Design thinking + communications thinking = better results

Design thinking + communications thinking = better results

~ Maria Ford

The concept of design thinking is increasingly mainstream, certainly in tech and creative sectors. It has evolved from the domain of graphics and interface design to encompass the design of whole experiences, both external (user experiences) and internal (problem solving). As McKinsey puts it: “it’s a dynamic idea used to describe how organizations can adjust their problem-solving approaches to respond to rapidly changing environments—and create maximum impact and shareholder value.”

I often have the privilege of collaborating with experts in design thinking, from graphics and user-interface designers to user-experience and visual identity designers. One of the things I’ve learned from these collaborations is that more effective outcomes can be achieved by mixing communications thinking into the design-thinking process.

This is applicable to the design of several types of projects, including visual identities, websites and digital identities, product and service development, change initiatives, and digital transformations.

Defining communications thinking

I thought I had coined the term “communications thinking” until a web search revealed that someone from IBM has a ™ on the phrase (but not an ®!). For my purposes, I will define communications thinking as a process of critical thought that centres the perspective and context of an intended audience, with the goal of conveying and delivering information in a way that engages the audience to take a desired action.

The desired action may be to change a habit, to think differently, to change an opinion, to spread the word, to make a purchase—anything, really.

Communications thinking is a process of critical thought that centres the perspective and context of an intended audience, with the goal of conveying and delivering information in a way that engages the audience to take a desired action.

When to start communications thinking

The right time to get a strategic communicator involved in a new project is as early as the ideation/sketch-on-a-napkin phase. These are my top four reasons why:

  1. Clarity is the greatest catalyst. A strategic communications professional creates clarity. Developing the language of vision, mission, differentiation, and values at the start of a project lubricates the entire process by bringing stakeholders onto the same page from the beginning. The process of facilitating the development of that language brings leadership teams together and strengthens the effectiveness of the brain-trusts responsible to make initiatives successful.
  2. Anything new involves change; any change requires the buy-in of individuals; communications is required to reach those individuals. As the ADKAR model states: “organizational change can only happen when individuals change”, and nearly all of the outcomes an individual must achieve for change to be successful require effective communication: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. Including communications in ideation and design ensures fewer gaps, oversights, or “gotchas” down the line.
  3. Communicating well is not the same as communicating effectively. A project or design team may have (hopefully does have!) charismatic and articulate people on it, and they may be excellent at getting folks fired up about an idea. But a great writer or talker is no guarantee that messages will land as intended or create the desired outcomes. A successful outcome requires a behaviour change among most people in the target audience, not just among project champions and early adopters. Read more on this topic.
  4. It is much less costly to plan well up front than it is to back-pedal. Strategic communications can make an invaluable contribution by ascertaining the needs, motivations, fears, habits, and tendencies of target audiences and translating these into engaging solutions that land as intended. This saves money, time, and reputations by minimizing oversights and errors in judgement. Read more about this.

Adding value to design thinking

Solutions that result from communications thinking may influence design decisions or may complement the design of brands, products, services, and systems. Some examples from our work include:

  • Bringing corporate or project leadership teams together in an evidence-based process to develop a verbal identity, ensuring that all key individuals deeply understand, and confidently speak the same language.
  • Conducting one-on-one emotional-response interviews with representative members of an intended audience to uncover root needs and motivations that inform a project’s fundamental approach.
  • Developing first-person profiles of trusted leaders to improve workforce engagement around a significant change initiative.
  • Identifying the communications strategies, vehicles, and channels that will be effective in achieving a project’s intended outcomes—and knowing which to avoid.
  • Developing nomenclatures and lexicons to ensure everyone involved in a project is speaking the same language—and that that language is well aligned with the target users or target audiences.
  • Using high-yield questions and creative facilitation methods to get people “thinking outside the box”, generating truly novel ideas, approaches, and solutions.

If you agree, as I do, that “Design thinking means fundamentally changing how you develop your products, services, and, indeed, your organization itself” (McKinsey), then it is time to add a strategic communications thinker to your design-thinking process. Contact us to start the conversation.