Ellsworth Kelly and Design Thinking Passion in Austin

In April, I attended IQPC’s Design Thinking conference in Austin, TX, along with DevMynd’s Founder/CEO, JC Grubbs and DevMynd’s Head of Design, Janice Cho. The conference focus was “Driving Sustainable Growth and Competitive Advantage Through Human-Centered Design.”

Heads-up: I am not a Design Thinker or a Designer by background nor professional training.

For me, an important takeaway from the conference experience was understanding the distinction they drew between a “Design Thinker” versus a “Designer.” In summary, the consistently shared perspective seemed to be that “all designers are design thinkers, but NOT all design thinkers are designers.” The business community is attempting to apply Design Thinking across all disciplines in the pursuit of more human-centered problem-solving.

You can find voluminous material on the definition of Design Thinking. I found the following from the Interaction Design Foundation particularly helpful:

“There are many variants of the Design Thinking process in use today, and they have from three to seven phases, stages, or modes. However, all variants of Design Thinking are very similar. All variants of Design Thinking embody the same principles, which were first described by Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969. Here, we will focus on the five-phase model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, which is also known as d.school. We’ve chosen d.school’s approach because they’re at the forefront of applying and teaching Design Thinking. The five phases of Design Thinking, according to d.school, are as follows:

  • Empathize – with your users
  • Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  • Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
  • Prototype – to start creating solutions
  • Test – solutions

It is important to note that the five phases, stages, or modes are not always sequential. They do not have to follow any specific order and can often occur in parallel and repeat iteratively. Given that, you should not understand the phases as a hierarchal or step-by-step process. Instead, you should look at it as an overview of the modes or phases that contribute to an innovative project, rather than sequential steps.”

All of this led me to think about an essential characteristic of Design Thinking leadership; an experience around the conference, but not contained within the conference made this apparent to me.

Following Day 2 of the conference, it was suggested by our colleague and Head of Design at DevMynd, Janice Cho, that we all visit the Ellsworth Kelly permanent “Austin” exhibit at The Blanton Museum of Art on the UT Austin campus. I was unfamiliar with Ellsworth Kelly but intrigued by Janice’s passion to get to the exhibit, so the three of us headed out for an adventure.

Who is Ellsworth Kelly?

The Blanton Museum of Art: “American artist Ellsworth Kelly is regarded as one of the most important abstract painters, sculptors, draughtsmen, and printmakers. Spanning seven decades, his career was marked by the independent route his art took, diverging from any formal school or art movement, and by his contributions to 21st-century painting and sculpture. Kelly was born in Newburgh, New York in 1923. In 1970, he began living and working in upstate New York. He passed away in December 2015. His works are held in public and private collections worldwide.

Major retrospectives have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art (1973), Whitney Museum of American Art (1982), and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1996), among other venues in the US and in Europe. In 2013, in celebration of the artist’s 90th birthday, special exhibitions were on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and National Gallery of Art and Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. In 2013, Kelly was awarded the National Medal of Arts, presented by the President of the United States.”

Design Thinking Leadership?

Okay. You probably are wondering how visiting an exhibition of “one of the most important abstract painters, sculptors, draughtsmen, and printmakers,” relates to my thoughts on Design Thinking leadership. It was NOT the exhibit experience itself, rather it was the experience of visiting the exhibition with a “Design Thinker” like Janice. For me, the leadership part begins with a passion for the subject matter, AND a desire and willingness to share that passion and educate others. Think of it like a mentor/mentee relationship. While the mentor has to be willing to educate and guide you in some way, the mentee has an equal obligation to be transparent about, in my case, their lack of knowledge/expertise in some area; when the fun and real value add begin.

Reflecting on the 2-3 hours spent walking through the Ellsworth Kelly exhibition with someone who is BOTH a Designer and a Design Thinker made the thought leadership characteristic more obvious to me. Janice happens to be one of those Design Thinkers who is also a Designer, but I believe the “leadership” aspect applies equally to Design Thinkers from other disciplines. What she did was baseline my understanding and then invest the time to walk me through the entire exhibit, while explaining the significance of his work and explorations in the context of visual design.

Enabling Success?

“Design Thinking” is often described as a process abstracted from “Design,” and applied as a human-centered approach to solving wide-ranging problems, including those in the business community. A big part of Design Thinking challenges established assumptions and requires bringing disparate viewpoints together to gain buy-in from all stakeholders.

My recommendation when identifying either internal or external resources to apply Design Thinking to a problem, do not overlook the “soft leadership” aspect. Seek out those who not only have a deep understanding of and passion for the overall Design Thinking process, but the requisite “soft” leadership skills to enable success.