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GK. VanPatter: The InfoDesign interview

Garry K. VanPatter

By Peter J. Bogaards (February 2005)

Regularly, InfoDesign interviews a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This time, Peter J. Bogaards has a conversation with GK. VanPatter on Next Design, business innovation, cross-disciplinary work, design education and the growing complexity load.

GK. VanPatter is Co-Founder, Director of Strategy at Humantific / Understanding Lab in New York a multi-disciplinary consultancy specializing in the creation of strategies, tools, and organizations that enhance adaptability and innovation. Understanding Lab has pioneered the application of understanding as an instrument to drive growth, change, and innovation in knowledge creating companies. GK is an internationally recognized understanding designer, innovation architect, and visionary thinker. Concerned about the future of design leadership he co-founded the NextDesign Leadership Institute with Elizabeth Pastor in 2002. NextD publishes a free on-line Journal, offers innovation skill-building workshops, and supports various forward-looking innovation conferences. NextD Journal explores how the concept of design leadership is being rethought and reinvented as a response to the massive changes underway in the marketplace.

Peter J. Bogaards (PJB): Your current initiatives and activities strongly focus on the role of design in business innovation. Why do you think the relation between design and innovation is so important?

GK. VanPatter (GK): Well, I guess we would state it slightly differently, that innovation is important to all organizations including businesses. We believe that Design with a big D can play a central role in the realization of innovation at numerous levels. Much of human work activity takes place in the context of organizations of one kind or another. These are the human engines of productivity in the world today.

"Innovation is important to all organizations including businesses."

All organizations need to continuously renew themselves, adjust to external change, solve problems, create new patterns in the form of strategies, products, and services and generally keep moving forward. At its core the activity of design that we practice is essentially about strategic renewal and solving problems in human-centered ways. We find that smart business leaders have growing realization that human-centered design has become key not only to the creation of successful strategies, products and communications but to the development of organizational innovation capabilities as well. From our perspective design can play a key role in both the creation and the enabling of the creation in ways that other disciplines cannot.

Patterns and Problem-solving

PJB: I understand you identify two important aspects: (1) the role of Design in a business strategy and (2) the role of Design to solve problems in a human-centered way. Are there specific types of business strategies or problems for which Design can add value? Connecting this with innovation makes me wonder how the added value of Design can be integrated. I mean, if innovation is to change products/services, behaviour, and culture in organizations in a qualitative way, what is then Design contributing? Would the same apply for technology or to put it differently, find 'Design' and replace by 'Technology'?

GK: I see several questions intertwined here so lets unpack a few pieces. From my perspective, both aspects that you mention above are actually overlapping. We view strategy as just one type of challenge that human-centered design can help with.

Your question regarding problem types reminds me of a quote that we reference on the NextD site. Many years ago, Charles Eames was asked: "What are the boundaries of design?" Of course his infamous response was: "What are the boundaries of problems?"

The same logic applies today. The big change is that the scale of complexity of challenges facing clients, facing the world, and therefore facing design has changed. This is part of what we explore on NextD.

How is the landscape of challenges changing and what effects does this have on the notion of design leadership? We consider this the new territory of what we call 'Next Design'. We use that term to signal that we are talking about a reinvented design not traditional design. You see our friends in the human-centered design movement at the Institute of Design and elsewhere sending similar signals. There is need to move design forward into new territory where designers are better equipped to take on the challenges and opportunities in the world today.

From our perspective, Next Design is a human-centered way to conduct problem solving and to realize innovation. These are not separate activities. We have long since moved away from the notion that design is some kind of add-on decoration. It is not.

Look inside innovation and underneath the mystique you find problem solving. Look underneath the mystique of design and you will find a form of problem solving there as well. At their core, this is a pattern creation activity. The difference is in how we do the how, what tools we use and how we think about connecting patterns to humans. All depends on what kind of patterns you seek to create. Wherever humans are engaged in interaction with the purpose of solving problems and creating new solution patterns there is a need and a role for human-centered design. The world unfortunately has an overabundance of patterns that are not human-centered. This is the challenge condition and also the opportunity for next design.

"(...) Next Design is a human-centered way to conduct problem solving and to realize innovation."

I noticed that your question seemed to be content focused. You seem to assume that value was going to be added through content knowledge. This logic can be found in the vertical disciplines. This is only one type of value.

