Not how but why





WITW is a podcast in which we explore some of the pressing topics we face, and in which I will demonstrate how asking one simple question can lead to answers that people will embrace: why?

I am Olivier Wouters, host of the podcast and founder of design studio Quirqie, and in this introduction special, I explain why we should not ask how but why.

Chapter 1 – How

To explain the origin of the statement that I am making, which is that I believe we should not ask how but why, we first have to go back in time a little bit.

You see, unlike most people, I did not grow up in a regular house, but one that also doubled as a design office. In fact, when I was a child, there was just one giant wall of glass separating me, sitting in the living room, from the designers that were working in the office. Now, you can imagine that this sometimes led to some awkward situations. Like the time when I came home with a girlfriend and I had to introduce her to my parents, as well as the entire staff present in the office.

Now, although at times awkward, growing up in an office also has its perks. There is never a dull moment. I could watch people work on exhibitions about exciting topics such as space, nature and ancient empires. Sometimes, I was even asked to test installations or video games that were being designed for these exhibitions. Which, as a child, is of course the pinnacle of cool.

What stood out me, when hanging out with all of these designers, were the amount of questions that were being asked. There were a lot of them and almost all of them started with how. I can still recall them ask questions like „How can we make this game more challenging for children?” and „How can we make it easier for visitors to navigate through the exhibition?

These questions were like little puzzles to me. As a child, I loved thinking about how I could answer these questions. I would explore weird solutions and had a lot of fun figuring out which answer would fit the bill the best.

Chapter 2 – Design Thinking

Perhaps not too much of a surprise then, I, later on, took up studies that put an emphasis on design. I wanted to become better at creating answers to problems. The studies I followed introduced me to Design Thinking, which is a human-centered process for creative problem-solving. For the scope of this podcast, just think of Design Thinking as a technique that allows us to figure out how to best help someone with their needs.

A fun fact about Design Thinking is that while it is popular now, it is not that new. The roots of human-centred design can be traced back to the 1950s and it took until 2008 for it to gain a lot of traction, when design firm IDEO applied human-centred design in the broader context of business and coined the term Design Thinking.

Just like the designers from the office I grew up in, Design Thinking too encourages people to keep asking how. „How do we gain insight in the needs someone has?” and „How might we address these needs?”

In fact, one of the techniques used to generate solutions is called How Might We…? The reliance on how questions is clear. For good reason too. The questions ensure that designers arrive at a solution that better meets the expectations and needs of people than the solution that was in place.

It is clear then that Design Thinking, with the help of asking how, helps us create better and better solutions to our problems. Which is good. However, what if the goal is not to find something better but something new or different? This raises a question: is there a danger in Design Thinking being the go to design approach?

Chapter 3 – Hill-climbing

I believe Design Thinking can best be considered as a hill-climbing method. A tool that is perfect for finding the most optimal or desirable answer in the current line of thinking, but one that is incapable of breaking new ground. For example, imagine a situation where several design teams are working on the same question.

According to Design Thinking, all design teams should start their research with asking how. However, asking this question comes with some consequences:

The first is a direct consequence of the question itself. Asking how implies an acceptance of the current situation. This means that designers focus their full attention on challenging solutions rather than the situation itself. This tunnel vision restricts designers to come up with ideas that are much different than the ones we are familiar with.

The second consequence has to do with how Design Thinking works. The goal of Design Thinking is to find nothing but the best possible answer that lies within the current space of solutions. Consider the fact that Design Thinking instructs all designers to consult the same source of information, which would be the person in need, and we come to the conclusion that the whole situation boils down to one thing: that Design Thinking is a matter of who reaches the summit of the current hill first. Designers that reach the summit at a later point are in trouble. There is little for them to differentiate their work with as their can be just one optimal answer.

Also, on a more personal note, while I believe that Design Thinking is human-centred, I am convinced that it still lacks a certain human touch. For example, within the context of addressing pressing social topics, I can see that it does make it easier for people to change, but it does not offer people a reason to change.

Chapter 4 – Meaning-Driven Innovation

With the pitfalls of Design Thinking as a one-size-fits-all covered, I would like to introduce a second approach: meaning.

As Roberto Verganti, professor of leadership and innovation at the Stockholm School of Economics, observed: people do not purchase and use things just for their form and function, but for the meaningful experience these offer.

Perhaps the most powerful and overlooked driver of innovation, meaning can change both how we feel and think about something. This means two things: 1) it allows designers to break free from the traditional line of ideas and; 2) it can make people care about something that wasn’t meaningful to them before.

This is where we see a clear distinction in companies and their design approaches. Traditional companies believe meaning just exists out there. These companies use Design Thinking to better understand what people want and adapt to it. Smart companies know that new meaning can be pushed to the markets. In other words, all meaning is designed.

Take Apple for example, notorious for introducing radical new concepts like the iMac, iPod, iPad and iPhone and stripping products of functions that almost all of us deem essential. Market-pull innovation techniques like Design Thinking would advice against these decisions. Rather, these decisions and concepts are the result of Apple envisioning and proposing a new experience to the world. A vision of consumer tech that people resonate or even fall in love with. Also, one that took competitors ages to understand and mimic.

The interesting part is, this principle also works when designing for pressing social topics!

Now, just one question remains: how do we make use of meaning as a driver of innovation? Most of the answer lies in the question we design with: ask not how but why.

Why could something be meaningful to someone?

Olivier Wouters

Olivier grew up in a design office. The designers and architects there showed him how to use design to innovate. In 2016 he graduated as MSc Information Studies: Human Centered Multimedia at the University of Amsterdam. He since specialised in Design Thinking and Meaning-Driven Innovation.