Design-Led Innovation & 4 Levels of Design Thinking

I had a chance recently to spend several days with the design department at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. I spoke and conducted workshops with design undergraduates and design research master's and PhD students. Their work on design thinking is impressive -- quite advanced stuff. The QUT design research lab is led by Dr. Cara Wrigley, who writes and lectures frequently in Australia and Europe. The work she represents is definitely worth sharing.

Dan Formosa

Dr. Wrigley and her group are working under an initiative called design-led innovation -- a topic extremely pertinent to medical packaging. I'll describe their work and their point of view on this site, quoting heavily from our discussions and from some of the papers they have written. This article will briefly show the way they are thinking about design at QUT. I can follow up in subsequent posts.

At the basis of their work is design thinking -- essentially, using creative methods to tackle business problems and reframe business structure. It's called design thinking because the method of problem solving closely parallels the methods commonly used by designers and others to develop creative and innovative solutions. That said, design thinking comes in several varieties, or stages.

The QUT group defines four levels of design thinking. See which level your company is at now (and keep in mind that some companies may still be at zero).

  1. Human-centered design: This actually forms the basis of all other levels of design thinking. Simply stated, it puts the person's needs at the forefront. This seems like the obvious goal for medical devices and packaging, but how many medical items are difficult to use and understand? Remember the high number of patients who stop taking their prescribed medications within just a few months of starting a regimen. Many medical companies have evolved from technical roots. Focusing on warmer, human-centered values may be the key to future growth, but it is not always an approach embedded in the corporate culture.
  2. Integrative thinking: Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, describes integrative thinking as a company's "ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superiors to each."
  3. Design management: Here design is realized as a differentiator. At this level, design is very highly respected and highly leveraged within a company. It creates opportunities for innovative, highly valued products, packages, and services. Design is an equity.
  4. Design as strategy: This is the most advanced level of design thinking. It occurs when design-led innovation forms the very basis of that company's DNA.

What's interesting about categorizing design thinking (and design-led innovation) into these four levels is that many of the medical device companies I consult with have yet to advance to level 1. Many of these companies, born from technology, are structured in such a way that the design sits low in the hierarchy. Yet in reality design-led innovation may be the closest, most readily attainable, and most lucrative goal. And there is certainly a lot of opportunity for many medical companies to improve upon their human-centered approach.

Focused on medical packaging design and technology?

Dan Formosa, Ph.D.

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