Giuseppe Patriarch

Design Thinking in the Workplace May Outlast IDEO

The famed design firm is shrinking, but the ideas it championed have staying power.

For three decades, “design thinking” became a mantra in Corporate America, impacting the design of everything from PillPacks, Airbnb, Uber Eats, electric toothbrushes—and, even more intuitive work and office spaces.

Famed design firm IDEO is largely credited for paving the way for design thinking, but late last year, it cut one-third of its staff and closed some offices. The company had been one of the most storied design firms for more than 30 years, working with such companies as Apple, Coca-Cola and Conagra. 

There is no single definition for design thinking; it’s more of an idea or a strategy and a way of seeing the world. The core tenants involve a human-centered approach to innovation that at the same time aims to help leaders navigate disruptive forces, respond to rapid change and support individuals through that change. It starts by being open and curious, embracing empathy, iteration and ambiguity. And it means researching and observing and staying focused on the human beings who you’re designing for so you can meet their needs. It’s broken down into five distinct steps—empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. 

Two decades ago, design thinking was the thing, as a wide array of industries quickly adopted design thinking concepts and methodologies. Everyone swore by the church of design, and IDEO sat at the pulpit. The company worked on consumer products like the Willow hands-free breast pump and consulted on experiences ranging from colon cancer screenings to air travel. Even Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia has said design thinking was behind growing his business. 

In recent years, the buzz word has lost its luster in many consumer companies, but the beliefs behind design thinking remain relevant in many arenas—including the workplace, where it shapes office architecture and even the approach taken by HR managers to solve workforce problems. 

“We’ve used this great term design thinking, but we’ve all shaped and customized it for our own type of design process,” says Primo Orpilla, founder of Studio O+A, a San Francisco interior design firm. 

Design thinking is credited for shifting the focus to flexibility and emphasis on how employees use space. ROOM.

Design thinking, for instance, inspired the interior designer’s practice of creating a “day of the life of the end user” for a space, where they come up with 12 to 15 personas who will move through a space, says Orpilla. 

“The IDEO design thinking process is about asking a series of questions of why and seeing what you get back. It’s about coalescing and synthesizing ideas or getting them down on paper and then breaking them into groups,” Orpilla says. 

The granular process of looking at architecture and design, however, remains the domain of interior designers who specialize in that kind of space planning. IDEO itself had more impact in workspace design when Steelcase purchased the company in 1996, but Ideo bought itself back in 2007. “IDEO didn’t do workplace strategy or design and space planning,” says Orpilla. 

Design thinking did help shift the focus away from traditional, static office spaces to those that are more flexible and focused on the needs and use of employees. It influenced the rise of flexibility in the office and ensuring workspaces can adapt and iterate to different modes of work. And it drove the idea of the employee experience, such as creating not just functional, but enjoyable and inspirational spaces.

Despite our hybrid work world, people still place value in the physical workplace for social interaction, mentorship, concentration and focus work, and the new kind of office allows people to sit, stand, work while feeling more connected to their community and feel healthier. 

Today, a stronger emphasis is placed on understanding how people use the workplace and how they feel when they’re there. HR managers are zooming in on what employees want with surveys and software that measures occupancy and foot traffic in a space. That kind of scrutiny of space is crucial in today’s labor shortage and work culture of burnout, apathy and return-to-the-office resistance. 

Wise HR executives continue to embrace the same concepts of empathy, innovation and iteration to create employee experiences that can effectively attract and retain workers. The idea is creating solutions that truly meet the needs of employees, identifying gaps, needs and opportunities for improvement in the workplace, says Leela Alawa, an HR expert at Accor, which operates international hotel chains.  

Lindsey Garito, a 20-year HR veteran, writes in Forbes that too many organizations create programs and policies based on what they think it should be or assume people want. For instance, companies made decisions on what they thought the return-to-office approach should be and then implemented policies—and many faced backlash and discontent when people questioned the why behind the policy.

Design thinking, she says, puts employees at the forefront when trying to solve a problem. Says Garito: “In essence, employees become part of the solution and change. They see their voice is being heard and that they have an impact. Instead of something happening to them, it is happening for them.” 

This kind of human-centered design will be crucial going forward for designing for both the physical space and components of employee wellness in an unpredictable world. International design firm Gensler recently said the  human experience is the future of design, especially in light of technological change, global volatility and climate change. Designers today must re-think and re-invent how people experience every aspect of their lives and the spaces in which they spend time, Gensler writes.

Julia Calabrese, senior strategist in the Dallas office of IA Interior Architects, boils it down this way: at the basic level, environments must satisfy our physiological and safety needs but human-centered design looks to also foster our sense of love and belonging. Calabrese says that human-centered design is now evolving to “life-centered design,” which considers the whole of the individual and the context of their daily lives with sustainability and the planet in mind. The concept names may change but the emphasis on questions, empathy, and iteration, remains the same.  

The office of the future, she says, will consider people, place and policy as an ecosystem that makes up the collective environment, says Calabrese. “All three components need to be considered harmoniously to achieve success because they are intrinsically linked,” she says.