What I know about design thinking: Johannes Comeau Milke

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Johannes Comeau Milke thinking about design
Johannes Comeau Milke with workshop attendees. (Image via Better today)

Having planted the initial seeds of design thinking at DEWA’s Innovation Week in 2015, Johannes Comeau Milke, cofounder and managing partner of Better today, returned to Dubai.

This time for a workshop on ‘Human Centered Design’ at Astrolabs, with Philipp Burckhardt, media and project manager at better today. The duo led a group of over 40 participants in an interactive session on employing design thinking in workspaces.

Popularized as a practice by the likes of David Kelley and Tim Brown, founder and CEO of IDEO respectively, design thinking has been adopted by international corporations scuh as IBM, GE and NEST.

Milke’s own roots in design thinking come from his background in imagineering and a degree from the HPI School of Design Thinking, Potsdam, a partner of Stanford University’s d.school. Milke sat down with Wamda to unpack design thinking as a concept and approach to innovation.

It’s all natural. It’s a method that refers to the natural creative process of the brain, aiming to develop a creative state of mind while balancing analytical and creative thinking. It builds on qualitative research and offers value to corporations and their customers for long term change and innovation.

The user is most important. You have to develop a deep understanding of the user, observing their needs while using insights to define challenges and opportunities. Combine that with expertize and analyze market trends to ideate, build a prototype, test for feedback and then test the idea with the user again.

It is not a dogmatic way of working. Rather it’s a mindset. As a methodology it helps us navigate through innovation projects. In the dogmatic way, you have only one way of doing things. In our way, we choose the tool depending on the situation, needs of the team and stage of the project. As for mindset, it’s about working in an interdisciplinary team, integrating the end user, and being biased towards action. It’s about being able to navigate through constant change and practicing creative confidence. It’s about being able to navigate through constant change and practicing creative confidence.

Empathy is key. One of the founding factors of this concept is empathy with a user in a specific context. We always start out with the user perspective because it makes no sense to design something that nobody wants in the end.  

The context of each client is different. Some come with a new idea to execute, or they want to improve their user experience. Sometimes it’s the HR department asking to train their staff to think outside the box, or to train the top level management to become entrepreneurial leaders.

It allows people to find ownership and purpose in what they do. Teams should always have enough freedom and space to find their own passion in what they do and how they organize themselves, always with the aim of a good result that will be innovative. Design thinking focuses on human values in tandem with technology and the economy.

Design thinking workshop in Dubai
The Design Thinking workshop in Dubai's Astrolabs. (Image via Astrolabs)

People often want a precise outcome. We have to say that if you want to innovate we don’t know the outcome yet. We build trust to go on a joint path to find out what the outcome will be. This is the creation logic of testing, trying and reviewing as opposed to the prediction logic of making a plan and sticking to it.

In Dubai there is great potential. This is a place where people from all over the world come to work. There’s a lot of financial support and also sectors - environment, health, education, women empowerment - where things can be innovated. There’s great will and vision from the leadership in supporting development and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Design thinking can help companies and organizations learn how to work in interdisciplinary teams, to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and to unleash creative confidence, all of which is necessary to solve some of our greatest challenges.

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