Fly on the Wall: Rethinking Design Thinking

Fly on the Wall: Rethinking Design Thinking
“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”
-Margaret Mead


When I joined an architecture firm for the first time a year ago, I was drawn to being part of something bigger than myself (literally) that I could not only appreciate, but see and experience in my daily life. As a communications professional and native Pittsburgher, it’s a dream to capture the stories that shape our region’s evolving landscape through the lens of a design firm. I may be in the business of storytelling, but most of the time I find myself listening.

Of the many lessons I’ve learned from the designers in Pittsburgh, the concept of design thinking has grown more and more prominent in my understanding of how meaningful change happens in any industry. A term often misused, “design thinking” is a process that acknowledges the inability of conventional problem-solving methods to answer today’s increasingly complex and abstract questions. Despite the absence of concrete information, access to our most precious resource is more extensive than ever  –  human response. Human-centered design is at the core of design thinking, and without tapping into the human need or desire for a product, there is no innovation.

I recently attended a talk by esteemed designer and workplace guru at MAYA, Kristi Woolsey. In a presentation driven entirely by Post-It Notes, she created an anecdotal framework to explain Stanford’s D-School’s 6-step process guide to design thinking. At first glance, this process may seem intuitive, but the average person has been conditioned to follow the exact opposite approach. We operate on assumptions, organize them sequentially, and create solutions before we ever ask ourselves one simple question: “why?” Kristi’s Post-It Presentation stuck with me (pun-intended) because it grounded the real-world importance of self-awareness in how we organize our thoughts no matter how experienced or crunched for time we are.



The act of creating a product people *actually* want to use/experience is never easy, and that pressure is even greater when that product is a building that can’t be torn down and rebuilt like Play-Doh. In architecture, the early stages of the design process are not just “nice” to have, they are an imperative. At IKM, we make a conscious effort to prioritize individual and group-thought activities that train us to expose the “why” upon which the entirety of a project hinges. Inspired by the LUMA Institute’s system of innovation, internal and external demonstrations of discovery are becoming so embedded in IKM’s culture, I often find myself pleasantly surprised by all of the times I’m qualified to contribute to discussions that impact our final product. You don’t need to be a registered architect to empathize with how patients experience a hospital corridor or what motivates a student to speak up in class.

Sometimes, we even dedicate time to understand ourselves. Take the “Round Robin,” a day-long, office-wide flurry of white boards and dry-erase markers designed to approach a single idea from multiple angles. We rotate in small groups to stations focused on different questions and come together to reveal the common threads lovingly referred to as “Wows and Wonders.” It’s how we determined that we should move offices and how we identified our goals for innovation at the firm.



By teaching me to challenge my assumptions about design, IKM has urged me to challenge assumptions about myself as a writer, marketer, and young professional. We are all designers in one way or another, and the need to empathize with the user is not reserved for the Mad Men-esque “pitch” or the TV commercial at the end of the line. Rather, doing what it takes to gain empathy and understanding is the messy, uncomfortable process that forms the building blocks of creativity itself.

Now, when I look out over the changing landscape of Pittsburgh from 11 Stanwix or my commute home, I think about the webs that were untangled through design thinking to make it happen. Some days we simply don’t have “it,” but the folks at IKM continue to remind me that innovation and creativity is not necessarily a gift – it’s a skill that is refined and challenged by others. As our shrinking world continues to ask more of design, I feel fortunate to work in a place that respects the process to make a difference in the eyes of the user – one Post-It Note at a time.





Nikki Grayburn, Corporate Communications Coordinator

Grammar Junkie, ’80s Pop Fan Girl, Aspiring Apprentice to Anthony Bourdain

Mantra: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson