Design Thinking and Intangible Assets

Design-thinking is an ideology which...emphasizes a practical, user-centric approach to problem resolution. Ideally this is achieved by incorporating methods and ideas (for problem resolution) into a single, unified concept.

Design thinking, in its current context, was coined…in the 1990’s by David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO, along with Roger Martin.  Admittedly, at first blush, there may seem to be nothing particularly new about ‘design thinking’, in fact, it has been variously practiced for literally, hundreds of years.

That said, ‘design thinking’ does represent an ideology to…resolve problems, when accompanied by relevant processes. In this manner, design thinking can lead to innovation which differentiates businesses, companies, products, and/or services through competitive advantages which have been produced.

For example…

On the business side, product design frequently manifests as… afterthoughts, i.e., tweaks, etc., applied to products, or even certain types of services, to purposefully incorporate a distinctive feature, component, or quality, aesthetic, and otherwise, which some refer to as ‘topical design applications’.  Of course, it’s not difficult to find instances in which product design tweaks disappoint, i.e., do not reflect or match consumers-users-clients’ specific needs.

Design thinkers are inclined to engage – approach their work as a… creative, user-centric, process, i.e.; one that is intended to elevate the probability that solutions (outcomes) will be more effective and well received, because meaningful – memorable intangibles have been incorporated.

Two early examples of design thinking include…

  • Charles and Ray Eames who, in the early 1900’s, practiced “learning by doing” in which they explored a range of needs and constraints before designing the famous Eames chairs.
  • Jean Muir, a 1960’s dressmaker, known for her “common sense” approach to clothing design, placing as much emphasis on how her clothes felt to the wearer, as they looked-appeared to others.

Both Eames and Muir were innovators of their time…that is, their approaches to the design of their respective products, i.e., chairs and clothing, are now recognized as early examples of design thinking — as they each developed…

  • a deep understanding of prospective users’ lives and unmet needs.

As I have come to understand the evolution of ‘design thinking’…it encapsulates methods and ideas which many designers, individually and collectively, have been assembling – framing for years until, that is, they became unified into a standalone concept (process).

Today, it’s fair to suggest, in my judgment, companies that purposefully and prudently combine (a.) forward thinking – looking, and (b.) user-centricity in the design of their products…are indeed, receptive to and recognize the relevance and importance of having designers immersed – engaged in each phase of a process.

This often manifests as moving designers from the…

end of a product-development process where their input and contribution is obviously limited…

to the beginning of a process where there are opportunities to shape product development to reflect and accommodate user needs, i.e., incorporating genuine – aesthetically attractive intangibles, with the necessary tangibles…

  • the outcome of which is often far better than conventional linear and/or milestone-based approaches to product design.

Obviously, ‘design thinking’ is not bound to following a pre-defined series of sequenced steps…but too, the notion that creative ideas suddenly enter and burst from one’s mind, already fully formed, is seldom the case either…

  • what new things one may learn from the iterative steps of design thinking, in my interpretation, are the prudent inclusion of various complimentary and contributory intangibles.

A still relevant example of design thinking, frequently cited by Tim Brown, is…Thomas Edison’s creation of the electric light bulb!  As Brown characterizes it…

  • Edison’s invention of the light bulb, served as one, albeit, relatively small, component of a much larger industry which he (Edison) envisioned.

In other words, Edison’s genius…Brown says, does not lie merely in inventing a single, relatively discreet ‘parlor trick’ device…i.e., the electric light bulb…

  • rather his genius evolved from his ability to conceive an eventual fully developed marketplace surrounded by-the-use of the electric light bulb.

Another element of Edison’s genius evolved from his futuristic (horizonal) vision how people would come to…want to possess and use the electric light bulb.

Brown believes the vision Edison espoused, and the approach he applied to…achieve that vision, constituted an early example of ‘design thinking’. More specifically, Edison’s ‘visionary marketplace’ was a system of electric power, i.e., generation and transmission that would render the ‘light bulb’ useful and relevant on mass scal,e globally.

Of course, Apple, a contemporary leader in design thinking…where horizonal and user-centric (product, system, brand, support) functionalities are repeatedly applied, integrated, and effectively exploited to deliver product differentiators – competitive – market advantages, and historically strong returns, many of which clearly manifest through effective integration – application of intangibles which consumers are receptive and willing to pay a premium.

Again, it does not appear all-that-difficult to recognize that...’design thinking’ variously differs, substantially in some instances, from conventional linear and milestone-based business actions.

Design thinking is the product of iterative intellectual, structural, and relationship capital work…ala intangible assets, the core of which is a person-centered process of (a.) discovery, (b.) coupled with prototyping, (c.) testing, and (d.) cycles of refinement.

  • in other words, design thinking embodies a system of ‘spaces’.
  • that distinguish various activities that ultimately come to form a ‘continuum of innovation’, i.e., inspiration, ideation, and implementation, or intellectual, structural, and relationship capital.

So, however ‘design thinking’ may be described, it is a methodology that encompasses a range of activities related to innovation…but with a very specific and important twist…

  • that is, it has a people – user centered (design) focus, influenced by direct observation of what people, presumably prospective users and consumers…
    • want and need, to simplify, bring speed, more functionality, etc., and
    • what they like – dislike about the way a product is made, packaged, sold, and supported.

NOTE: A special thanks to Tim Brown’s fine article titled ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, June 2008 which Mr. Moberly has adapted for application to this ‘Business Intangible Asset Blog’.

Michael D. Moberly July 17, 2017 St. Louis [email protected] the ‘Business Intangible Asset Blog’ since May 2006, 650+ published posts, read in 137 countries, ‘where one’s attention span, businesses intangible assets, and solutions converge’!

Readers are invited to explore more blog posts, position papers, video, and books at

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