Understand that the world has changed. That is always the good news and the bad news I guess. The marketplace is changing the questions that design must grapple with. It is still not yet widely understood in the design community that the arrival of cross-disciplinary teams changed the universe of design and design questions. I say that in the past tense because it is a done deal. It has already happened.

The increasing adoption of the cross-disciplinary way of working in organizations that may or may not be design companies has had, and continues to have a gigantic impact on design. In this emerging space much of the old logic from the vertical disciplines no longer applies as it once did. Among other things designers must now compete with others for leadership roles in a cross-disciplinary world.

In the context of this new operating space there is need for skills that bridge across many disciplines and challenge types. To do that requires deep process mastery. To say this another way, horizontal process knowledge has become as important as vertical content knowledge. It would be a mistake to assume that innovation today springs from content knowledge alone. We often talk in NextD Journal about this subject.

"(...) horizontal process knowledge has become as important as vertical content knowledge."

Your question regarding technology is a very different kettle of fish. During the now defunct dotcom era the terminologies of technology and innovation were often magically intertwined but these are, and always have been apples and oranges. The readers of InfoDesign will appreciate this. We are talking about different levels in the architecture. Technology pattern creation is often the outcome of innovation efforts today but there are many other outcome types possible. We view Next Design as the enabler of human-centered innovation in general not just technology innovation. Is technology content knowledge the same as innovation process knowledge? No, it is not. Can technology act as an enabler of innovation in organizational settings? If it is created with humans in mind it certainly can be one enabler. Typically, large complex global organizations have many types of innovation related challenges. Many of them cannot be solved simply by adding more technology alone even if it is user-centered.

Skills For Cross-Disciplinary Teamwork

PJB: In your presentation (NextD Mindscape 1.0), you emphasize the importance of cross-disciplinary work of designers. What do you think are the main obstacles for cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary and/or multi-disciplinary teamwork? What types of personal traits are necessary for designers in order to participate optimally in this new type of teamwork?

GK: Let me first explain briefly that it is primarily in the context of our practice that we help organizations learn cross-disciplinary innovation skills. NextD is a non-profit entity that we created outside of our practice and focused specifically in our own community.

The presentation that you referred to was created to help explain the various dimensions of next design by making a comparison to traditional design. Many readers of InfoDesign will know that understanding designers often use comparison to aid in human understanding. Humans understand something new by comparing it to something that they already know. I might add that underneath all of what you see us doing at NextD is the logic of understanding design. It serves as an example of how understanding can play an important role in transformation.

"Humans understand something new by comparing it to something that they already know."

We created NextD as an experiment in innovation acceleration. We conceived and launched the initiative in 2002 as we were concerned about the slow rate at which graduate and post graduate design education was adapting to the changing context in which design takes place today and the changing nature of design leadership. We saw significant disconnects there. There was an opportunity ten or fifteen years ago for design education institutions to take the cross-disciplinary lead but since that train was largely missed, the design community is now playing catch up. The change that has occurred largely took place outside of design. This way of working takes place whether or not designers are present. It is no longer a question of whether or not designers choose to work in a cross-disciplinary way. This is now the way of the world. The reality is the world has not waited for design education to catch up. This is the new context in which designers must now operate and compete. It is largely a completely new world of behaviors, values, dynamics and skills.

You asked about obstacles. There are several contexts to consider here. First let me address this inside the context of cross-disciplinary innovation/problem solving but outside of design.

In this kind of general context the main obstacle by far is an absence of two things: visible process and process skills among participants. By that I mean a universal process rather than a discipline specific process. We might think of this as a set of visual organizing and navigating principles. Without visual navigation tools and shared process skills connected to those tools, participants default to old learned behaviors and old ways of adding value. Most of the time these behaviors were learned prior to the cross-disciplinary revolution and so reflect those values.

"It is largely a completely new world of behaviors, values, dynamics and skills."

For decades most of our vertically organized professional schools have been teaching adults how to communicate with others in their own tribe. There is also a heavy emphasis placed on so-called critical thinking, which translates to a lot of critical expression. Innovation interaction in the western business world remains dominated by these two powerful factors.

Today, it is not uncommon in many business settings to see the best and the brightest mixing, content, process, judgments, ideas, action steps all together without any signaling. This occurs when visible process and cross-disciplinary process skills are absent. Lack of process skills among participants makes teamwork frustrating, and often non-productive. For most adults making the jump from small framed problems to large complex fuzzy problems, from intertribal to cross-tribal work, involves a combination of unlearning old habits and learning new skills. There is growing realization that one set of skills is very different from the other.

Now, if the question is what are the main obstacles for designers working in cross-disciplinary ways the answer might be slightly different. Whether designers are working with designers from other design disciplines or with others who have no design backgrounds, the same two components of visual universal process and interconnected skills would be obstacles if they were missing. We also see other dynamics and assumptions in the mix. Your question leads into some difficult territory that connects to design education but lets be brave and take a quick look.

For better or for worse designers are taught in school that they are learning problem solving. Look in any graduate design school description and you will find that language there. Upon graduation they are told that they are now master problem solvers. Young designers go out into the world with that mind frame.

Herein lies the problem: If those skills do not sync with the levels of complexity and the cross-disciplinary world they will likely be of limited use in this changed operational context. Many designers wake up to this disconnect after a few years in practice. Increasingly young designers are figuring this out while they are still graduate students. As a result our graduate and post graduate design education institutions are now under increasing pressure to deliver more cross-disciplinary skills and process firepower for the buck. By this we mean doing much, much more than placing students from several disciplines in a room and handing out teamwork assignments. In many design schools this still passes as teamwork skill building. At NextD our hope is that this change will accelerate. Needless to say this is a delicate subject in the design education community.

"(...) in many companies the days of having a few special people designated as the 'creatives' are long gone."

Suffice it to say that there are often many assumptions for designers to overcome as they move towards the realities of cross-disciplinary innovation. The good news is that the ways of design working have a lot to offer once designers make the commitment to do what it takes to cross into and become leaders in the multi-disciplinary world. Among other things designers bring visual thinking, systems thinking, user-centered orientation, special fact-finding and research tools, pattern recognition and generation, prototyping abilities and of course human-centered awareness.

You asked me about personal traits so let me jump to that quickly in closing. In general, I will tell you that doing any kind of innovation consulting work in the context of organizations is tricky business. Often we have people from the best business, technology, and design schools assigned to work together. None were specifically trained to do so in school. Today we often find many professional working people have grown weary of being tested and leery of being pigeon-holed, with Myers Briggs and the kind. Personality in particular is a tender subject for many. None of the tools we use connect to personality. We try to use tools more closely connected to the mission at hand.

Today organizations seek ways to include many disciplines in the circle of innovation. Increasingly, in many companies the days of having a few special people designated as The Creatives are long gone. Organizational leaders seek to maximize the innovative brainpower of everyone in the organization not just designers.

When the mission is to maximize brainpower there is need to deliberately construct inclusion. That means understanding the role of diversity in the context of process. This means making diversity transparent. The diversity that we seek is directly connected to our mission of innovation. In cross-disciplinary team innovation settings we seek diversity of thinking, diversity of problem solving preference, as this is our central activity. We are more interested in this dimension of diversity than where people come from geographically or the color of their hair.

Problem solving preferences cross disciplines so organizing and navigating teams by disciplines alone is no longer enough. This is a deep subject that is impossible to explore properly in this context. Maybe something for another conversation.

The Challenge Architecture: Strategy, Information, Process, Teams, Technology, and Environment

PJB: Many organizations seem to struggle with new markets, changing customer relations and environments. Not all organizations are looking at these things in the same way. Do you see some kind of organizational development framework or way of thinking that could be used to address all these challenges?

GK: I read this as a question about sense making. It may be useful to step back and consider various ways of looking at what you seem to be referring to here.

It is no secret that there is always a lot of diversity in the marketplace in terms of organizational types, outlooks, goals etc. One could look at that complexity and get confused by all the differences or one can look at it and see a few meaningful common patterns. We are always more interested in the patterns than the differences. What remains constant across most organizations today is rising complexity and continuous change. This is the reality that most organizations face today regardless of industry. There is a lot that design, big D and small d, can contribute in that context.

If you are asking me how, in our practice, we make sense of all the marketplace complexity, the answer is relatively simple.

"What remains constant across most organizations today is rising complexity and continuous change. This is the reality that most organizations face today regardless of industry."

Most consulting organizations, including ours look at the market through the lens of their own intellectual capital, professional point of view and service offerings. Without a clear, well thought through point of view the world likely looks very confusing. Your point of view is essentially a set of organizing principles. Without such a lens, making sense of the marketplace variables would be extremely difficult.

Through our point of view we look out into the world and see many areas where we can help others, where we can add value. We understand however that each organization is in a different place in their development. We do not seek to work with or help all organizations on planet earth. We work with a manageable subset that have specific characteristics and deliberate goals.

