Randy Salzman: Beyond Design Thinking

Former communications professor at the University of Virginia and the Co-author of “Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector”, will attend the third edition of Design Thinking Forum, on 19th of September, in Bucharest.

A long-time broadcasting, film and journalism professor, Randy Salzman (“Salz”) began writing about, practicing and teaching design thinking and empathy a decade ago, as the best method for merging qualitative and quantitative analyses in problem-solving. With primary expertise in communications, creativity and storytelling, Salz fosters deep insights into human behavior and managing ambiguity in the design-thinking process. Noting that “stories are the soul of data,” Salz addresses common interpersonal issues – like confirmation and single-actor biases – while merging intuitive thinking with analytical assurance.


  1. Your personal approach on design thinking. How do you see it?


RANDY SALZMAN: I consider design thinking more “natural” than analytical thinking, because it is, as Einstein told us, “intuitive” and we practiced it, in effect, in our young lives before education and media wrung so much resourcefulness and imagination from us. I like to say that design is “collaborative creativity” and its shorthand practice is “Explore deeply. Empathize constantly. Ideate quickly. Prototype simply. Test regularly & iterate continually.” In Einstein’s words, recently parroted by Nobel biologist E.O. Wilson, we’ve mistakenly put the “servant” – our analytical minds – before the “master” – our intuitive minds – and I submit that human-centered design re-balances our innovative capabilities by placing intuitive, possibility thinking before analytical, constraint thinking.


  1. The most memorable example of design thinking: 


RANDY SALZMAN: While I love the story of P&G’s The Swiffer and how designers figured out the “job to be done” in mopping floors had little to do with mopping floors, but rather had to do with the appearance of cleanliness being next to godliness, my favorite personal story is watching Cisco engineers from across Europe go a little wacko, giggling and prodding and thinking not just outside the box, but under the mailing label as well, in a workshop I gave in Madrid, Spain a couple years ago. Their challenge was to prod young Germans to purchase more health insurance, but they went totally off tangent with a bright, brilliant and bizarre opportunity to help one middle-aged woman who had accidentally shown up in the ethnographic research. Her biggest health need had nothing to do with her or her children’s health. It was the fear that her aging parents might desperately require her help and be unable to reach her while she was at work. Though off-challenge, the Cisco engineers devised the prototype of a robotic dog which watched, through its electronic eyes, the parents, to show her what they were doing, in the bottom corner of her computer screen. This team of button-downed engineers took off. What things the dog could do and how would those things actually affect humans? If a parent fell, the dog could immediately alert the woman and their doctor, of course, but the electronic dog could also demand that mom and dad take it for walk, forcing them to get exercise. And when out on that walk, young Germans couldn’t help themselves but ask the old folks about it and, since the name of the dog derived from the name of the insurance company, this bizarre roundabout concept was addressing the original challenge. I love that design, where everything is considered a hypothesis, is literally designed to allow engineers – who, after all, love to solve problems – to re frame the problem in ways that actuaries, and accountants, and even professors or painters could rarely imagine.  And have a great time while doing so, laughing at the possibilities, giggling uncontrollably, building on each other’s thoughts and expanding their thinking far, far beyond the traditional “orders from above.”


  1. Could you share a story that announced your career path?


RANDY SALZMAN: After years rough-necking in American oil fields, I accidentally became a journalist at small Texas newspapers, eventually graduating to large papers and began recognizing the power of what psychologists now call “the identifiable victim effect.” When a reporter gives readers a human being or two to identify with; when their stories allow readers to empathize with people caught in some problem, then the depth of the issue – what journalists call the ‘nut graf – provides the statistics which illustrate why that personal story is important to people who now care about an individual, an “identifiable victim.” In design, we like to say that “stories are the soul of data” and that, to me, is much like how great reporters, great non-fiction writers, take we, readers, on a journey with them, into empathizing with people readers will never meet and who might look, think, act, sound totally different.  That is the essence of immersion and empathy, the first and – in my mind – key tenant of design thinking; understanding whatever problem or opportunity or challenge from the perspective of the human being caught in it, without worrying about such things as “statistical significance.” First discover, create –  through writing and storytelling – empathy for the individual and then consider the statistics and then whatever constraints to whatever ideas. Even the most “dominate” design practitioners – those aggressive types who are used to being in charge — find exploring deeply to care about an individual’s problem and life to be eye-openers, into not only the prospect’s experiences, but usually into their own lives.


  1. What’s your message for the companies still reluctant to design thinking?  Why those entities should use it and what is the expected outcome?


RANDY SALZMAN: In the last two years, major studies by business consultants Forrester and McKinsey have put the return on investment of design thinking at between 86 and 301 percent. IBM studies have found that 90 percent of CEOs think that innovation and creativity is the now, not just the future, and few of those CEOs think their firms presently do a good job being innovative. There are other outstanding innovative concepts like Agile and LEAN, but design thinking is the sole one which begins the process, and spends much of its time, deeply empathizing with flawed humans (and there is no other kind of human being). To reverse Joseph Stalin’s dictum that “One death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic,” in design we work to deeply understand the tragedy, because we are seeking to do something about the statistic. Too often, perfectly good – and maybe even great – innovative ideas are not utilized by the people they are fashioned for, because the innovators have not seen the problem, the challenge, the opportunity from the perspectives of those flawed human beings caught in it.


  1. What’s the essence of your presentation on September 19th, at Design Thinking Forum?


RANDY SALZMAN: Rather than take workshop participants through the design process, this program will focus on the key aspect of empathy which is seemingly being submarined in the era of cell phones and social media. Utilizing a New Zealand “card concept,” we will illustrate some aspects of design’s “social technology”, while discovering how generally college-educated, driving, middle-class social workers learn to see child abuse from the perspective of the parent, who has difficulty controlling his or her emotions – and who is usually none of the above.


Thank you, IQADS, for sharing Randy’s wisdom with the Romanian audience!



If you want to meet Randy alongside other brilliant speakers from around the globe, attend DESIGN THINKING FORUM on September 19th, at Platinum Events. Tickets on sale at www.designthinkingforum.com