First imagined in the 1960s by engineers, architects, and research scientists like Robert McKim and Peter Rowe, “design thinking” has finally become a dominant mode of inquiry for today’s businesspeople—with extensive studies currently being conducted at the movement’s current hotspot, The University Of Toronto’s Rotman School Of Business. But what is it, how is it being put to use at ARM Systems, and why should you care? The fitness brand’s director of business design, JEFF BAO NGUYEN, reveals all.
A sign of our times— fluid, rapidly changing, instantaneously communicative—”design thinking” has replaced The Enlightenment Era’s “scientific method” as the dominant mode of inquiry, for at least some of today’s top artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople.
As a process, design thinking results in practical responses to real-world problems that leave not just immediate complaints but also surrounding situations and foundational structures better—more durable, flexible, efficient, and responsive—than they were before. Uniquely, this is often done by refusing to fix, change, solve, or even acknowledge problems themselves as isolated phenomena. Emphasis, instead, is placed upon re-designing and/or re-engineering systems and environments from which problems emerge—so they shrink, evaporate, or wither away on their own.
Differing from the scientific method, this process begins by formulating a desired/imagined outcome rather than addressing any one particular (the following word is key) perceived problem. Another difference: Multiple pathways are developed, prototyped, and evaluated simultaneously, often resulting in surprising (and delightful) hybrid results. Along the way, problems are constantly refined and reidentified, without any commitments to necessarily doing anything about them. The focus is always upon: What’s possible? And what can be done better? The constant interrogation of (and challenge to) circumstances that seem objective and permanent is sometimes difficult (or even infuriating) for linear thinkers. However, our current era isn’t linear; it’s dynamic; success in this context requires a properly attuned methodology.
For the most part, today’s fitness industry remains locked inside the scientific method’s problem- obsessed way of producing results. (“Lose weight” means “you’re fat”. “Feel better” means “you’re overwhelmed and exhausted”. “Get in shape” means “you’re out of shape”. You get the idea.) With so much emphasis placed upon fixing and changing what’s not wanted, there’s relatively little attention paid to what’s actually wanted. Accordingly, problems feed upon the energy they’re given— while distinctive, visionary, long-term innovations, and adaptations are left to languish from lack of attention.
At ARM, we experience challenges, difficulties, and unforeseen obstacles—just about every day, in fact—and so do our clients. However, except in the case of extreme emergencies, we don’t really try to solve problems. Rather, every time something surprising, unworkable, and/or ineffective comes up, we ask ourselves: How can we make this great? What opportunities does this situation give us to see what’s working, what’s not, and how to make it better? What systems, assumptions, and perceived realities will we need to dissolve in order to break through to our intentions and objectives?
This approach manifests itself most practically in our branding, design work, and the materials that we produce in order to market and promote ourselves. With each and every project—from minor ones like business cards to major ones like this publication—colours are tweaked, typefaces are adjusted, layouts are prototyped, photography is retouched, and language is finessed in ways that impact all subsequent work. In addition, once per quarter, we review our design inventory and retroactively apply these innovations to past works.
Here’s another advantage of design thinking versus the scientific method: Newness, also known as innovation, is often but not always required. Other times, design thinkers are free to pull from the past. For example, throughout this article, we’ve placed some of our current references, inspirations, and models of excellence.
Right now, we’re in awe of the art-and-design movements that emerged between 1890 and 1920, during our planet’s second-to-last major wave of social, political and technological upheaval: Bauhaus (Germany), De Stilj (Holland), Constructivism (Soviet Union), International Style (Switzerland), and Arts And Crafts (United States).
Our highly graphic and commercial form of postmodernism is similar to what’s coming out of design studios all over the world like Swissted, Pentagram, and Winkreative—whose work we love. That said, as befitting a local business, we endeavour to produce work that’s just as forceful and challenging, but perhaps a bit more eclectic, humourous, and accessible. At the end of the day, though, you’ll be the judge of that.