Last week, before the world went on lockdown, and before anyone could imagine it happening, a design practitioner community event took place in the UK: “How to create a culture for innovation: A Design Thinking Approach”, organised by Ladies that UX, hosted by Samantha Whittaker from the Human Change Agency and Sarah Corney from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. We gathered at “68 Middle Street”, which is a community hub for the media and design industries in Brighton.

In their talk, Samantha and Sarah gave an overview and introduction to culture and innovation in organisations, showing that the “soft” factors matter when working with change. They took us through theoretical concepts and practical exercises, exploring with us the cultural problems that organisations encounter in innovation, and how the design thinking process can help overcome these problems. The design thinking process is represented as the UK Design Council double diamond (Design Council, 2015). In their work, Samantha and Sarah explore how the “magic” inherent in the design thinking process can be widened in order to embrace organisations entirely, and thus enabling design as the “collaborative muscle” within that organisation. Samantha and Sarah presented their own extended version of the double diamond. Their aim is to reinterpret design thinking as an approach to innovation that creates a lasting organisational culture for change.

Extending the design process as a way of thinking in organisations

When an organisation seeks to innovate, in the process, the organisation itself is likely to change. There needs to be reflection on its own state of thinking about problems – before they can be solved. “The problem” is not a defined spot. Therefore, the path to solution cannot be represented as a straightforward line from spot A to spot B.

“The problem” is likely too narrow a space, and in the jump to solving we can all be tempted by the first ‘shiny’ (usually technical) solution that presents itself, but that’s rarely the best one. Sarah and Samantha used an example from the Design Council’s work with the NHS to illustrate this point. There was a rise in incidents in patients acting violently towards staff in Accident and Emergency departments. The Design Council team conducted an ethnographic study, and found that ‘violence’ was actually patients’ reaction to a combination of things they are faced with, such as frustration with long waiting times, confusion over lack of information, or fear for loved ones. Simply putting more police on the ward would be a straightforward thing to do, and it might bring some improvement on the surface (although it could also easily inflame matters and make it worse). The most obvious solution is probably not the best and most sustainable solution that could be found.

Designers in organisations commonly experience this simple problem-solution view as the prevalent understanding of design. But using design only for “shiny” solutions does not tap into the full potential of design. Design can function as the “glue” to facilitating the defining of a problem and the activity of solving it. Design can investigate problem spaces by diverging on present factors first, before converging these to a problem definition. Instead of jumping to a conclusion about rampaging patients requiring police force, we might look at what the present factors are, that contribute to a situation. This might be confusing signage, lack of information, long periods in waiting areas, and the high emotions that play out in emergencies involving relatives. Seeing these contributors to the problem can help us find a more creative solution.

Design can also facilitate questions, such as, “Who gets to define a problem?”. Is it the management of an organisation? The expert on user experience? The technical expert? Or the sales department? There is an emerging need to democratise the design process, as “design has become too important to be left to designers” (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 381, echoing a quote attributed to industrial designer Raymond Loewy). If organisations are serious in including many viewpoints – those of customers’ and of different experts – in order to find a solution that works, then the problem cannot remain a singular spot, defined by an individual actor. The problem space needs to be negotiated. After defining a problem, work can begin on solving it.

The design process by the UK Design Council (2015) is a representation of design thinking that supports the negotiation of the problem space and the solution space. Design thinking can be seen as more than a process, but as a “way of doing things” that can be cultivated within organisations. This culture – this approach – is what matters when organisations try to innovate.

Creating a culture for innovation

Samantha and Sarah explored how the design thinking process can influence the wider culture of an organisation. They aimed to answer how can a design process be translated to the complex relationships within an organisation? With lots of experience in helping organisations change, Samantha and Sarah report that “things like hierarchy and politics are being put aside when doing a design thinking workshop”, that design thinking can “make sure everybody is heard, has an equitable voice”. They explain that in facilitating a design thinking process it is possible “to deal with the dominant voices” and “to give people space when they are shy”. Design thinking can be a space of “shared meaning making”. These are the elements that should be brought forward into a culture for innovation within an organisation. Using design thinking to foster a culture of innovation does not only influence spaces outside an organisation, but is likely to shape the experience of the innovators themselves.

Samantha and Sarah explained their extended version of the double diamond as a way of amplifying a culture for innovation, introducing an initial “set up” phase, and a “close down” part at the end.

The idea behind a “set up” space is the making of a contract between the participating people, as individuals within a team. Making a contract means to reflect on how “I” want to participate in a team (“WE”) in a shared project (“IT”). Setting up a project, that is likely not only changing users’ lives, but also mine, and ours as a team, requires reflection on how I want to participate, and how I find a place in the team and in the shared goal. This reflection touches on identity, and on a translation of individual identity into an identity as an organisation where everyone has a place. This process goes on implicitly in every organisation – the negotiation of places. The “set up” idea is trying to make this negotiation an explicit part of design thinking. This strategy should enable a person to find her place in the team, and to find her place in the shared goal of the project.

The “close down” part is a reflection on the past project, and should represent a “lessons learnt” for the next project. The closing down part follows the question in what ways everyone was able to participate. This phase is the creation of a safe space for talking about experiences. Ideally, it is a conversation where everyone participating feels seen and heard, and where these experiences inform the next project.


This blog post was written based on a talk Sarah Corney and Samantha Whittaker gave at 68 Middle Street.

Samantha on Twitter: @itsSamActually |
Sarah on Twitter: @corney_sarah |


Brown, Tim, & Katz, Barry. (2011). Change by Design. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 28, 381–383.
Design Council. (2015). The Design Process: What is the Double Diamond? Retrieved from, accessed February 11, 2019