A term bandied a lot around the agency circles of late is ‘design thinking’. For some creative agencies, design thinking has been seen as a solution and a way to expand their services, opening up doors to technology creation among other things. At the heart of this notion, though, is that design thinking is more holistic and takes into consideration brand problems that advertising can’t.
With the help of companies such as Apple, design thinking — also sometimes called ‘human-centred design’ — has been popularised and broadly taken as combining product, service and business in design. At its best, design thinking can help brands fight stagnation and create new value through purposefully designed products, services and marketing initiatives created with end users and market dynamics in mind. But even as it’s under the spotlight, it is a discipline that is seldom clearly understood.
When comparing it to advertising, Jonathan Ng, creative partner at Nurun Singapore, a Publicis Groupe design consultancy, says design thinking shapes much more than just a brand message. He also describes the practice as “complex and difficult to understand for most outside the industry”.
Put simply, though, design thinking is a process that follows a series of phases — such as, ‘discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution — that are used to reach a desired outcome. This results in a well-tested prototype for a product, service or platform. The scope of design thinking is huge and its applications broad.
“Our timelines are long,” says Joanne Theseira, general manager at Nurun Singapore. “It can range from 40 days to months before we reach a prototype, because we are testing it and testing it.”
While there are variations in the process and how it is conveyed graphically among different design agencies, such as Ideo, Frog Design and Fjord, Ng says that the foundations are the same. “If the process is managed well, either type of agency is capable of delivering an effective solution,” he explains. “However, a good agency partner should do more than just deliver a solution on paper. They have to bring it to life, test it, make it, test it again and market it effectively.”
The question in Asia-Pacific is whether clients are ready to make such an investment.
As it turns out, ad agencies aren’t the only ones investing in design thinking in the region. Consulting firms are, too. According to Olof Schybergson, CEO and founder of Fjord, Asia has been on the company’s roadmap for over six years, even prior to its acquisition by Accenture and its integration with Accenture Interactive.
Iñaki Amate, head of Fjord Hong Kong, believes that the time to launch in the region is now ripe.
“Locally there’s an interest in how design can transform business,” says Amate, who launched Fjord’s first regional office in Hong Kong late last year. “Most clients have heard about design thinking, but here in Hong Kong there isn’t anyone to show them what it means for their business.”
Amate, who has launched Fjord offices in other markets, including Spain and Turkey, observes that many local companies in China are “wondering what else they can do to catch up with innovative companies in the east of China”.
In early March, PwC also launched a design thinking offering in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, following the acquistion of Hong Kong creative agency, Fluid.
Watch Campaign's Design Thinking in Asia, episode 1.
At the same time, many Chinese brands want to go global. “They know how the local market works in China but still struggle to understand why they’re not successful in a market like Brazil,” he says.
Compared with the size of Greater China’s economy, Schybergson highlights that the number of local Chinese brands that have become successful globally is relatively low. “But that will change in the next 10 years, and we want to be a part of that,” he says.
When it comes to the paradigm of design thinking, however, Asia’s business culture presents certain challenges. Amate explains that clients in Asia want to see “immediate results and tangible outcomes”, but the early phases of design thinking don’t necessarily provide for that. “For one, Chinese culture tends to be impatient and very pragmatic,” says Amate. “That you need to spend time understanding the customer, create prototypes and run trials that you will later tear down is something we need to educate the market about.
“The key will be to show design thinking drastically increases the chance of success compared with when you just go to market or create a new product without using design thinking.”
Dealing with marketing departments — advertising agencies’ traditional entry point into a company — can also be an issue. Theseira says Nurun often starts out working with the chief marketing officer, but the department “kind of disappears” later in the process due to the scope of design thinking.
“We often have to stop the marketer [mid-research] and say, while we understand the problem as they see it, we have to suggest that it goes even deeper,” says Theseira.
From there, the design teams at Nurun will move on to work with “the customer experience folks, R&D, the CEO, key decision makers and teams in distribution”.
“It’s difficult for marketers to reframe the problem,” says Theseira. “With design thinking, they have to. It goes beyond the problems faced in marketing. Even if it is impacting marketing.”
Design thinking is still in its infancy in Asia-Pacific
Joanne Theseira, GM, Nurun Singapore
Clients know about the process of design thinking but find it hard to embark on a process because they don’t have a clear idea of what the final deliverables might be.
However, if clients are open for it and the right stakeholders are involved, they will find opportunities and solutions that can transform their business or customer experience.
The greatest challenge for agencies in this space is recruiting talent. There is a need to change the mindset of hires that join from advertising and marketing.
The talent in advertising agencies are incredibly creative, but they have also been trained for many years to find solutions as quickly as possible. Design thinking takes a little more time than that. It demands that you interrogate, contemplate and identify underlying issues and problems that affect the client’s business, and then pay careful attention to the users’ needs. It’s not as simple as running a focus group.
However, it’s this analytical rigour that makes the design thinking process so rewarding for both agencies and clients.
Agencies are not yet fully set up for design thinking, as their core business and billing model is mostly still centred on ‘headcount’ and ‘scope’. The partnership required in product, service or design innovation isn’t structured quite the same way. It requires its own model, one that is beneficial to both agencies and clients and may sometimes include things like intellectual property rights.
Finally, in a world of design thinking, roles don’t matter so much as the process, which is incredibly collaborative. Everyone is focused on the same outcome to eventually arrive at a user- or human-centric solution. Compared with the functions within an ad agency, the main difference with design thinking lies in the output of each role. For example, a strategist will need to lead the team in identifying a problem through empathy. A creative director will need to turn the problem into a solution that is both emotional and functional for our users. A service or product designer will need to bridge barriers for users so that they start to adopt the solution.
Transformational work requires design thinking
Aden Hepburn, managing director, executive creative director, VML
Clients are facing new challenges, particularly in relation to the role of digital and the opportunity for it to transform not only how they advertise but also how they run their entire organisation. These problems are complex in nature and require a greater level of systematic thinking, customer-centric design and rapid prototyping.
For VML, it has been a natural evolution really. As a digital creative, content and technology agency, we find ourselves somewhere between an ad agency, design firm and tech shop.
Design thinking will continue to form a fundamental part of our approach to helping solve our clients’ problems.
Design thinking has provided a robust approach for understanding humans; how they think and behave, their emotions needs and desires, to then defining future visions through experimentation, prototyping, testing, production, and implementation.
When you break it down the ad industry is more similar to the design industry than you may think. We’re both required to understand our audience, we both imagine a future for our clients and their customers, and we both experiment and test concepts before producing and deploying them to market.
In the past ad agencies have been focused on crafting messages and creative ideas to build interest, desire and loyalty towards our clients products and services. Design firms on the other hand have focused on designing superior tools or utilities that solve a problem or fulfill a latent need or desire. These products, services and ecosystems may or may not have a digital component.
As ad agencies and digital agencies increasingly tackle more complex and transformational client problems, they will continue to adopt design thinking methods. The best already do.
Our view: Design thinking is yet another approach agencies are embracing to move beyond marketing solutions. But is a process enough? Or do agencies need a complete culture change?