IBM’s Seth Johnson Talks About Restructuring Design Thinking for the Digital Age

Innovation Conference speaker Seth Johnson of IBM. Photography by Erik Bardin.

Every revolution needs a resource to sustain it, to help it grow from a single blip in the long march of time into a persistent and transformative force on the world stage. During the Industrial Revolution, those resources were natural—coal, oil, iron, timber. In today’s Digital Revolution, argued Seth Johnson, IBM’s program director of designer practices and community, the new resource is data. Data about everyone and everything is suddenly available to us at all times. And data can be used to create product, but more importantly, it can be used to create more authentic experiences of the world around us, facilitate social relationships, and encourage new discoveries.

“We live in an unprecedented time,” explained Johnson in his Innovation Conference lecture “Design Thinking For Modern Digital Enterprise.” “We’re losing interest in the manufacture of things and setting our sights on creating a world of diverse experiences and services. And this is touching every kind of enterprise, from the small business to large corporations like IBM.”

Many brands have realized that the best way to embrace this change and stay ahead of the game is to employ design thinking when analyzing what to do with all this data. IBM certainly has—right now the 108-year-old technology company has over 2,000 formally trained designers embedded in 45 different studios scattered across 175 countries. But there’s another revolution afoot, said Johnson. The pedagogy behind design thinking is outdated and needs an update. Instead of a linear approach, designers should think of their process as a möbius loop.

“The three components—observation, reflection, and making—act like pit stops in a continuous trip around the loop,” said Johnson. Observing immerses a designer in the user’s world, allowing them to discover what that world is actually like. Reflection aligns diverse experiences and facilitates collaboration among teammates. Making gives concrete form to abstract ideas and can range from low-tech solutions to complete products. The best part of all of this, he said, is that it keeps teams in a state of perpetual motion, not allowing them to be stagnated by the uncertainty that comes naturally in times of revolution.

“In 1973, IBM coined the phrase ‘good design is good business,’” said Johnson. “Today, we’ve expanded on that idea—good design is a deeper responsibility to the relationships we build and to the people we seek to serve. To facilitate that, we have to revolutionize design thinking.”

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