We know from popular literature that innovation is the successful exploitation of new ideas and that design is a problem-solving activity. We also say that the practice of entrepreneurship is like an innovative act and in our ever growing, constantly-changing, demographic shifting, and competitive world, design is an important skill set for entrepreneurs to morph and hone their entrepreneurship skills. Authors like Joseph Schumpeter see entrepreneurship as a form of creative destruction while others like William Baumol see it as discovering market opportunities that generate new knowledge or new ideas. This is very similar to what design stands for.

Design is a form of liberal art (meaning that every discipline or man can relate to it). Early works of Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon positions design from the mere understanding in terms of ‘materials’ and ‘objects’ but towards traditional arts and sciences that bring a new understanding and engagement with the problems of our everyday life. Following Herbert Simon’s view on design activity: ‘‘Everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’’. This is one of the earliest known definitions of design.

A few management authors like Tim Brown of IDEO have conceptualized design as a problem-solving activity that non-designers can use or that which tackles indeterminate organizational problems through integrative thinking by combining inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning valuable to managers decision-making according to Roger Martin of the University of Toronto. Moving from a designer’s perspective of what constitutes design; design also takes into account the social perspective which recognizes the role of customers in the consumption of design and what we call ‘design-in-practice’. That is where both the professional designer and customer/client go through a series of activities to defining the problem and finding a solution. If you have a customer base that you care about and work with, you are a designer. Design focuses on creating and making but acknowledges that everyone can design and takes a collaborative approach to problem-solving or inquiry. Levels of design comprise of design research (how to know), interdisciplinary design thinking (what to do), specialist design skills (how to do it), and general design awareness (how to choose). The interdisciplinary design thinking (What to do) is where the innovative entrepreneur will more likely flourish.

‘Design focuses on creating and making but acknowledges that everyone can design and takes a collaborative approach to problem-solving or inquiry.’

The entrepreneurial practice is concerned with creating value in business, new business ideas, markets or business models taking a process of mastery. And lots of failure and lessons in-between. We believe that the idea of design as a general problem-solving and inquiry mechanism is a reliable tool for entrepreneurs-more fondly we call this, ‘design thinking’. With design thinking, entrepreneurs can discover/create latent needs by understanding the ‘why’ of their future customers and when this insight is grounded in business knowledge it can lead to a whole new market or an industry of its own (discovery). We believe the entire process of innovation, be it process/product or R&D, needs design to not only stretch the boundaries of the idea but also relate the ideas to the business.

Design from an innovation perspective is crucial in that it is the domain of creativity where ideas are devised and where the coupling occurs between technical possibilities and market demands or opportunities. This link between technical possibilities and opportunities are certainly tied to the function of the innovative entrepreneur. The integrative role of design, without doubt, upgrades the process of generation of new ideas and the dissemination of these in the market through the function of the innovative entrepreneur.

The Design journey and practices of Airbnb is a genuine case in hand. Seeing empty beds lay waste in the aftermath of a conference in California, two design graduates from Rhode Island School of Design founded Airbnb in 2008. The success of Airbnb is a design solution where an entrepreneur recognized how the demand among tourists for cheap rooms matched the desire amongst urban dwellers to build a business valued at over US$13 Billion six years later. The frenzy with design is catching on with venture capitalists; ‘‘at least 20% of the top cumulative-funded VC-backed ventures that have raised additional capital since 2013 have designer co-founders’ according to John Maeda in his 2015 DesignInTech Report.

Similarly, James Dyson the British inventor of the Dyson Cleaners has demonstrated this trend of up- starting and market disruption. He bought a vacuum cleaner and after three or four uses, he noticed that it is losing suction. He spent the next five years and 5,127 prototypes to build a better vacuum. His innovation was different from the dominant paradigm and Dyson became the market leader in the US ahead of Hoover. In Nigeria, we are seeing a similar trend in the emergence of innovative entrepreneurs in waste management, financial payments, urban mobility solutions and digital social innovation.

999% perspiration

There is more to entrepreneurship than the success stories we love to read. However inspiring, what is important is the idea that entrepreneurship and design are more about finding new ways, figuring things out and having a preferred option for customers and the business. The journey is messy and filled with perspiration.

To become an innovative entrepreneur, the design thinking mind-set is important. Here are some of the skills you need to get ahead and lead.

Empathy: What does it feel like to walk on someone else’s shoes? You can’t possibly be the customer but you can better define the customer problem through sustained interaction with the customer over time.  Helps to identify possible pain points, solutions and new business models.

Customer insights: Immerse yourself through customer research in order to understand customer patterns, behaviour and culture. Build evidence on the problem and have data to base decisions on.

Systems thinking: You need to understand the relationship between structure and behaviour in order to determine how a system works. What makes them produce poor results and how to shift the system components to better behaviour patterns? All kinds of lenses will be needed in order to see beyond the problem and the solution.

Prototyping: Doing, creating and making stuff to learn, give life to or prove an idea, business solution, business model or revenue model. Prototype early, often and cheaply.

Creativity: This is the backbone of new ideas and trends. See things others don’t see. Ask different questions. Come at the world in a different way and find alternatives to every day.

Collaboration: Being open to working across and with other disciplines, partners and even competitors. Customers and citizens can be a major inspiration and partner for collaboration.

Iteration: Our work is never finished. Design is a product of experimentation and a thousand iterations. So, repeat and improve based on feedback on customer and business needs.

“design is better positioned to working with and around constraints and business problems.”

Finally, as designs’ value in entrepreneurship & innovation grows, design-led startups will become more relevant than those who don’t. Venture capitalists are already giving more access to funding for design-led startups and this is not too difficult to fathom; design is better positioned to working with and around constraints and business problems. We are beginning to see a new crop of entrepreneurs willing to disrupt by relating new concepts to problems using design. The assumption that an idea comes fully formed while we are sleeping and we suddenly wake up with a business idea is highly misplaced. Design (Design Thinking) presents a structured process that an entrepreneur can master through experimentation and learning over time to aid their innovation and entrepreneurship journey

Charles Ikem, PhD.
Charles is a Service Designer and Lead, design and innovation at DesignThinkers Agency