Design process as a vision for knowledge management (that works)

This past week was Chicago Ideas Week – a think-fest combining speakers, topics and an enthusiastic city looking at the possible. During the week, I had the good fortune to be connected to two events looking at design and the design process: A visit to IDEO’s Chicago office for a look at their Human Centered Design process and a chance to see my colleague Jeanne Olson talk about design and the Design for America (DFA) program at Northwestern University.

At the end of the week I had two blinding glimpses of the obvious.

If design is generating a lot of interest as a next next-thing, it is because design is about finding opportunities. It’s positive. Forward-moving. It’s the polar opposite of intractable group gridlock characterized by position-taking and turf-holding.

Spend any time at IDEO’s offices and with IDEO people and you feel the difference. Spend any time with DFA students and their advisors and it’s the same. They believe in their ability to see and find opportunity where others just see problems and gaps. And the thing is: They all understand that designing effective solutions is difficult, challenging work. But they also seem to understand that finding a forward-moving way out begins by hearing and seeing. IDEO’s Human Centered Design process begins with “hear” – a focus on really listening and observing the situation/context in which a challenge exists. Olson coined the phrase outsight during her CIW talk to describe the ability to find a new possibility – a path – in part by getting out in the world. Both IDEO’s “hear” and Olson’s “outsight” are to me rooted in making an authentic attempt to suspend judgment and bias and work very hard, first, to understand. What a concept.

My second blinding glimpse of the obvious relates to the title of this post. In touring IDEO’s offices, one of the things you are struck by is the very physical presence of ideas and insights. This is not just knowledge stored digitally. It’s physical. You work surrounded by ideas posted on walls – informally and formally.

One of IDEOs most interesting ways of expressing insights is via patterns. Here’s how IDEO describes patterns:

“When you’ve got many talented people working on many complex challenges at once, it’s often difficult for the vast amounts of knowledge generated to be shared in any meaningful or useful way.

PATTERNS is one of IDEO’s means to solve for that.

PATTERNS are how we capture and share some of the common insights we see bubbling up across projects, as well as out and about in the world. They are a foundation for intuition. A way to elevate insights to the level of cultural impact. And a way to tap into IDEO’s collective intelligence to do better work for our clients—even faster.” 

At the Chicago office, IDEO has a wall dedicated to one-page versions of patterns submitted by employees. Anyone who has tried to condense complex thinking into tightly designed one-pagers knows how difficult it can be – but also how it helps you think clearly about the challenge. Imagine a wall of these. Then add to that several walls of photographs depicting the exploratory stages of various projects. Large digital displays rotating photographs from IDEO offices worldwide, each intended to share some moment or insight that could create a serendipitous event.

I saw something very similar to this at another creative agency — Upshot — where you literally work among physical and digital displays of ideas and insights.

Now add to this the design process. You seek to understand (hear, outsight). You generate a lot of insights and ideas and use structured methods to capture, categorize and whittle them down into concepts that are feasible. You are connecting and collaborating with a broad group of stakeholders in this whole process. And you are doing it in a physical space where you are surrounded by knowledge and insight represented in physical and digital form. You create a prototype of your concept and learn from it. You share more insights and generate new knowledge. At the end of this whole process you’ve created something that did not exist previously.

That, to me, sounds like a vision for next-generation knowledge management.

2 thoughts on “Design process as a vision for knowledge management (that works)

  1. This post kick started my day. Thanks, Jeff.

    It captured concepts in a way very clear to me: design is about solving problems, not finding them, it’s outsight ( love that term!) that inspires, and get patterns out of your head and onto the page. Very helpful.


    1. Thanks Susan. I wish I could have better captured the experience of visiting the IDEO and Upshot offices as well – and participating in a mini design session at IDEO. I always have my KM glasses on and was just struck by how the whole design process really is one big KM effort: In comes lots of data and insights, out comes some designed thing (product, solution). And it’s very structured. May be digging into that more.


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