere, these days. We’re living in a mash-up culture where something like this can become a best-selling book.
That’s a smart recombo—Jane Austen and zombies.
But it’s not easy to make these random-yet-interesting connections. The designer John Bielenberg runs workshops with exercises in what he calls “thinking wrong”—forcing yourself to experiment with ideas that make no sense.
It also helps to have a well-stocked, eclectic mind. Paula Scher, talking about her Pentagram design partner Michael Bierut, has said:
“His brain is a compendium… he absorbs everything and then uses what he needs at the right moment.”
The more raw material that’s in there and the more far-ranging stuff you have to connect, the more apt you are to be better at smart recombinations. If you’re steeped in history and religion and pop culture and sports, you can make the kinds of connections George Lois used to do on the covers of Esquire.
I asked Lois where those ideas came from, and he said, “They come from your life. You gotta know what the hell is going on in the culture around you.”
But the key, designers told me, is “don’t look for great ideas in your own front yard”—you’ve already dug up that soil and there’s nothing new there. Look for stuff way out in left field—then bring it back to your domain, and make the connections.
* * *
So designers question… they care (about people and needs)… they connect ideas… and then the fourth really important thing that designers do is…
When it comes to ideas, most of us are all talk. But designers very quickly give form to their ideas. Whatever form it may take—a napkin sketch, a collage, a digital mock-up, a cardboard prototype—it’s a level of commitment most people don’t make in trying to bring young ideas into the world.
This is important—because when you give form to an idea, you begin to give it life. You make something that can be passed around, tinkered with—something people can rally around.
The designer Brian Collins has a wonderful phrase he uses: “Design is hope made visible.”
By giving form to ideas, designers can show us what the future might look like—can present us with all kinds of new possibilities so we can decide: Is this what we want?
One final point I want to make about designers: When they put these early versions of ideas out there, in sketches and prototypes, these versions of things are often flawed.
So, designers have to be comfortable with the art of “failing forward.”
And they usually are, because they know that the design process is iterative—and that failure is just an expected step in the process. And a very useful one in fact—because it provides the feedback that enables you to adapt and improve creations, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. So each misstep brings the designer one step closer to a workable solution.
I happen to believe that today, if you're operating in the business world, or in government, or even in, say, the social services realm—you're in a rapidly changing environment that requires experimentation and "rapid prototyping.” Everything around you is being re-invented—the communications channels and media formats, distribution, people's lifestyles. It’s all in a state of flux, which puts us all in a “test and learn” environment.
Designers are already used to living in a “test and learn” world—but now everybody else has to get used to doing that. This means we have to start thinking about “failure” the way designers do—as a necessary and useful step on the path to progress.
Just to sum up: the top 5 things that I think we can learn from how designers think and act:
1. QUESTION everything, believing there’s always a better way.
2. CARE about what people actually need.
3. CONNECT ideas that seem unrelated, via “smart recombinations.”
4. COMMIT bring ideas to life through visualization and prototyping.
5. FAIL FORWARD.
I want to emphasize that this is only a small part of what designers do, and it may not apply to all designers; but it did apply to the innovative designers I studied.
I happen think these principles can be useful guidelines to many non-professional designers--to people who are trying to "plan and produce desired outcomes" (which is Bruce Mau's broad definition of design) in business, in government, in hospitals, in schools, and in daily life. And that’s the case I make in Glimmer.
By the way, I get asked often about the title. While I was researching the book and combing through endless definitions of design, I came across this anonymous one on the Internet: “Design is the glimmer in God’s eye.”
I like that word glimmer in relation to design.
To me, Glimmer = potential = possibility = hope.
And that’s what design is all about, too.