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Interviews.

Picking the brains of experts.

Design Thinking

Visual Techniques are Great Tools to Identify Common Ideas and Gaps

Ms Sheila Pontis was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina where she completed a five-year BA (Hons) course in Graphic Design at the University of Buenos Aires. When she finished her BA studies, she moved to Barcelona to complete a Postgraduate degree in Editorial Techniques and a Master of Advanced Studies degree (DEA diploma/MPhil) in Information Graphics both at the University of Barcelona.

In 2008 her passion for complex diagrams and information design took her to London to complete her PhD at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. In 2014, she has been recognised as a Fellow member of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) in the UK for her commitment to professionalism in teaching and learning in higher education.

Recently, she has relocated in New York to keep deepening and broadening her knowledge. Sheila is a regular blogger. Visit her blog to catch her recent thoughts.

Following are excerpts from an interview she gave for Younomy's GuruSpeak section. In this interview, Sheila dwells on approaches, tools, culture and other aspects of design thinking. Excerpts:

Younomy: Design thinking is at the intersection of many disciplines? How do you define design thinking for innovators?

Sheila Pontis: Design thinking is a way of solving problems that combines approaches and tools from various fields including information design, information management, research, marketing, user-centred design, and social sciences. It involves creative problem-solving techniques and methods, decision-making processes, and systematic thinking.

Design thinking can be adopted to solve a wide range of challenges; in all cases, this approach facilitates the iteration between phases of understanding, research, ideation, selection, prototyping, and testing.

When working with a design thinking approach, the thinking process is externalised, and becomes easier to be shared with all members of a team. This helps us gain a holistic understanding of all components involved in a problem situation, and identify connections between the components, making gaps in the initial thinking clearer.

Younomy: What type of culture an organization should have to nurture design thinking?

Sheila Pontis: Understanding a problem and getting familiar with the target-audience constitute the initial and core parts of the problem-solving process, but often overlooked and underestimated. We often start thinking about possible solutions, even when we do not have a full understanding of all the components or we are not entirely familiar with our target audience/customer’s needs. This is because we assume that our baseline knowledge (or expertise) is enough to solve the problem. However, in these cases, decisions are not well-supported, and solutions can be ill-conceived.

This means that an organisation needs to be willing to spend the necessary time to gain an understanding of the challenge or problem situation first, rather than focusing on finding or implementing solutions straight away. By adopting a design thinking approach, organisations will shift the focus to understanding (by questioning, researching, etc.), and making decisions based on real needs and facts, rather than on assumptions, preferences, or trends.

Younomy: What are your favorite design thinking techniques, if any, that you recommend for product innovators to generate, develop, and express their ideas?

Sheila Pontis: Visual techniques are great tools to help determine hierarchies, identify common ideas and gaps, and distinguish relevant from irrelevant information. Any tool or technique that helps externalise, visualise, and share the thinking process and ideas with other members of a team is useful. Frequently, I work with visual thinking to help me structure my thoughts, unpack research insights, and discuss them with others (peers and clients). Drawing ideas on big panels and visually coding information is another good way to externalise decision-making.

Younomy: There are methods to rate and understand how readable a written material but is there a methodology to assess how appealing or useful a work of design (product or information design) is?

Sheila Pontis: The target audience is the one who evaluates and determines the effectiveness and usefulness of a solution, because that solution should have been conceived for that specific audience, and be addressing its needs.There are many evaluation methods that designers frequently borrow and adapt from social sciences to assess whether the solution is appropriately addressing the target audience needs.

Some of the methods could be e.g. surveys and questionnaires, and user studies, e.g. workshops, self-documentation, focus groups. In all cases, evaluation methods aim at exploring aspects of usability, and users’ experiences and satisfaction with a solution (product, service, etc.).

Younomy: Like any other art, design comes with practice. What practices do you personally do to improve your design thinking skills?

Sheila Pontis: My work helps me improve and expand my skills. Willingness to learn from mistakes and new ways of doing, to explore different possibilities, and reflect on your own process is extremely important. As part of my daily practice I read (mostly books and journal articles, not only internet content), research (e.g. testing solutions with users), attend talks (and interact with peers), and write (seeing ideas on paper helps me see new perspectives and connections). Being in constant dialogue with my students, having daily conversations with colleagues, and interactions with clients also help me enrich my skills as a designer.

Younomy: What computer tools do you often use as a designer and for what purposes?

Sheila Pontis: To me, the quality or success of a solution does not rely on the tools you work with, but on the way you approach and understand a problem. I mostly work with Adobe Suite (InDesign, Illustrator, etc.), and, as an old school designer, I carry a big notebook everywhere for sketches and notes.

Younomy: Lastly, what is/are your favorite quote(s) on design thinking?

Sheila Pontis: I have a favourite quote that, although it is not from a design thinking source, it is very relevant, as it reflects the mindset of design thinking: ‘Perhaps the three principles closest to my heart –and the most radical–are: (1) learning to accept your ignorance, (2) paying more attention to the question than the answer, and (3) never being afraid to go in an opposite direction to find a solution.’ [Wurman, R.S. (1989:47) Information Anxiety. New York: Doubleday.]