In contrast to many of the experts canvassed for this year's Talent Hunt, Nick Leon doesn't like the phrase "design thinking." The new director of Design London, a multidisciplinary educational initiative launched recently by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London would prefer that people use the phrase "design method."
"If you went into the boardroom and said, 'What we need is business thinking,' people would roll their eyes," he says by phone from London. "You have to talk about something with more rigor. 'Design method' is how you organize multidisciplinary teams, how you exploit technology or what processes and practices you might apply. These are all things that are as natural as breathing to a designer—but which aren't regularly used in a business sense. To start talking about 'design thinking' in the boardroom or in the business school doesn't seem strong enough. It seems a little conceptual—I want to get deeper than that."
Merely Adding the Glitter
To Leon, this is not merely a question of semantics. And he himself has experience in both the design studio and boardroom. Having studied engineering, then design, he joined IBM (IBM) in 1975 as an industrial designer. It was here that he witnessed firsthand the tension between the various departments within the company.
"It was really a no-brainer to join IBM; it was one of maybe three companies that was really focused on design," he recalls. "But even so, about five years in, I started to feel like a hairdresser being given an engineer's products and being asked to give them a quick cut and blow dry. Our job as designers was to add glitz while the engineers worked on the specifications."
Somewhat frustrated, Leon moved to the business side, working his way through the ranks before eventually being appointed business development director for Big Blue's global services division in Europe in 2001. Throughout his 30 years at the company, he became an evangelist for the power of design to inform—and transform—business practices.
The Quality of the Questions You Ask
"I was given the problem of finding a better way to sell," he recalls of one challenge he faced in the early 1990s. "IBM was having a pretty rough time then, and Dell (DELL) was eating IBM's lunch on the PC business. Not because they'd designed a better PC or a better supply chain, but precisely because they had designed a better buying experience for the user. Good innovation is measured by the quality of the questions you ask, not the quality of the creativity of the team. In this instance, the wrong question to ask was, 'How are we going to sell this stuff?' The right question was, 'How did our customers want to buy it?'"
Leon hopes to introduce the nuances of this philosophy to students joining the Design London program, which will accept Master of Arts students from the RCA, Master of Engineering students from Imperial College, and Master of Business Administration students from the Tanaka Business School. Kicking off in January, the course's goal is to demonstrate the transformational power of a combination of design, engineering, technology, and business. "If you stir droplets of ink into a glass of water, you can't then unstir it," Leon says. "We want to try to stir design method into business.
"One of the measures of our success will be when the partner for strategy and change at McKinsey or Accenture (ACN) has been through our program and is taking that message out into the world," Leon concludes. "If they're exposed to design at an early stage, their whole receptivity will be changed. If we get a big injection of design methods into the large consulting firms, we can reach not just Fortune 500 companies but businesses and organizations of all sizes. If companies are innovative, they'll do better. If cities have better innovation systems, those cities will prosper." As far as Leon is concerned, his objective is nothing less than to change the world.