3 Non-design challenges that have been solved by design

We tend to think of design as something visual; a logo or the shape of a chair. But the strategies designers use during the creative process – understanding the people you want to help and designing to suit their needs or solve their problems can be applied in a broader context. Design thinking1 has proved highly effective across numerous industries for decades and is now getting traction when solving more complex organisation-wide problems.


1. When urgent care needs an urgent rethink

Traditionally, hospitals – their processes, layout and care were designed under the direction of its administrators. But a recent study2 suggests that health care facilities that want to become more focused on patient safety and outcomes can benefit from design thinking in 3 ways; by generating empathy for the patient; creating interdisciplinary teams; and through the rapid prototyping of ideas.

“Design thinking is useful for when we need a paradigm shift…when something is fundamentally broken about a service. It allows for the creative, multidisciplinary thinking around solving the issue.”

Thomas Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center3 at the University of Minnesota.

This has seen simple changes such as trauma team leaders wearing orange vests in order to signal who is in charge, reducing delays and confusion in treatment. More complex projects see hospitals redesigning wards to support patients with dementia4 and improving service standards by taking learnings from airlines5, while universities now require medical students to play the role of patients in simulation training to help humanise their patients and create greater empathy.

Design thinking takeouts:

  • Start with building empathy, particularly if you’re working with a system you know intimately, one which may be a once in a lifetime experience for your customers.
  • Encourage idea generation by all members of the team, diversity of thought and divergent thinking is key to discovering the most valuable problems and solutions. The trauma team leader identification vest was suggested by a nurse6 after she was involved in a simulation when she realised that no one knew who was in charge.
  • Recognise that it’s impossible to know in advance what impact an idea will actually have. Running low-cost, time boxed experiments will be a crucial part of refining concepts, validating assumptions, proving value and winning the support of senior managers.


2. From little things, big things grow

In the early 1980s the bottom 90 percent of households in the US saved 10 percent of their income, but within 20 years7 that savings rate had plummeted to nearly negative-10 percent.

While this may have a number of causes, for one bank, one thing was clear – for those that don’t have the means or the confidence to save, a standard savings account is going to do very little.

As part of a process to deliver service innovation, Bank of America, in association with IDEO, began a design thinking project in an attempt to address the needs of those who found it impossible to plan for more than a few months ahead.

The team spent time in the field exploring the real spending and savings habits of people and noticed that many were putting loose change in a jar or rounding up their bills in order to make balancing accounts easier; inadvertently giving themselves a small savings buffer.

This insight lead to the bank’s Keep the Change8 program which rounds up any purchase made with a debit card, and transfers it automatically to a separate savings account. To date the bank estimates that its customers have saved over $3 billion9.

Design thinking takeouts:

  • Building new service and product offerings based on our own preferences and opinions, can lead to our assumptions being held as truths with little to no evidence.
  • While design thinking requires creativity, it also requires rigour. Ensure each stage of the design thinking process has carefully delineated steps, desired outcomes, success factors, and measures of performance.
  • Bank of America planned to run as many experiments as possible, effectively diverging on potential solutions before converging on the most promising, in order to ensure only the most successful could be taken live.


3. Better customer service processes by design

While design thinking is commonly associated with the development of products and services it is less usually connected to organisational change and process improvement. However, it can just as easily be applied to these scenarios and with strong success.

Toyota had begun to notice an issue with their call centre. With long wait times customer satisfaction was down, and the already stressed agents were swivel-chairing between multiple software programs, internal tech support and filing cabinets filled with hard copy information.

Rather than simply hire more agents the company used design thinking to reengineer the process. They started by interviewing everyone involved, from agents to engineers to understand their frustrations, and what they felt they needed.

The team discovered that agents felt trapped, without the ability to answer all customer questions, while being discouraged from spending more time on the phone with customers.

With streamlined processes and improved software, the call centre reps were able to solve more customers’ problems faster and became more engaged as a result. The project became a model for problem solving10 across Toyota.

Design thinking takeouts:

  • Establish potential problems by involving a cross-functional team. Because service agents were involved in the development of the solution they had greater engagement, and ownership over its success.
  • Validate ideas with call centre team members then pilot the approach with a small subset of the team.

As these examples demonstrate, design thinking can be applied to organisation-wide problems in the exact same way it is applied to the design of new products and services. Focus on building understanding and empathy for your internal customers and then quickly iterate through a series of tests to validate the assumptions, before delivering your solution to real users.



  1. Design thinking
  2. A design thinking framework for healthcare management and innovation
  3. Minnesota Design Center
  4. Redesigning wards to support people with dementia in hospital
  5. How Design Thinking TurnedOne Hospital into a Bright and Comforting Place
  6. Design thinking for Doctors and Nurses
  7. Why Don’t Americans Save More Money?
  8. Keep the Change
  9. Insights: How Bank of America Stays Innovative
  10. 3 Great Examples of Design Thinking in Action