At Humantific we seek to work with organizational leaders who are on a mission to accomplish one or more of the following: growth, change, renewal, innovation or industry leadership. Organizations with other missions would be better suited to work with some one else.

From experience we know there are a number of levers that organizational leaders can pull to drive towards those five goals and this is the territory where we can help. Our hybrid skillset, tools, point of view, models, etc. all connect into those goals. This helps us order and make sense of seemingly highly complex situations.

Regarding your question about 'is there some organizational thinking' that might be applied across such diversity, the answer, from our perspective, connects to the above.

"(...) understanding plays an important role in organizational transformation."

We certainly recognize that all organizations have unique characteristics. At the same time it is remarkable how similar the challenges can be across many organizations seeking to drive towards the five goals. From years of consulting experience came the realization that there is considerable consistency in terms of what we call the challenge architecture. That architecture of Strategy, Information, Process, Teams, Technology and Environment forms the basis of our point of view. Each point in the architecture is interconnected with the others. Inside the category of Information is the Understanding Lab work that most closely connects to your readership. Years ago we connected the idea that understanding plays an important role in organizational transformation.

I believe your question/comments regarding 'facing challenges' connects back to what we were talking about earlier in this conversation. Not only do designers face rising complexity, but so do all client organizations as per my earlier comments.

The response to rising complexity outside of the design industries has been the wide adoption of the cross-disciplinary way of working and solving problems. That train is already on the tracks and rolling. Again, the gigantic implications for design are part of what we talk about in NextD Journal.

We work with organizations seeking various forms of help with either constructing renewal or communicating its value. All of this activity connects with human-centered problem solving in one way or another. If I said human-centered innovation, or human-centered design would that be any different? Some organizations seek help baking loaves of bread. Some want to learn how to bake. Some seek to construct their own bakeries. Often one step leads to another. To say this another way: Organizations increasingly want to build human-centered innovation capabilities themselves. As they grapple with the marketplace complexity and continuous change that you made reference to, such capabilities become key.

Organizational leaders are waking up to the realization that it is no longer enough to bring in consultants once in a while to help solve a few problems or invent a few new products. They seek to mainstream continuous innovation, continuous problem finding, opportunity finding, problem solving and knowledge creation. To get there often involves some serious rethinking around their internal innovation skill-scale strategy along with the rest of their innovation arsenal, or lack-thereof in some cases. For most organizations the big question is how to adapt to conditions where change is constant. We believe next design, human-centered design has a lot to contribute when this is the goal.

Simplicity, Ease-of-Use, and Understanding

PJB: Let me pose a final issue. There is currently much attention focused on simplicity, ease-of-use and understanding related to technology and information. Why do you think this is happening? Is this an emotional reaction to the tsunami of data, featuritis in technology, or to the rapid changes in the (business) world? Can you share some of your thoughts on how Art and Design can contribute to these aspects?

GK: : I can see you are asking me all the easy questions today!
While I'm not exactly sure what you mean by 'emotional reaction', we believe the increase in attention to the issues that you describe is being driven by very practical business reasons. To cut to the chase: Organizational leaders are waking up to the realization that cognitive and complexity overload undercuts human performance. This is not just about information and technology however. There are many more dimensions to the complexity overload equation.

"Organizational leaders are waking up to the realization that cognitive and complexity overload undercuts human performance."

The reality is that we can look at this picture from any one of a dozen altitudes and perspectives. We could look at this at a tactical technology interface level, all the way up the strategic ladder to the corporate strategy and the entire organization itself. We could look at the WHAT of organizations, its tools, information, products, services or we could look at its HOW, its processes. At the meta level, we are essentially talking about the system that employees have to navigate everyday to figure out what to do and to get stuff done.

Humans are amazing creatures of adaptation but often we ask too much of them. It is no secret that many people working in organizations are increasingly grappling with complexity overload in one form or another. If employees only had one layer of complexity to grapple with they could easily cope and adapt but the reality is that multiple layers of complexity combine to create overload states. We consider information and technology to be just two of many layers. When overload conditions undermine productivity they have direct impact on the bottom line. The complexities become what employees spend their time figuring out instead of real work that adds value. This is not rocket science but we are often amazed how such realities are overlooked in organizations today.

Imagine a giant organization with 100,000 employees where the corporate strategy is incomprehensible, the technologies massive but not human-centered, the information in over-abundance but of very poor quality and the environments unsynced with the purpose of interaction, knowledge creation and innovation. What level of performance could we expect from such a company? This is not an uncommon condition today.

"It is no secret that many people working in organizations are increasingly grappling with complexity overload in one form or another."

Organizations today often build systems in siloes as if one project, interface, technology, information set is the only complexity that employees have to grapple with. Certainly this is a formula for complexity overload. In addition, many organizations have been sliced, diced, merged, and built in remarkably unsystematic ways. Somewhere along the way many lose their ability to think about themselves in a holistic way.

Design with a small d and big D can play important roles at many of those intersection points. Next Designers are the folks who get real stuff done. One of the great things about design is that it can help and add value in many different ways. There are many options for starting on that path.

For example, Next Designers can:

  • Become partners in organizational transformation across many dimensions of change.
  • Help them undertake an inclusive approach to strategy creation.
  • Bring clarity to their corporate strategy so employees have a clear vision of what to do and why.
  • Help maximize the innovative cross-disciplinary brainpower of the organization.
  • Help them connect the goal of innovation to actual behaviors.
  • Map their global challenge architecture.
  • Revamp their marketplace intelligence tools.
  • Overhaul their innovation enabling capabilities, their idea capture systems and their cross-disciplinary innovation learning systems.
  • Redesign the structure of their service offerings and reposition their brands.
  • Address their information architecture logic or lack there-of.
  • Make their interfaces and technology tools more user-centered.
  • Help them develop work environments synced to innovation.
  • Help them better understand their customers and reconfigure their customer experience offerings.
  • Design better, more environmentally sustainable products.
  • Help create meaningful and engaging strategic stories.
  • Help them understand the future.

Suffice it to say that Next Designers can step in and add tangible value at an amazing number of points within an enterprise system wherever the organization might be in their development journey.

From our perspective one of the most important things that Next Designers bring is the ability to show visually how all the levels are interconnected, to see the organization through the eyes of what we call visual systems thinking, to think about the organization and its many systems, wholistically and in a human-centered way.

Perhaps most fundamentally we can help business leaders meet the challenges that they are now facing as expectations shift around what it means to be a manager and a leader in business organizations today. Management itself is undergoing a revolution. Gone are the days when focusing on efficiency and optimization was enough.

"At its core, design is really about helping to create new paths into the future."

There is growing realization that management in the 21st century is about new pattern creation as much as the optimization of existing patterns. This realization connects directly to design. We are master pattern creators so we can help business leaders and managers learn the mechanics of next design. This is one of several forces driving the systemization, the codification of design synced with cross-disciplinary ways of working but lets leave that part of the story for another time.

NextD is supporting and sponsoring the new Institute of Design Strategy Conference at the Illinois Institute of Technology to be held in May 2005. This new international executive forum will address how businesses can use design to explore emerging opportunities, solve complex problems and achieve lasting strategic advantage.

Today design itself is a work in progress. To use the airplane metaphor. We are in a sense reconstructing the plane of design as it is in flight, while at the same time promoting its new value. At its core, design is really about helping to create new paths into the future. We have a lot to contribute when this is the goal.

About GK. VanPatter

GK has more than twenty-five years of design leadership experience and has consulted to numerous global companies including Pfizer, EDS, General Motors, IBM, Morgan Stanley, BMW, Marriot, HP, Bristol-Myers Squibb and many others. He was an early advocate of extending designs' reach into the realms of business transformation, strategy development, knowledge creation and organizational innovation.

Prior to forming the Understanding Lab he was a Scient Fellow and Co-Founder of Scient's Innovation Acceleration Lab. In collaboration with Elizabeth Pastor, he conceived, designed and directed all aspects of the Innovation Lab including its strategy, organization, environments, and award winning cross-disciplinary skill-building program. GK's work has received numerous excellence awards and he has spoken at many international conferences including Vision Plus and Doors of Perception.

About Peter J. Bogaards

With over fifteen years of experience in information design, information architecture, and user-centered design, Peter is a recognized leader in the international information design community. Prior to founding BogieLand, he worked for the InfoDesign & Usability Group of Razorfish Europe and was information and user interface designer of Informaat. He was responsible for developing intentional user experiences, including user interface, site architecture, navigation and usability for clients such as eBay, Elsevier Science, IBM, Nissan, and Vodafone. He is Editor-in-Chief of 'InfoDesign: Understanding by Design'.

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