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Design thinking is a divisive field with many moving parts and business or stakeholder considerations. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t just entail elements such as UX design and workshopping, but also employee experience, sustainability, and building inclusive work environments. Michael Tam is an indisputable expert in design thinking, being the leader in this department globally at IBM.

Tam is a speaker at the upcoming Spikes Asia Academy, a three-day (four hours per day) immersive bootcamp called The Next, for young talent taking place September 14-16, 2022 to learn how to future-proof themselves in this new age of creativity. Campaign speaks to Tam about the importance of design thinking in building progressive businesses. 

Explain your role as a design director.

I help our clients transform their businesses; many of them are traditional enterprises that are facing different challenges especially to reposition their business for the digital age. My role has a lot of different facets, but in a nutshell, it’s to place human at the centre of our clients’ business. I advise on how to think, how they should strategise about the future, how they should handle their day-to-day business. From designing for their external customers to reimagining the internal employee experience as well.

When one thinks about design, perhaps what comes to mind are elements like product design and UX. One wouldn’t necessarily think that employee experience would be a part of design.

Most of the time, when people think about design, they think about the final output. The tangible stuff such as product design, UX design, visual design, graphic design. But increasingly, especially with big enterprises, they understand that value of design is not just limited to the output but extends to the thinking realm. From a strategic design perspective, we need to deliver true business value, and that takes a lot of thinking. And this is where design thinking comes into play. Defining problems and discovering opportunities, are designers’ unique capabilities that many people overlooked. And that’s where a lot of my time is spent on.

Why is human-centred design important?

As much as we would get mesmerised and intrigued by all the new latest technology, at the end of the day, this technology is designed to serve human beings. For example, if an employee is using a VR headset to get an immersive onboarding experience. Or if someone is engaging in an IoT-enabled physical-virtual environment. All of these are about delivering an experience to the user. Which is why it’s important for the business and all stakeholders within the business to start thinking from a human-centred perspective.

How can design thinking be more inclusive to people of different backgrounds and physical abilities?

Many people deduced design thinking into just a range of workshop activities, but design thinking is essentially a mindset. There are many ways design thinking can come to life. If we think about design thinking as a human-centred way of approaching a problem, that is exactly why it could be an inclusive way to tackling future problems.

We would start by asking the business to identify who are the ones they really want to talk to and then we try to empathise with these target audiences in order to create a very specific experience. From there, we try to scale up that experience so that you’re not just catering to someone who comes from, say, Southeast Asia with a family background of many siblings. That experience should be common or relatable enough to someone who might come from, say, Eastern Europe, perhaps without a family and just starting up a new venture.

They could be so different, but they could also share common experiences as well. So that’s where design thinking comes into play. Diverging into a lot of different aspects and opportunities, but also converging toward common points where people can relate to each other through experience.

Can design thinking be applied to build ethical and sustainable businesses?

At IBM, we have our own design thinking approach called Enterprise Design Thinking. I can confidently say that it is designed to solve complex problems because our version is built on helping our clients who have multi-layered, complex enterprises. And it’s actually perfect to help solve systemic problems such as diversity and inclusivity, and sustainability issues as well.

If you think about recycling bottles, it’s not just as simple as putting a plastic bottle into a recycle bin. It’s actually a whole chain of processes and systems, there’s a whole ecosystem behind it. Who’s going to collect it? Who’s going to make it reusable and valuable? What are the business models built around these different suppliers of this? There are a lot of challenges.

We’re not just designing an experience, we’re going to make sure we can design an experience simple enough for the end consumer to participate in sustainable efforts (but also viable for the businesses involved to stay in the ecosystem). When you’re buying a flight ticket, why would you want to click that button to offset offset your carbon footprint? You’ve got to make sure it’s simple for people to commit, but at the same time, how do you help the airline company—or whoever’s part of that ecosystem—to turn these efforts into actually saving the planet? This is how design thinking can help all of these stakeholders on that journey to come to alignment. 

If you could give one piece of advice to a design student, what would it be?

The one piece of advice I have is to say yes. When someone asks you to try something, to deliver something, to learn something new, you got to say yes because that’s how you grow. The most important thing as a designer is to have that curiosity. A lot of people mistake curiosity as just looking at a bunch of different things. Of course that’s part of it, but it also means you’ve got to dip your toes into new territories and try. There’s nothing better than saying yes.


This interview has beed edited for brevity and clarity. Spikes Asia Academy will offer practical, actionable, specific advice to advance your creative career and transform your projects. Be part of it now.

 

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